2018 Sun Belt Basketball Tournament Odds and Expert Predictions
If the Sun Belt's regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Louisiana-Lafayette makes it into the NCAA Tournament then I think that they absolutely have the goods to knock out one of the best teams in the field in a 4-13 or 3-14 first round matchup.
But first they have to win their conference tournament.
Louisiana dominated the Sun Belt this year, winning the regular-season title by four full games. However, there are three other teams chomping at the bit to get a shot at the Ragin' Cajuns, and there is nothing to guarantee that Bob Marlin's squad is going to leave this weekend's tournament unscathed.
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The Sun Belt Conference Tournament will be held from Wednesday, March 7, to Sunday, March 11, at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Here is Doc's Sports 2018 Sun Belt Tournament preview and predictions, with my own projected odds:
The Favorite: Louisiana-Lafayette (+120)
Lafayette is one of the best offensive teams in the country, period. They are No. 14 in the nation in scoring (84 per game) and are in the Top 100 in shooting, 3-point shooting, rebounding and free throws. This team isn't terrible defensively, either, and they are outscoring their opponents by an average of 14 points per game. Forwards Jakeenan Gant and Bryce Washington are dynamic, and this team shares the ball phenomenally well, with multiple guys capable of taking and making big shots down the stretch. They lost their final regular-season game in overtime. But they haven't lost two in a row all season long and will be a very tough out in this tournament.
The Contender: Georgia State (+200)
Ron Hunter's squad used a 10-game winning streak to solidify their position in the top tier of the Sun Belt this year. But the Panthers are just 2-4 in their last six games and have been terrible defensively during that stretch. This team is in the Top 10 in the nation in field goal defense. So if they want to make a run this weekend then they will need to shore up that end of the court. Georgia State and UL-Lafayette are massive rivals. And GSU was one of the few teams to beat the Cajuns this year, running up 106 points against them in Atlanta.
The Dark Horse: Georgia Southern (+350)
Georgia Southern does not have the best team in the league. But with Tookie Brown and Ike Smith they have one of the best one-two punches in the league. Neither have been healthy all season long. But when they are at full strength this team was good enough to take out Wake Forest and Missouri State early in the season. Southern had a shaky start to February, and they have proven that they can be upset, losing to teams like South Alabama, Texas State, Arkansas State and UL-Monroe (although all four losses were by two points or less). But they have some momentum with three straight wins coming into the tourney, and if Brown and Smith get hot then this team can get rolling.
The Spoiler: UT-Arlington (+1200)
I said that Georgia Southern has "one of" the best one-two punches in the Sun Belt. That's because Arlington's inside-out combo of Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal are the top pair in the league. Hervey is a future pro, in some capacity, and this team starts five seniors that will take their final shot at making it to the NCAA Tournament. The Mavericks were the top seed in last year's tournament before getting bombed in the semifinals by Texas State. They have been somewhat of a disappointment this season but will definitely be gearing up to make a move and potentially take out powerhouse UL-L - a team that they already lost to twice - in the process.
Early-Round Matchup To Watch:
No. 2 Georgia State (-5) vs. No. 7 Troy (5 p.m., Friday, March 9)
Troy comes into this tournament below .500 and is about as threatening as a house cat. However, the Trojans are the defending tournament champs, with three starters back from the team that won four straight last year to punch their ticket to The Big Dance. Troy's season has been marked by near misses: they lost at Kentucky by just eight and have nine losses by six points or less. But they beat Georgia State in both meetings this year, and Troy has two of the better players in this tournament in Jordon Varnado and Wesley Person. Troy is actually 5-1 in their last six games against Georgia State, including a win in last year's semifinals.
Sun Belt Tournament Predictions: I really want to see UL-Lafayette win this tournament because I want to see their firepower match up against a high-major school in the NCAA Tournament. But I don't think that it is going to happen. The top seed has won this tournament only twice in the last eight years, and the Sun Belt has a history of sending weird, random teams to the NCAA Tournament. I think that one or two of the top seeds will get picked off in the quarterfinals, and I can see another upset in the semis. I would stack my chips with Georgia State. But they have a very tough draw to win this tournament, and I don't think they will win their three matchups. So I will call for an upset and say that UT-Arlington, the most experienced team in the nation, will avenge their poor showing in last year's tournament. They are playing close to home in Texas, and I can see Hervey and Neal leading this team to an emotional title win.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has posted 10 of 11 winning seasons. He is looking for a monster March run and will have an 8-Unit Conference Tournament Game of the Year next week. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here .
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