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hashtag Southern Miss, to the top!

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    Welcome, fellow college basketball fanatics. Each week, I’ll dive into one of my favorite mid-major leagues: the Sun Belt Conference. All opinions expressed in the following should be immediately adopted by you. This is The Sun Belt Slant weekly notebook.

    Sun Belt Conference: Threes Company

    Thundering Herd, Golden Eagles and Ragin’ Cajuns, oh my!

    That is the trifecta you’ll find at the top of the Sun Belt standings entering the week. Marshall and Louisiana look like the two hottest teams in the conference currently, something I mentioned in last week’s column.

    The Cajuns and Herd have won six-straight and five-straight, respectively. Meanwhile, Southern Miss has rattled off three-straight wins and look to have shaken off that 22-point beatdown handed to them by Marshall.

    The Golden Eagles won convincingly this weekend over JMU, 83-70, getting 61 of their points from the quartet of DeAndre Pickney, Austin Crowley, Denijay Harris and Felipe Haase. The Dukes were never in the contest, either; the game’s only tie came at less than four minutes in, when it was 8-8.

    Over the span of the next three weeks, Marshall will visit Louisiana (February 4) and the Ragin’ Cajuns will travel to Southern Miss (February 9). After that, we should have a better idea of the top-seed heading into the conference tournament.

    Sunbelt Conference midterm report card

    We’re eight games into the conference slate with 10 to play until tournament time. Since this column comes out before the league’s Thursday/Saturday format starts, we’ll call this the midway point of the calendar. So, in true college fashion, let’s hand out a few midterm grades:

    Keith Gill: A+

    Kudos to the Sun Belt commissioner. Not only has he constructed arguably the strongest Group of 5 football conference, but he’s found a way to raise the profile of Sun Belt men’s basketball in the process.

    Nine of the league’s 14 teams start the week with winning records. Four of them are ranked Top-100 in the latest NCAA NET Rankings, something that has held true all season long. The Sun Belt’s combined conference record is a whole 10 games north of .500, currently 66-56.

    Last season, Ken Pomeroy graded the SBC as the 17th-best conference in America. This year, they’ve jumped up to his 14th-ranked league. That may seem like a marginal difference, but it is an improvement, nonetheless. And there’s no better place to see that improvement showcased than the projected seed of the league’s auto-bid winner.

    In his latest bracketology projections, Turner’s Andy Katz has Marshall projected as the AQ out of the SBC and locked into a 12-seed. Contrast that with the seedings of past Sun Belt champions:

    – 2021: App St., 16

    – 2019: Georgia St., 14

    – 2018: Georgia St., 15

    – 2017: Texas Southern, 16

    Should the league’s winner earn a No. 12 seed, it would mark the SBC’s highest seeding since 2016, when No. 12 seed Little Rock upset No. 5 seed Purdue.

    The point is, the conference is better and that positions its champion a better shot to win (at least) a game come tournament time. Sure, 16-over-1 and 15-over-2 upsets have happened (looking at you, UMBC and Saint Peter’s), but 12-seeds have won in the first round 52 times and done so 31 of the last 36 years.

    Big Men: A

    Who says post-players are a dying breed? I guess someone forgot to remind the SBC, who is home to four of the country’s top-30 shot blockers this season.

    Marshall’s Micah Handlogten has stormed onto the scene as a freshman, helping turn a 12-win Herd team a year ago into SBC contenders and erasing shots in the process. Handlogten’s 54 swats rank sixth in the country in total blocks, the most for a freshman in the nation.

    South Alabama’s Kevin Samuel leads the league in blocks per game with 2.58, which ranks eighth-best in the country. The former TCU & Florida Gulf Coast product has 10 games with 3 or more blocks and sent back a career-high six shots against Arkansas St.

    ULM’s Victor Bafutto and App St.’s Justin Abson have impressed, as well. The freshman Abson has 43 rejections, as many as Purdue’s Zach Edey and more than Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner. Thanks to Bafutto, the War Hawks are one of the more prolific shot-blocking teams, ranked 97th in the nation.

    Buzzer Beaters: F

    Call me crazy, but I enjoy the stress a good ‘ol buzzer beater puts on the heart.

    In all seriousness, there has been plenty of late-game drama around the league, whether it was the ending of JMU/Marshall a few weeks back or South Alabama’s two three-pointers in the final minute to force OT this weekend.

    But, other than Texas St.’s winning tip-in, we just haven’t had an abundance of game-winning shots.

    I want tears and Gatorade baths in the locker room. I want court-storming (and the fines that come with them). Give me streamers and broadcasters losing their mind on-air. I need coaches standing on tables and hyping the crowd, full Jerome Tang style.

    Here’s hoping we see more buzzer-beaters in the second half of the “second season.”

    Arkan’t-buy-a-win

    Things have gone off the rails in Jonesboro for Arkansas St.

    The Red Wolves have lost seven straight, the longest skid of any team in the league. In addition, head coach Mike Balado’s group is the second-worst scoring offense and defense in the conference since league play began.

    Balado isn’t all doom-and-gloom, though, saying Saturday “we look at the losing streak, but what we have to pay attention to is the belief that [we] can still come in and work, and get better. That’s all we need to do right now.”

    His bunch hasn’t gone down without a fight, and kudos to them. A-State forced overtime against league-leaders Marshall on Saturday afternoon, scoring four points in the final 19 seconds of regulation.

    Newton’s Law of Averages tells us, and I’m paraphrasing here, that eventually, the Red Wolves’ streak will come to end.

    Not soon enough, though, for Balado and company.

    Top Dawgs

    After seeing the country’s fourth-longest win streak end at the hands of GA Southern, James Madison women’s basketball responded in a big way. The Dukes upended Troy, the reigning regular season SBC champs, to take sole possessions of first place in the standings.

    JMU was able to hold off a furious Troy rally at the end, which saw Troy cut the lead to two with under 90 seconds left. After free throws extended the lead back to seven, Troy’s Makaiya Hallmon nailed back-to-back three-pointers to make it 80-79, but JMU dribbled out the clock for the win.

    It was a statement win for JMU, who saw 21 points from Kiki Jefferson and 28 from Peyton McDaniel, this week’s SBC Player of the Week. The Dukes are now poised to take the top overall seed into the Sun Belt Tournament.

    However, a precarious stretch of games lies in front of the Dukes. JMU will play four straight on the road and seven of the final 10 away from Harrisonburg.

    If they can come out of that unscathed, the Dukes should go dancing in 2023.

    Double trouble

    Coastal Carolina’s Essam Mostafa opened 2022 with a 22-point, 12-rebound double-double. Since then, the native of Egypt hasn’t stopped, totaling 14 double-doubles this season, which is double the next closest player in the Sun Belt. It also eclipses his single-season career mark of 13, set last year.

    Coastal hasn’t enjoyed much success this year and enter the week 10-10 overall, fresh off a loss to Chicago St., who ranks 295th in KenPom. However, Mostafa has been a bright spot.

    He’s rattled off three-straight double-doubles, doing so in six of his last eight games. His 14 double-doubles on the season? Those rank third nationally, behind Purdue’s Zach Edey and Joel Soriano at St. John’s.

    Things may not be going well in Conway, but the redshirt junior’s stock has definitely risen.

    Coach Speak

    Both Scott Cross of Troy and JMU’s Sean O’Regan stopped by the ‘Under the Sun’ podcast this week. Cross told me the origins of his ‘Take the Stairs’ mantra, while O’Regan talked about his Dukes women’s basketball squad being atop the league.

    You can catch the full interview on my weekly Sun Belt podcast, ‘Under the Sun,’ on  and Spotify.



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