- The Sun Belt Conference Tournament begins Friday, March 5 in Pensacola and wraps with the title game Monday, March 8 from Florida’s Panhandle
- Texas State was the regular season league champion, but Georgia State enters the tourney as the favorite
- See the seeds, bracket, and full tournament preview, below
The Sun Belt Conference has been one of the most competitive leagues in college basketball this season, ranking dead last in the country in blowout percentage. That means the mid-major conference tournament should be a dandy. Opening-round action gets underway Friday, March 5, with the championship game set for Monday, March 8. All games will be played in Pensacola at either Pensacola Bay Center or Pensacola State College.
As usual, no Sun Belt program will make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. That means winning the conference tourney is their only shot to advance to March Madness.
Texas State has won seven in a row and captured the program’s first regular-season conference crown since 1999, when it was a member of the Southland. Meantime, Georgia State has won six in a row and owns a non-conference, four-overtime victory over NCAA tourney bubble team Georgia Tech.
2021 Sun Belt Tournament Odds
|Georgia State (E1)||TBD|
|Coastal Carolina (E2)||TBD|
|Texas State (W1)||TBD|
|South Alabama (E3)||TBD|
|Little Rock (W5)||TBD|
|Appalachian State (E4)||TBD|
|Arkansas State (W4)||TBD|
|Georgia Southern (E5)||TBD|
Georgia State may have finished 2.5 games behind Texas State in the final regular season standings. But the Panthers are the highest-rated Sun Belt team by 32 slots (No. 145 compared to Coastal Carolina at No. 177) and own that season-opening marathon 123-120 marathon victory in four overtimes over the Ramblin’ Wreck.
Rob Lanier’s squad features four upperclassmen in Corey Allen, Justin Roberts, Kane Williams and Eliel Nsoseme who average between 14.9 and 11.7 points per game. Allen leads the way while shooting 46.4-percent from the field, while Nsoseme is a force down low, averaging 9.9 rebounds per game to go along with his nearly 12-point per game clip.
A pair of impressive underclassmen also contribute. Jalen Thomas averages double-digit points per game, while Evan Johnson just dropped 28 in 26 minutes in an 84-81 win over South Alabama this weekend that saw him go 6-of-9 from beyond the arc.
The Panthers have played in the last two NCAA Tournaments and three of the last five. The program even knocked off Baylor as a No. 14 seed in the 2015 Big Dance. Lanier knows how to get his team ready come March and are the deserving favorite.
Beware the Bobcats
Winning the league’s regular season title going away is an accomplishment in itself. So is rebounding from an embarrassing loss to NAIA program Our Lady of the Lake 61-58 Dec. 12. Terrence Johnson’s squad could have easily thrown in the towel at that point.
Our lady of the lake knocks off NCAA D1 Texas state!!! Let’s goooo!!! https://t.co/C5ukjTEBzJ
— NAIA Hoops Report (@NAIAHoopsReport) December 13, 2020
All the Bobcats have done is go 15-3 since, all with interim Johnson leading the way. The head coach took the reins of a program picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll right before the 2020-21 campaign started after long-time coach Danny Kaspar left under investigation.
Junior guards Mason Harrell and Caleb Asberry have been the leaders on the floor, each averaging over13 points per game. Big man Isiah Small doesn’t have jaw-dropping stats (10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game), but the 6-foot-8 senior from Jersey City ranks in the top 50 of effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage,and three-point percentage in all of college basketball.
This group may not feature an impressive win over a power conference team like Georgia State (the Bobcats lost to both Mississippi State and Texas), but Johnson’s group has been hot and features talent.
Not Just a Football School
The Chanticleer football program was ranked as high as No. 9 last season before eventually finishing with an 11-1 record, ending up 14th in the final poll. But the little school in Conway, South Carolina has a pretty good basketball program as well. Junior guard Devante Jones is a big reason why.
Jones has developed into one of the best mid-major players in the country, averaging 20.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. That ranks him in the Top 100 nationally of four KenPom categories, fighting head-to-head with South Alabama’s Michael Flowers for Player of the Year.
Meantime, JUCO transfer Deanthony Tipler is averaging an impressive 15.1 points per game. And down low, the Chants have 6-foot-9 freshman center Essam Mostafa putting up 11.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. The players give head coach Cliff Ellis a talented trio and legit contenders for conference Player, Newcomer and Rookie of the Year.
Teams like Louisiana (who lost to Baylor 112-82 Nov. 28, scoring the most points the Bears have allowed an opponent this season), South Alabama (featuring the aforementioned Flowers — who can flat-out take over games) and Arkansas State (with freshman star Norchad Omier, who has registered 13 double-doubles this season) all have a chance to make a Cinderella run. But I’m going with Georgia State to cut down the nets and dance with the big boys in Indy.
The pick: Georgia State