Conference Tournament Primer: Sun Belt ConferencePosted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2014
Championship Fortnight continues with the last five conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the final push of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the O26 tourneys starting are the Big Sky, Big West, Sun Belt and WAC.
Dates: March 13-16
Site: New Orleans Lakefront Arena (New Orleans, LA)
What to expect: Georgia State won the regular season Sun Belt title by five games and will be the clear-cut favorite in New Orleans. The Panthers are lethal on the offensive end, led by a pair of guards – coach’s son R.J. Hunter and Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow – who average more than 17 points per night and rarely turn the ball over. They rank among the 25 most efficient offenses in the country, a scoring prowess that enabled them to win 14 straight games earlier this year (school record) and finish 17-1 in the conference. However, the top seed has not won this tournament since 2009, including a recent stretch of three-straight champions seeded fifth or worse, and talent does exist elsewhere — Louisiana-Lafayette guard Elfrid Payton is a legitimate NBA prospect, while his frontcourt teammate Shawn Long averages 19 points and 10 boards a night. Arkansas State and the Ragin’ Cajuns both gave Georgia State trouble in the regular season. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, has a chance to win this tournament for the third straight year. Any one of those three could spoil the Panthers’ outstanding run.
Favorite: Georgia State. The Panthers went 24-7 this season and were the Sun Belt’s best team from start to finish. They get a bye to the semifinals this week. Anything short of a championship and automatic NCAA Tournament bid would be a disappointment.
Darkhorse: Arkansas State. John Brady’s Red Wolves lost two games to Georgia State by a combined four points this season, including an overtime defeat one week ago yesterday. If they get past either Troy or Arkansas-Little Rock on Friday, they will have a third and final crack at the Panthers in the semifinals. An upset is definitely possible.
Who wins: Georgia State. Hunter, Harrow and company seldom make offensive mistakes – the Panthers lead the country with the lowest turnover rate – and their defense has tightened up in recent games. All signs point to a Georgia State coronation in New Orleans, despite this tournament’s recent craziness.
Player to Watch: Elfrid Payton – Louisiana-Lafayette. The senior point guard projects as a first-rounder in the upcoming NBA Draft because he has size, speed and offensive ability. His production is also off the charts: Payton averaged 19.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals this season. He turned heads at last summer’s U-19 World Championship games, and will surely turn more in Lakefront Arena this week.
Bubble Implications: None. Despite Georgia State’s gaudy win total, the Panthers’ poor RPI (#76) and lack of quality non-conference wins precludes them from at-large worthiness.