Favorites: Western Kentucky always seems to be right at the top of the standings every season, and this year will be no different. The Hilltoppers are led by one of the best players in the country, Courtney Lee. Lee can do it all offensively, scoring in a variety of ways. Starting next to Lee is Tyrone Brazelton, a solid scorer and distributor who needs to cut down on his turnovers. Ty Rogers is a good shooter, and Orlando Mendez-Valdez was a very solid scorer and passer. A.J. Slaughter can knock down shots. Up front, Jeremy Evans and Boris Siakam lead the way. Louisiana-Monroe returns all five starters from last year’s first-place team. The Warhawks have four double-figure scorers, led by all-conference Tony Hooper, who can also distribute and rebound. Jordan Payne is a very good three-point shooter, and Jonas Brown is a good scorer. Lance Brasher can rebound as well as score. At the point, Brandon Roberts is a very solid passer and shooter. Up front, Afam Nweke leads the way.
Contenders: South Alabama won the conference last season, and returns three starters from that campaign. The Jaguars are led by the backcourt of Demetric Bennett and Daon Merritt. Bennett is an all-conference wing who is a very good shooter and a solid rebounder, while Merritt can score and is a good distributor. JC transfer Dominic Tilford and Auburn transfer Daniel Hayles will fight for time on the perimeter. In the frontcourt, Brandon Davis returns, but JC transfers DeAndre Coleman and Ronald Douglas could start immediately. Middle Tennessee returns four starters and finished strong to end last season. Kevin Kanaskie is arguably the best distributor in the conference, and is also one of the best point guards. Nigel Johnson and Calvin O’Neil also return on the perimeter, while JC transfer Demetrius Green will make an impact. Desmond Yates is a double-digit scorer up front, while Theryn Hudson is solid. North Texas, the returning conference tournament champions, return three starters. The Mean Green do lose their top three scorers, though. In terms of returnees, they are led by the frontcourt duo of Quincy Williams and Keith Wooden, two solid scorers and rebounders. Harold Stewart is also good up front. In the backcourt, point guard Ben Bell leads the way. South Florida transfer Collin Dennis and JC transfer Adam McCoy will push for time. New Orleans has one of the most productive players in the country in guard Bo McCalebb, the returning conference Player of the Year. He averaged 25 points, almost 7 rebounds, over 3 assists and 2 steals per game last season—and he is only six-feet tall. He is an absolute star who can carry this team. Two more double-figure scorers reside in the backcourt in senior James Parlow, a terrific long-range shooter, and Shaun Reynolds, a good distributor and defender. Delaware State transfer Tracey Worley will make an impact. Ben Elias needs a big senior year up front.
Sleepers: Florida International, because of a slew of newcomers, has a chance to make a move. In the backcourt, Michael James and Chris Fuller lead the way. Fuller is a double-figure scorer. Erick Nsangou is also solid. Texas A&M transfer Kenneth White is expected to make an immediate impact. The star of the team, though, is former Kansas transfer Alex Galindo. He is one of the top players in the conference. Nikola Gacesa and Cedric Essola lead the returnees in the post, but transfers Russell Hicks, a 7-footer from Pepperdine, and Badara Ndiaye, a 6-11 big man from junior college, have people excited. Florida Atlantic is led by one of the most underrated big men in the country in Carlos Monroe. The 6-8 junior averaged over 18 points and 9 rebounds per game last season. Providing balance on the perimeter is Paul Graham, who can shoot the three and distribute the ball in addition to scoring. Avery Holley and Sean Alarcron will fight for minutes in the backcourt, while Derrick Simmons will likely start next to Monroe. JC transfer Carderro Nwoji could start at the point. Louisiana-Lafayette has one of the best wing duos in the Sun Belt in David Dees and Elijah Millsap. Dees is a very good all-around player who can fill it up offensively, rebound, and distribute efficiently. Millsap was the conference Freshman of the Year, and is a good scorer and rebounder. The point could be Maurice Barksdale, who sat out last season with a wrist injury. La’Ryan Gary is the most versatile player on the team, while newcomers Chris Gradnigo and Corey Bloom, a Houston transfer, will fight for minutes. Courtney Wallace leads the returnees in the frontcourt. Arkansas State returns three starters off last year’s first-place team, a team who reached the conference title game before falling. The Indians have one of the best players in the conference in guard Adrian Banks, one of the top three-point shooters in the country. He could become a household name this year. Starting next to him will be Ryan Wedel, a double-figure scorer. Up front, Shawn Morgan returns as a starter, while Abayomi Ajasin and Keiwan Gant also saw extended minutes last year. JC transfer Yima Chia-Kur could start immediately.
Rounding out the Pack: Troy could struggle this season with the loss of three starters, four double-figure scorers, and the top defensive player in the Sun Belt from a year ago. However, the Trojans have a very good wing tandem in Odarien Bassett, who can really score, and Justin Jonus, a good three-point shooter. Jerome Oden will start at the point. Jarvis Acker is the lone key returnee up front, while JC transfers Tom Jervis and Mario Telfair will contribute. Arkansas-Little Rock loses the nation’s top rebounder from a season ago, Rashad Jones-Jennings. However, the perimeter group should lead the way for the Trojans. Terrance Akins and De’Andre Eggins are both double-figure scorers who can shoot the ball. Steven Moore returns at the point. Up front, Lekheythan Malone and Rashad Moss return, and Ole Miss transfers Brandon Patterson and Mike Smith will make an immediate impact. Denver was the worst team in the conference last season, separated by four games from the closest team in the standings. Furthermore, they lose three starters from that group, but bring in a new coach, Joe Scott, who was very good at Air Force before falling back at Princeton. Tyler Bullock is the leading returning scorer on the team, while Joe Jackson will likely start next to him in the backcourt. Kyle Lewis, a freshman, could start at the point. Up front, Adam Tanner and David Kummer will likely start, with Chris Timms and Nate Rohnert pushing for time.
Prediction: The Sun Belt has some of the best individual talent of any mid-major conference in the country. Courtney Lee, Bo McCalebb, and Adrian Banks are all Top-20 shooting guards, while Carlos Monroe is a legit 20-10 possibility up front. I would take its all-conference team against a lot of other conference, if that could actually happen. However, as far as teams go, I have to give the nod to Western Kentucky. Louisiana-Monroe returns five starters, but the Hilltoppers are absolutely loaded on the perimeter and have a legit NBA talent in Lee. He can carry them down the stretch of games. It should be a fun season in the Sun Belt, though, with plenty of contenders fighting for the title.
Player of the Year: Courtney Lee, G, Western Kentucky
G- Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky
G- Bo McCalebb, New Orleans
G- Adrian Banks, Arkansas State
G- Demetric Bennett, South Alabama
F- Carlos Monroe, Florida Atlantic
G- David Dees, Louisiana-Lafayette
G- Kevin Kanaskie, Middle Tennessee
G- Tony Hooper, Louisiana-Monroe
F- Alex Galindo, Florida International
F- Elijah Millsap, Louisiana-Lafayette