When Little Rock lost by two to Alabama in the second round of the women’s NIT, that put in a pin in the Sun Belt season. But it is never too early to look ahead. What follows is a cursory glance at each team, who’s returning, who’s leaving, and where things might shake out next year. The one guarantee: This will be completely wrong. I am overlooking incoming freshmen, transfers, and other news that might shake things up next October. So here goes:
Appalachian State Mountaineers:
2016-17 record: 12-19 (9th in Sun Belt)
Leading returning scorer: Madi Story (13.3)
Leading returning rebounder: Story (6.9)
Key losses: Joi Jones, Bria Carter
The book to defeat the Mountaineers was simple. Story was going to get hers. Just make sure nobody else beats you. That might be true next year. Story is a great talent. She also led the team in assists, the only player in the league to lead her club in each category. Without Jones, they might have to rely on her more as the rest of the team catches up. Coach Angel Elderkin used her five starters excessively (Story, Jones, and Ashley Bassett Smith started every game, while Carter and Q Murray missed one apiece). Murray will have to step in Jones’s shoes as a second threat, and someone will have to take Carter’s place as a pest inside. She fouled out of league-high 12 games. Bassett-Smith is an effective blocker, but needs to get stronger to get more rebounds. In short, Story will have to shoulder the team until it finds its’ way, but there is only so much she can do.
Arkansas State Red Wolves:
2016-17 record: 7-25 (11th)
Leading returning scorer: Jada Ford (12.9)
Leading returning rebounder: Lauren Bradshaw (6.9)
Key Losses: Dominique Oliver, Brittany Fowler
The Red Wolves were dismantled coming into last season, losing over 90% of the previous years’ scoring. Brian Boyer brought in eight true freshman, so he knew he was going to take his lumps. Things went further south when Ford went down right at the start of Sun Belt play. She returned later in the season and proceeded to lead the team in scoring. She could’ve been a real possibility for Freshman of the Year. With Oliver and Fowler gone, it will be Ford’s team. She must get chemistry with point guard Starr Taylor, a fellow incoming sophomore. Taylor was prone to gaffes, committing 112 turnovers last season with 70 assists. Akasha Westbook also must return from an injury that limited her to eight games. Madison Heckert needs to develop underneath. The Red Wolves have a young core that will only get better as they mature. This might have been the year to beat them.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers:
2016-17 record: 13-16 (8th)
Leading returning scorer: Rachel Gregory (11.6)
Leading returning rebounder: Gregory (6.7)
Key Losses: Ced Gibson, Alexis Robinson, Yasmin Miller
Coastal acquitted themselves decently in their first Sun Belt season, winning eight games. Getting to eight next season will be a chore. Gibson led the team in scoring and assists and Robinson led in rebounding. Rachel Gregory will have to be the main focus. Naheria Hamilton had 58 blocks, but she will have to be more of a multi-talent for Coastal to get by. Jas Adams has the potential to be a player in the Gibson mold, but was way too streaky to be relied upon. Coach Daija Williams has tools that are used to be supporting players, and now they must step up and be stars.
Georgia Southern Eagles:
2016-17 record: 13-17 (6th)
Leading returning scorer: Alexis Brown (6.7)
Leading returning rebounder: Sierra Butler (5.8)
Key losses: Angel McGowan, Patrice Butler, Alexis Sams
Second-year coach Kip Drown did a great job with the Eagles. They won nine Sun Belt games, more than they did in their first two years in the league combined (six). Making another step forward will be difficult, given that they lose their leading scorer (McGowan, who leaves as the seventh best scorer in team history) rebounder (Butler), and assists (Sams). It’ll be up to Sierra Butler to pick up the slack. She has been used to big sister Patrice carrying the load, and now it’s her show. Not only did they play together on Georgia Southern, but they had the same relationship in high school, winning several Georgia state titles for Angie Hembree at Norcross. Brown needs to do a lot better than the seven points she averaged. That 6.7 average is the worst among leaders in returning scorers in the league. Amira Atwater will step into the point, but this is a club that got used to the excellent games of McGowan and Patrice Butler. They have to participate, and not be spectators.
Georgia State Panthers
2016-17 record: 12-18 (7th)
Leading returning scorer: Jada Lewis (11.6)
Leading returning rebounder: Astaja Tyghter (4.2)
Key losses: Tiffany Holston, Haley Gerrin
If you’ve read my stories, I’ve expounded on the Panthers ad nauseam, so I’ll only hit the highlights. The Panthers almost turned the corner last season. In their last nine losses, only one was by double digits (11). So Coach Sharon Baldwin must answer two questions. 1: Can Madison Newby and KK Williams return from injury at full strength? If the answer is yes, the Panthers will have one of the most dynamic set of guards in the league. Lewis split time at the point and shooting, and now she can focus on shooting. 2: All of the over six-footers (like Holston) have graduated. Where will the rebounding come from? Leading rebounder Tyghter has the fewest rebounds out of all the leading returners in the league. The Panthers have some good small forwards in her and Kennesha Nichols, but Shaquanda Miller-McCray will have to be called upon more. If Baldwin can mine D2 or JUCO and hit the lottery again like she did with Holston, the Panthers will take the next step.
