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The Sun Belt Conference was one of the most exciting conferences in the country this season. It had two of the better mid-majors in South Alabama and Western Kentucky, two teams who fought for the regular-season title until the end of the season. They both finished 16-2 on the year, but USA defeated WKU twice, giving the Jaguars the No. 1 seed. Three teams finished within one game of each other in the West division, but Arkansas-Little Rock got the title via tie-breakers.
Favorite: South Alabama has been one of my favorite teams all season long. I jumped on its bandwagon back in the non-conference season, when the Jaguars had close losses to Vanderbilt and Mississippi, and also beat Mississippi State. In fact, USA has lost its five games this season by a total of 19 points. Demetric Bennett can really score from the perimeter and can also get to the basket. Domonic Tilford is a standout three-point shooter who can get hot in a hurry, while Daon Merritt is an extremely underrated playmaker who can get into the lane on anyone. Brandon Davis is the go-to-guy in the frontcourt. USA is a balanced group who can really make noise in March.
Contender: Western Kentucky is another team who will be a team to watch out for if it can win the conference tournament and get into the NCAA Tournament. The Hilltoppers were the league favorite heading into the season, and the fact their lone losses were to South Alabama show that those projections weren’t far-off. Courtney Lee is one of the best players in the country; he is the type of player who can put a team on his back and carry them. Tyrone Brazelton is a very good scorer, while A.J. Slaughter leads a deep group of three-point shooters. WKU is efficient at both ends of the floor and can really score the ball.
Sleepers: With those two teams hogging most of the headlines, it will be interesting to see if anyone can get into their expected collision in the finals. One team to watch out for is North Texas. The Mean Green, who went to the NCAA Tournament last season, defeated South Alabama earlier this year, and have won five of their last six games. They are an athletic group that can really shoot the ball from deep, and score in a variety of ways. Collin Dennis and Josh White form an excellent guard duo. Earlier in the season, it looked as if New Orleans would be one of the teams to beat in the Sun Belt, as it beat North Carolina State, Tulane and Colorado on the road. However, it didn’t work out that way, as the Privateers struggled throughout the conference season. Still, they have one of the best players in the nation in Bo McCalebb, as well as a very solid frontcourt threat in Kyndall Dykes.
Prediction: All signs point to a third meeting between the two superpowers of the conference, South Alabama and Western Kentucky. Sure, there are other teams that can get in their way, but no else is talented or consistent enough to reasonably project that. In the finals, the battle between Demetric Bennett and Courtney Lee should be outstanding, but the difference is going to be the presence of Brandon Davis up front for USA, as well as the fact that the tournament is in Mobile. The Jaguars have the inside-outside balance to pull an upset in the NCAA Tournament; no team is going to want to face them.
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