The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the Sun Belt:
Behind a strong defense and a seasoned cast of seniors, Little Rock enjoyed a magical season in 2015-16. The Trojans set a school record with 30 victories and finished 17-3 to win the regular season crown by two games over Louisiana-Monroe.
Little Rock defeated ULM 70-50 in the conference tournament championship game to earn the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where it earned a 12 seed.In a thrilling first-round matchup with Purdue, Josh Hagins poured in 31 points to lead the Trojans to an 85-83 double overtime victory. Little Rock fell to Iowa State 78-61 in the second round.
The Trojans were 34th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (95.0). After the season, coach Chris Beard departed, landing first at UNLV before ending up a few days later at Texas Tech.
UT Arlington forward Kevin Hervey was having a sensational sophomore season in 2015-16. But it came crashing to a halt when he injured his knee in warmups prior to the Mavericks’ game against Arkansas State on Jan. 21. The torn ligament in his left knee cost him the final 19 games of the season.
Hervey, a 6-7 junior, averaged 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and scored 22 points or more in three of his final four games prior to the injury. And he starred on the big stage, scoring 40 points combined in road wins over Ohio State and Memphis.
Last month he was named to the Julius Erving Award watch list, given annually to the nation’s best small forward.
With Hervey and four other starters returning from a 24-win squad that finished third in the Sun Belt, UTA is the team everyone is chasing this season.
Point guard Erick Neal is a solid distributor. He assisted on 36.5 percent of the Mavericks’ baskets last season, which was 18th in the nation. Neal, a 5-11 junior, is one of five returnees who recorded at least a 109 offensive rating last season in the league’s fourth most efficient attack (107.9 adjusted efficiency). Jalen Jones (12.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is another dangerous scorer and tough finisher (54 percent on 2-pointers).
Even with Hervey missing most of the conference schedule, the Mavericks were an elite offensive rebounding squad, snagging 34 percent of their missed shots. His return should mean plenty of second chance scoring opportunities around the rim this season.
The Mavericks enjoy a deep, experienced roster but must improve their 3-point shooting (32.5 percent last season). They open Saturday, playing host to in-state foe Texas Southern.
Georgia Southern started two freshmen and three sophomores last season, and not surprisingly for a young team, struggled on the defensive end, finishing eighth in league play in points allowed per possession.
All five starters return for coach Mark Byington, who enters his fourth season in Statesboro and led the Eagles to the 2015 conference tournament title game.Tookie Brown, a 5-11 point guard, is a budding star. He averaged 17.8 points per game and shot 37 percent beyond-the-arc last season to earn Freshman of the Year and first-team All-Sun Belt honors. Backcourt mates Mike Holmes (14.9 ppg) and Ike Smith (11.7 ppg) will help shoulder the scoring burden and 6-6 forward B.J. Gladden is a junior who should produce in his first year at Georgia Southern.
The Eagles have a big opportunity in the opener, Friday night at NC State.
Freshman to Watch
D’Marcus Simonds of Georgia State scored in double figures in both exhibition games and logged starter’s minutes. He’s a 6-3, 180-pound guard who led nearby Gainesville High to 46 wins in his final two seasons there. Simonds averaged 25 points per game for the Red Elephants last season to earn All-State honors.