2019 Sun Belt Tournament Expert Picks with Odds and Betting Predictions
The Sun Belt Conference is usually one of the most parity-driven mid-major leagues in college basketball. This year that seemed to shift, though, and the Sun Belt experienced one of its most top-heavy conference seasons in recent memory. Four teams won 12 or more league games, and just one single game separated the No. 1 seed from the No. 4 seed.
That one game - and the associated tiebreakers that sorted out the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds - was critical. The Sun Belt has one of the most unique conference tournament setups in the country, and it is weighted to support the top teams in the league. The top two seeds get byes all the way to the semifinals and have to win just two games to claim the conference's automatic bid. By comparison, the No. 5 seed would have to win four games in four nights to cut down the nets.
The Sun Belt Conference Tournament will be held from Tuesday, March 12, to Sunday, March 17, at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Here is Doc's Sports 2019 Sun Belt Tournament preview and predictions, with my own projected odds:
The Favorite: Georgia State (+190)
The Panthers have four starters back from the same team that won the Sun Belt title last year and played in the NCAA Tournament. Ron Hunter's squad laid the foundation for their regular-season title with nonconference wins over the likes of Georgia and Alabama. They are one of the smallest teams in the league - only one of their regulars is taller than 6-6 - and they are a team that lives and dies from the 3-point range. The Panthers have five players that make more than 41 percent of their 3-pointers, and they are No. 10 in the country in team 3-point percentage. They have five guys averaging 11 or more points, led by D'Marcus Simonds and his 18.9 points per. And if they are connecting from the outside they should blitz their two opponents en route to another title.
The Contender: UT-Arlington (+330)
Arlington got a huge boost from the Sun Belt tiebreaking procedures. They finished in a three-way tie for second place but earned the No. 2 seed. Not only does that mean they avoid Georgia State until the finals, but they also have to win one less game than the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds. This team is even smaller than GSU, with no starters taller than 6-feet-4. The Mavericks are barely over .500 (16-15) on the year, despite a four-game winning streak, and they went just 1-3 against their likely opponents. There is a reason that this team's odds of winning the title are longer than either of the two teams seeded behind them.
The Dark Horse: Georgia Southern (+260)
This is it for Tookie Brown. Brown and fellow senior Ike Smith, who was put out for the year after just eight games, have been one of the best one-two punches in the Sun Belt over their four years in Statesboro. If Smith had stayed healthy, I think this team would've easily won the regular season and been a strong favorite in the tournament. Southern is one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, averaging 83.5 per game, and they are No. 3 in the nation in field goal shooting. Brown is a stud. And he won't go quietly. And he might just be good enough to ring up three W's and get this team to the NCAA Tournament.
The Spoiler: Texas State (+320)
The Bobcats blew a golden opportunity to earn the No. 1 seed in the league tournament by losing three of their last four games. Unlike the rest of the top seeds, Texas State doesn't win with 3-point bombing or lightning-strike offense. The Bobcats win with defense. They play slow and love to grind out games, placing in the Top 30 in both scoring defense and 3-point defense. Texas State leans on guards Nijal Pearson and Tre Nottingham for scoring. This team also has one glaring weakness: they are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the nation. It is almost a certainty that if they advance through this tourney, they will have to close out a game in the final minutes, and I don't know that they'll be able to do it from the line.
Potential Early-Round Matchup To Watch:
No. 6 Coastal Carolina (-5) vs. No. 7 Louisiana-Monroe (7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 14)
Louisiana-Monroe has to beat Appalachian State in the opening round to set up this matchup. But if they do, that then this should set up an entertaining game. Coastal Carolina forward Zac Cuthbertson and Monroe guard Daishon Smith are two of the best players in the Sun Belt and will be going head-to-head. That alone should be worth the price of admission. These are two high scoring, fast-paced squads, and both of them shoot it well - and often - from 3-point range. Monroe won both regular-season meetings, 97-91 and 92-81, and I expect another shootout here.
Sun Belt Tournament Predictions: Georgia State is the best team in the league. The same crop of guys, led by their three senior starters, won this tournament last year by winning three games in three nights. They have to win one fewer this season, and I think that they will do it. The Panthers have beaten Texas State three of the last four times that they've taken them on, and I don't think TSU's defense will be able to slow down GSU's shooters. I don't think Tookie Brown will be able to carry Southern all the way to the title, I think UT-Arlington is lucky to be the No. 2, and I don't think that Louisiana or Coastal Carolina have the goods to win four games in four days. All signs point toward another title for Ron Hunter and Co.
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 12 winning seasons. He is looking for a monster March run and will have an 8-Unit Conference Tournament Game of the Year this week. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here .
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