The regular season in the Sun Belt Conference last season went down to the final weeks, and Denver ended up with a one game lead over UL-Lafayette, and a two-game lead over Arkansas Little-Rock. The conference tournament came down to UL-Lafayette winning the title game, and then giving Louisville all they could take in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling. Western Kentucky and Denver went to the NIT. Overall, the league was a very underrated conference in which several teams had a chance to win on any given night. It should be more of the same this season.Favorites: Western Kentucky returns plenty of talent from a team that made it to the second round of the NIT. Anthony Winchester is one of the best mid-major wings in the country, shooting over 45 percent from beyond the arc. He also put up over 18 points and 7 rebounds. His partner on the wing is all-conference candidate Courtney Lee, who is a very good shooter and scorer. Ty Rogers is also decent on the perimeter. At the point will be two newcomers, Orlando Mendez and Joemal Campbell. Up front, Elgrace Wilborn could blossom into a dominant post player. Junior forward Boris Siakam and Daniel Emerson and Mike Walker, who have no collegiate experience, will also help in the frontcourt. Denver is home to the best player in the conference in center Yemi Nicholson. He is a load to stop in the post, and is an excellent shot blocker as well. He will carry the Pioneers. Forward Antonio Porch combines with Nicholson to give Denver the best frontcourt in the league. He is an all-league candidate. Depth needs to be found behind the two baseline players. On the perimeter, Andrew Carpenter leads the way. He is a good defender and all-around performer. Redshirt junior Alex Cox is expected to start at the point, while Brett Seger and DaShawn Walker will compete for the final starting spot.
Contenders: Louisiana-Lafayette return three players that they weren't expected to have this season. Guard Dwayne Mitchell was granted another year by the NCAA, and he should be an all-Sun Belt performer. 6-11 Chris Cameron, a perimeter threat as a big man, received an extra year due to academics. 6-11 center Michael Southall hasn't played in two seasons due to off-the-court problems. He is a potentially dominant post player. Wings Spencer Ford and Lucian Graham are the frontrunners to get the two available jobs in the starting lineup. New Orleans returns the best scoring guard in the conference in Bo McCalebb. He is explosive off the dribble and is near-impossible to defend. Four other starters also come back for the Privateers. Wings Chad Barnes and James Parlow are good shooters and scorers on the perimeter. James McNeilly also returns in the backcourt. He could have a breakout season in the starting lineup. Inside, Ben Elias and Shawn Malloy are back. Malloy could be a 12 and 9 guy every night out, while Elias is a big body down low. Nathaniel Parker and Jacob Manning provide depth. Florida International has the best forward tandem in the conference, including one of the better power forwards you've never heard of in Ivan Almonte. His partner up front is Ismael N'Diaye. Almonte averaged a double double a season ago, and should repeat his first-team all-conference status. N'Diaye is a solid scorer, rebounder, and defender. Kenny Simms also returns up front. In the backcourt, point guard Jayce Lewis returns as the starter, but St. Francis (NY) transfer John Quintana and Alan Guyton will push him for that spot. Cesar Chavez-Jacobo could start on the wing.
Sleepers: Arkansas State returns a slew of talented players, but it is the addition of two newcomers in the backcourt that will bolster the Indians. Junior college teammates Elvin Jones and Korrel Henderson are expected to either start or see extended playing time immediately. Returning point guard Dereke Tipler is a good defender and very solid distributor that averaged over 5 assists per game. 6-6 wing Jerry Nichols was nearly a double figure scorer, while Lorenzo Hampton is a decent option. In the frontcourt, all-conference candidate Kitus Witherspoon could have a breakout season. He is an excellent rebounder. Isaac Wells and Marcus Ardison also return after posting good numbers a season ago. South Alabama has an abundance of quality players up and down the roster, led by all-conference choice Mario Jointer. He can do everything on the court. Jeff Collins returns on the wing after posting decent offensive numbers last season. Point guards Steven Cowherd and Carlos Smith will run the team, but need a better assist to turnover ratio from both of them. Transfers Chey Christie (Clemson) and Demetric Bennett (SMU) are expected to make immediate impacts. Christie will form a very good wing duo with Jointer. In the frontcourt, forwards Michael Phillips and Richard Law are solid scorers and rebounders, while JC transfer Jason McGriff should make an impact down low. Middle Tennessee returns a solid trio in guard Fats Cuyler, wing Michael Morrison, and big man Kyle Young. Cuyler is a good shooter and passer, while Morrison could develop into a star in the Sun Belt. Young provides a big body down low. Several newcomers will need to step in and play significant minutes immediately. Forwards Tim Blue and Brian Lake (injured last season after six games) and guards Bud Howard, Kevin Kanaskie, and Calvin O'Neil will see time right away.
Rounding Out the Pack: Arkansas Little-Rock returns Zack Wright as the lone player that was in the main playing rotation. He is going to be the go-to-guy. Jarryd Knight and several newcomers will get the majority of the minutes on the perimeter. Up front, Rashad Jones-Jennings and Byron Ray are two JC transfers that should step up and have a significant impact. North Texas has a bevy of perimeter players leading the way. Calvin Watson could develop into an all-conference-type player, while Isaac Hines lead the team in rebounding, assists, and steals from his point guard position. Michael Sturns also returns on the wing, but Arkansas transfer Kendrick Davis will start. He can do everything and play any perimeter position. Post players Jeffrey Simpson and Justin Barnett are above average performers down low when they are healthy. Both should improve their numbers this season. Quincy Williams returns at forward. Troy has one of the best all-around guards in the league in Bobby Dixon. He was a very good shooter that also put up numbers across the board. His backcourt mate is Jacob Hazouri, who returns is a starter. He is a decent shooter but doesn't venture into the lane that often. Newcomers are going to fill out the rest of the starting lineup. Boo Ramsey and Josh Williams should see minutes on the perimeter. Sammy Sharp, Todd Martin, and C.J. Jackson will get long looks up front, although returnees Richard Damous and Jarvis Acker are solid players.
Prediction: Western Kentucky looks to have the best team in the league on paper, with Anthony Winchester and Courtney Lee on the perimeter, and Elgrace Wilborn on the inside. However, there is up to five other teams that have a legitimate chance at winning the league, based on personnel. The regular season title should be won by Western Kentucky, but the conference tournament is going to be wide open. WKU will prevail, though, and will win the automatic bid from the Sun Belt, with a handful of teams nipping at their heels. It will be an exciting race to watch.
Player of the Year: Yemi Nicholson, C, Denver
G- Mario Pointer, South Alabama
G- Anthony Winchester, Western Kentucky
G- Bo McCalebb, New Orleans
F- Ivan Almonte, Florida International
C- Yemi Nicholson, Denver
G- Dwayne Mitchell, Louisiana-Lafayette
G- Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky
G- Bobby Dixon, Troy
F- Antonio Porch, Denver
F- Ismael N'Diaye, Florida International