Scouting the Sun Belt Men’s Basketball Tournament

Thomas Jilk

The Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball tournament is underway in New Orleans this week as teams around the conference compete for an automatic berth in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Georgia Southern is the No. 3 seed in the tournament after finishing with an 11-7 conference record. Texas State and Arkansas State also had 11-7 conference records this season, but Georgia Southern won the multi-team tiebreaker by going 1-0 this season against both Texas State (70-67) and Arkansas State (72-60).

Eagles comment on Tournament

Georgia Southern has been out-rebounded consistently in the conference season. GS sophomore guard Ike Smith addressed concerns at the Sun Belt pre-tournament media day.

“We’re definitely going to need toughness and defensive rebounding; those are the main keys that are going to help us win,” Smith said.

GS head coach Mark Byington agreed with Smith, saying rebounding and second half defense would be key in the “do-or-die scenario” of the Sun Belt Championship.

The top four seeds in the tournament have first-round byes and do not play until Friday, March 10. All tournament games will be played at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans and broadcast on the live-streaming online service, ESPN3.

GS will play the winner of Wednesday night’s matchup between no. 6 seed Troy and no. 11 seed Appalachian State. Georgia Southern’s first game will be on Friday, March 10 at 8:30 p.m on ESPN3. GS split the season series against both Troy and App. State, winning the home contests and losing on the road.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Smith said. “The next couple of days we’re getting some shots up and treating our body right and preparing for those two teams.”

Byington said that Sunday was the first time the Eagles had a day off since January 1.

“I think we need some time to rest,” Byington said. “It [Sunday] was their first true off-day in about 65 days. So they need a break.”

Georgia State earned the No. 2 seed when it beat Georgia Southern on Saturday in Atlanta. They finished with a 12-6 conference record. Everyone in the Sun Belt is looking up at the No. 1 seed UT-Arlington Mavericks, the conference’s only contender to make the NCAA Tournament even if they don’t win the Sun Belt, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. UTA finished with a 24-7 record this season, going 14-4 in conference play.

The only scenario likely to yield two Sun Belt teams in the NCAA Tournament is UTA losing in the semifinals or the finals to the eventual conference champion, who would then earn the automatic bid.

Players to watch

Here are a few players to keep an eye on while watching the tournament. All have been difference-makers for their teams this season.

Kevin Hervey – UT-Arlington

Eagle fans who watched Hervey’s performance in a winning effort at Georgia Southern late in the season understand his diverse skills. The 6-foot-9-inch junior forward recently earned Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year honors. He is third in the Sun Belt in scoring with 17.3 points per game. He is also second in the conference in rebounding, grabbing 8.4 per game.

Hervey can play physical basketball in the lane, but he can also step outside and make 3-pointers. He’s made 61 of them this season and shoots 37 percent from 3-point range.

Ike Smith – Georgia Southern

The sophomore guard leads the conference in scoring with 19.9 points per game. Smith also regularly makes athletic defensive plays like emphatic blocks and end-to-end steals that serve as momentum-building plays for Georgia Southern. Smith is second in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage at 42 percent, just behind his teammate, junior guard Jake Allsmiller (44 percent).

Tookie Brown – Georgia Southern

Brown is the lead playmaker in the Georgia Southern offense. The sophomore point guard is second in the conference in scoring with 17.4 points per game, and he also dishes out four assists per contest. Brown is a relentlessly aggressive attacker of the basket. He is a good finisher at the rim in traffic, he can shoot it from deep if he’s left open, and he has exceptional court vision to find open teammates – like Smith and Allsmiller – off of his drive.

Devin Carter – Arkansas State

The six-foot-four-inch redshirt senior guard leads the no. 5 seed Red Wolves in scoring at 16.6 points per game, which is fifth in the Sun Belt. Carter is lethal fro three-point range: He’s made 101 of them this season, first in the Sun Belt by 16 3-pointers. He also shoots nearly 41 percent from outside, making leaving him open inexcusable.

Bryce Washington – Louisiana

The only player in the Sun Belt to average a double-double this season, Washington scores 13.5 points per game and grabs 11.4 rebounds per game to lead the conference. The 6-foot-6-inch junior forward will compete for the no. 7 seed Ragin’ Cajuns in his hometown of New Orleans.