LWOS continues its conference previews with the 2020-21 Sun Belt Basketball Preview. The league was taken by storm by Little Rock in 2019-20. The Trojans, projected near the bottom in the preseason, soared to the regular-season title. However, they will not fly under the radar this time. Sun Belt foes know how good the team is heading into the new season. Still, Little Rock is the team to beat in the new season, though they will be tested by a few typical powers in the league.
2020-21 Sun Belt Basketball Preview
12. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
Key Returners: Chris Efretuei
Key Losses: Michael Ertel, J.D. Williams, Tyree White
Key Newcomers: Koreem Ozier (Sacred Heart), Marco Morency (JUCO), Russell Harrison (JUCO)
Louisiana-Monroe enters the new season without its top four contributors from last year. The bad news about that is the Warhawks finished in 11th place with that group. However, some younger players gained valuable experience. Still, there are a lot of new faces coming in to try and plug the holes. The biggest of those is Ozier, who was one of the key players for Sacred Heart. He will lead the group as they rebuild, but nothing here indicates ULM will escape the basement.
11. Arkansas State Red Wolves
Key Returners: Marquis Eaton, Caleb Fields
Key Losses: Canberk Kus, Jerry Johnson Jr., J.J. Matthews
Key Newcomers: Keyon Wesley (JUCO), Markise Davis (JUCO), Tim Holland (JUCO)
Arkansas State loses some key guys from a team that was average at best a season ago. The loss of Matthews to the transfer portal hurts the most, as he seemed primed to step up for this team. Eaton is the playmaker here, and he averaged 13.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on his way to a place on the third-team. However, behind him, there is minimal experience at the Division I level. The Red Wolves will have to fight for every win they get this season and will be fighting to stay out of last place.
10. Troy Trojans
Key Returners: Zay Williams, Desmond Williams, Nick Stampley
Key Losses: Darian Adams, Ty Gordon
Key Newcomers: Antwan Burnett, Kieffer Punter (JUCO), Kam Woods
Troy, to be blunt, was just not a good team last season. However, that seemed to be due to a commitment to the younger guys in the backcourt who did not have experience at the college level. The hope is that, with a year under their belt, those guards will show some improvement. Desmond Williams was the best of those, averaging 9.8 points per game and shooting 38.9 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman. Still, the Trojans will be led by the talent and experience in their frontcourt. Troy has enough to land a few spots out of last place.
9. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Key Returners: Cedric Russell, Kobe Julien, Mylik Wilson
Key Losses: Jalen Johnson, P.J. Hardy, Tirus Smith
Key Newcomers: Brayan Au (JUCO), Durey Caldwell (JUCO)
Louisiana returns about 50 percent of its key guys from last season entering 2020-21. The Ragin’ Cajuns are stronger at the guard position when it comes to experience, led by senior Cedric Russell. However, they also found a breakout player in Mylik Wilson, who averaged 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game while being named freshman of the year. A healthy Kobe Julien in the frontcourt will also boost this team. Louisiana should be better and may show a little bit more of what they were capable of last season.
8. Georgia Southern Eagles
Key Returners: Elijah McCadden
Key Losses: Ike Smith, Quan Jackson, Isaiah Crawley
Key Newcomers: Kaden Archie (UTEP), Prince Gillam Toyambi (Cincinnati), Andrei Savrasov (Texas Tech), Grant Weatherford (IUPUI)
Georgia Southern really takes some hits with its lineup entering the season. Seven of their top eight players from last season are gone. The Eagles are going the transfer route to try and reload immediately. The waiver process was kind to them, with Archie, Toyambi, and Savrasov all getting approved. However, it will still take some time for everyone to learn how to play together. Georgia Southern will most likely take a bit of a step back this season, but are certainly capable of finishing higher if the roster comes together quicker than expected.
7. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Key Returners: Devante Jones, Ebrima Dibba, Garrick Green
Key Losses: Keishawn Brewton, Tommy Burton, Tyrell Gumbs-Frater
Key Newcomers: DeShawn Thomas (LSU), Tyrik Dixon (Missouri State), DeAnthony Tipler (JUCO)
Coastal Carolina was good at times and bad at times last season. That evened out to an average finish at eighth place. The Chanticleers will continue to be led by Devante Jones, who averaged 17.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.7 steals as a sophomore. The team will also welcome back a healthy Ebrima Dibba, who showed his potential before going down with a season-ending injury. Overall, Coastal Carolina will be improved, and seventh place feels like their floor this season.
6. Texas-Arlington Mavericks
Key Returners: David Azore, Sam Griffin, Jordan Phillips
Key Losses: Brian Warren, Radshad Davis, Jabari Narcis
Key Newcomers: Grayson Carter (Georgetown), Carson Bischoff (Utah State), Shahada Wells (JUCO)
Texas-Arlington really came on strong towards the end of the season. That was probably due in large part to how many younger players were getting a majority of the minutes. The Mavericks have now recognized a nice, young core as they focus on the 2020-21 season. David Azore is the top guy after averaging 14 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game as a sophomore last season. Sam Griffin holds his own alongside Azore. UTA will look to build on their momentum at the end of last year to push into the next tier of the Sun Belt.
