Preseason expectations for the Sun Belt ranged anywhere from Western Kentucky winning the league and Georgia State tying Louisiana-Lafayette for fourth to Georgia State grabbing the top spot just ahead of the Ragin’ Cajuns. And while there wasn’t much agreement on the order of finish, almost all pundits and prognosticators acknowledged that several teams had enough talent to make it a hotly contested conference race. It’s played out that way in the early going — six teams are .500 or better and even some in the bottom half of the league have beaten contenders. Only one squad stands undefeated, though, and if its 23-point road thrashing of Western Kentucky last week is any indication, Georgia State might be poised to emerge as the Sun Belt’s clear-cut best.
After suffering a couple heart-breaking losses and beginning the season with a disappointing 3-6 record, Ron Hunter’s team has won seven straight games, at times playing stretches of dominant basketball. Along with the one-sided showing against WKU, the Panthers also beat East Carolina on the road and pounded South Alabama on its home floor in recent weeks. The key for Georgia State is (and will continue to be) its offense, which features multiple scoring options who each have the ability to erupt for huge nights. Point guard Devonta White and off-guard Ryan Harrow — a Kentucky Wildcat a year ago, if you remember — are quick, skilled ball-handlers capable of beating defenders off the dribble and penetrating the lane with regularity. Once there, Harrow can finish or draw fouls like few other guards in the Sun Belt, while both he and White are excellent distributors: Each maintains a sparkling 28.2 percent assist rate, good enough to be ranked in the top 125 nationally. A main contributor to that rate is the fact that they often kick the ball out to two of the best wings in the conference, coach’s son R.J. Hunter and former Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins. R.J. — a highly recruited player who received offers from Cincinnati and Iowa, among others — is a dynamic scorer, expert from the outside and able to use his size and fluidity to shoot over smaller guards, while Atkins plays a bit more physically but is equally well-equipped from behind the arc.