5. Texas State Bobcats
Key Returners: Mason Harrell, Alonzo Sule, Isiah Small
Key Losses: Nijal Pearson, Eric Terry
Key Newcomers: Nighael Ceasar (JUCO), Jason Bush Jr. (JUCO), Darien Jenkins (JUCO)
Texas State finished in a tie for second place behind the spectacular season of Nijal Pearson. Pearson averaged 19.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game on his way to being named the league’s player of the year. However, he has graduated, and the team will need to figure out how to replace him. The good news for the Bobcats is that almost everyone else is back and is getting some decent junior college transfers. Texas State could compete for a title, but a small step back seems more likely.
4. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Key Returners: Justin Forrest, Adrian Delph, Kendall Lewis
Key Losses: O’Showen Williams, Isaac Johnson, Hunter Seacat
Key Newcomers: Michael Almonacy (Stony Brook), R.J. Duhart (JUCO), Xavion Brown
Appalachian State appears to be on the right track with coach Dustin Kerns. He engineered one of the best seasons in recent history for the program and will look to continue to improve the program in year two. One of the reasons for optimism is senior Justin Forrest. Forrest is a player of the year candidate after averaging 17.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists last season. He is supported by a few other returners from last season’s rotation as well as some promising incoming talent. Appalachian State seems ready to take another step forward into the top four.
3. South Alabama Jaguars
Key Returners: John Pettway, Tyreke Locure
Key Losses: Josh Ajayi, Chad Lott, Trhae Mitchell
Key Newcomers: Michael Flowers (Western Michigan), DeAundrae Ballard (Florida), Sam Iorio (American)
South Alabama was last season’s preseason favorite and got close to that after finishing in a tie for second. The Jaguars’ senior-heavy lineup was a big reason for the high expectations placed upon them. Returning players for this team were largely role players. However, some strong incoming transfers will make an immediate impact. Michael Flowers is the most proven, having averaged 16.9 points and 3.3 assists per game at Western Michigan last season. Ballard played a reserve role at Florida but should have a much more expanded role with the Jags. South Alabama will be pushing for the top spot once again.
2. Georgia State Panthers
Key Returners: Kane Williams, Corey Allen, Justin Roberts
Key Losses: Damon Wilson
Key Newcomers: Ryan Boyce (Memphis), Eliel Nsoseme (Cincinnati), Joseph Toppin (Georgia)
Georgia State went through a transition phase after former coach Ron Hunter was not brought back and went to Tulane. Rob Lanier took over the reins, and the Panthers were still respectable, though certainly did not play up to what is expected in Atlanta these days. However, this program will not be down for long. Many of the team’s playmakers are back, including Kane Williams and Justin Roberts. They will also be boosted by some transfers who had to sit out last season. Georgia State will be competing for a league title this season.
1. Little Rock Trojans
Key Returners: Markquis Nowell, Ruot Monyyong, Kamani Johnson
Key Losses: Jaizec Lottie
Key Newcomers: None
As mentioned in the introduction, Little Rock was the surprise of the league a season ago. The Trojans were anchored by Markquis Nowell and Ruot Monyyong, who formed one of the best inside-out duos in the nation. The roster is basically intact from last season, meaning there is no reason to believe they won’t win the league again. However, the Sun Belt has always been tough at the top, and the Trojans will have a firm target on their back. Little Rock is the preseason pick, but it won’t be easy.
2020-21 Sun Belt Basketball Preview Award Projections
Player of the Year: Markquis Nowell, Little Rock
Nowell was arguably robbed of this honor last year, as he was the spark plug that made the Trojans go. However, there is no doubt that he should be the favorite for it this season. He averaged 17.2 points, three rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 2.2 steals per game in his sophomore season. Expect similar numbers this season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ruot Monyyong, Little Rock
Monyyong does a little bit of everything on the defensive end of the floor. He averaged two blocks and one steal per game on his way to earning this honor last season. However, he was also a force on the defensive glass, averaging 7.6 defensive rebounds. The 6’10” big will be owning Sun Belt paints once more this season.
Freshman of the Year: Antwan Burnett, Troy
Troy is getting a future star in Antwan Burnett. He finished his career at Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, AL as the school’s all-time leading scorer. That was in large part due to averaging 22 points per game. However, he also averaged 11 rebounds and three assists per game as well. Burnett may end up starting right away for Troy and should make an instant impact.
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Flowers, South Alabama
Flowers’ production at Western Michigan was already touched upon in the South Alabama capsule. However, any team would consider themselves fortunate to be getting that kind of quality of a player to insert immediately into their roster. Flowers will be one of the main reasons why the Jaguars will not fall off much, if at all, in the league title race.
Coach of the Year: Dustin Kerns, Appalachian State
Kerns was tasked with building Appalachian State back into a contender when he took the job. In his first season, he led the Mountaineers to their first winning season in ten years and a seven-win turnaround from 2018-19. However, that should not be surprising, as he did something similar at Presbyterian. Kerns has a team that could push for 20 wins this season and a finish in the top four of the league. That kind of continued success should earn him this honor.
All-Conference First-Team Projection: Markquis Nowell (Little Rock), Justin Forrest (Appalachian State), Michael Flowers (South Alabama), Kane Williams (Georgia State), Ruot Monyyong (Little Rock)