Little Rock Trojans
2016-17 record: 25-9 (1st)
Leading returning scorer: Ronjanae DeGray (8.8)
Leading returning rebounder: Kyra Collier (6.6)
Key losses: Sharde Collins, Kaitlyn Pratt
The Trojans took the one seed into the tourney, but exited in the semifinals. Little Rock took a little bit of revenge by being the only Sun Belt team to win a tourney game before falling to Alabama. The losses of Collins and Pratt will hurt. They make up 50% of their offense. Monique Townson led the league in assists last season with 143, but scorers will need to develop to replace the contributions of Pratt and Collins. DeGray will become the crux in the offense, and Collier has the tools to be an important player. Joe Foley has a lot of scholarships to offer for next season, and the players he brings in will be crucial for the next couple of seasons. More immediately, the Trojans will struggle early, but should find their footing around February and March. They’ll make another postseason tourney, and maybe win another game.
Up/down: Down (They finished first. Only one way left for them.)
Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns
2016-17 record: 20-11 (5th)
Leading returning scorer: Simone Fields (14.5)
Leading returning rebounder: Fields (7.2)
Key losses: Jaylyn Gordon, Gabby Alexander
Make no mistake, losing Gordon and her 18 points a game will hurt the Cajuns, and losing her 108 assists won’t feel good either, but this is a team that should survive it. Fields is a pretty good candidate to carry the load. She led in rebounds as well. Jasmine Thomas gave a run for Freshman of the Year, averaging just under nine points. Troi Swain showed she can run the point, and they will need Thomas to slide to shooting. The main focus early on will be to feed it to Fields are ler go to work. Also watch out for Nekia Jones. A bruising forward, she knows precisely how to control her body down low and always seems to give Garry Brodhead’s offense just the shot in the arm at the right time. The Cajuns lost two of four to slip into the fifth spot, but made it all the way to the Sun Belt finals, where the extra game caused them to run out of gas and lose by 14 to Troy. They’ve learned their lesson, and will make sure they get one of the top four seeds and a first round bye.
2016-17 record: 6-23 (12th)
Leading returning scorer: Alexis Collins (12.8)
Leading returning rebounder: Gabriella Cortez (4.8)
Key losses: Stephanie Ratliff, Andreanna Jackson
The Warhawks lost 95% of their scoring coming into this season. That team also finished at the bottom of the league, so you knew this one was going to take their lumps. Coach Jeff Dow brought in some JUCO transfers and freshmen and hoped they would come together. Collins led the league in turnovers with 130, but also had 114 assists. They will miss Ratliff. She had 64 blocks and 6.6 boards. The leading rebounder, Cortez, is 5-11 and prefers to play more like a guard. Now the inside is open to any team that wishes to penetrate. I think Collins will calm down a little in her second season, but their defense will be hurt heading into next season.
Up/down: Up (They will be better, but so will the teams near them. I think they might win one or two more games, but it won’t be enough to escape 12th).
South Alabama Jaguars
2016-17 record: 11-19 (10th)
Leading returning scorer: Chyna Ellis (10.8)
Leading returning rebounder: Ellis (7.8)
Key loss: Colby Davis
The Jaguar season was sent off the rails after the second game, when best player Marquita Daniels was kicked off the team for the catch all violation of team rules. I don’t know if Daniels will be given the chance to return, but I will assume she won’t. Ellis played well with the focus on her. She led the Sun Belt with 91 blocks, and turned the inside into a no-go zone for opponents. You should expect a similar outlook in the fall. But teams beat the Jags by shooting over them, and that’s where Genesis Perrymond comes in. She had 6.7 points a game last season, but she’ll have to improve her defense to force opponents inside, where Ellis awaits. She also needs to be the shooter and distributor like Daniels was. South Alabama will be better now that they have a couple of months to adjust.
Texas State Bobcats
2016-17 record: 16-15 (4th)
Leading returning scorer: Taeler Deer (10.7)
Leading returning rebounder: Ericka May (6.2)
Key loss: Erin Peoples
Texas State accomplished a rare feat last season. They scored exactly 1,817 points. They also gave up exactly 1,817 points. They also handed Little Rock their lone conference loss in the regular season. Deer also led the Bobcats in assists, so she will continue as their main threat. Rebounds were evenly spread amongst the returners, so it will continue to be a ‘by committee’ approach. It will also continue to be a bombs away offense. The Bobcats hit 32% from outside the arc. Deer was first with an outstanding 44% rate. Toshua Leavitt and McKinley Bostad also hit around 37% from three-land. This style leads to long rebounds, which is why those numbers are all over the place. You have to force the Bobcats to go inside and hope you catch them on a cold shooting night. With all of the main contributors back, coach Zenarae Antoine won’t see anything wrong with this tactic, so see more of the same.
Up/down: Up (slightly)
2016-17 record: 22-11 (3rd)
Leading returning scorer: Amanda Mendoza (7.6)
Leading returning rebounder: La’Tia Fils-Aime (4.8)
Key losses: Caitlin Ramirez, Jayla Chills, Claresa Banks
Give the Trojans credit. They get hot at the right time. The last two seasons, they took a three and four seed into the conference tourney, and turn into a championship and a berth in the Big Dance. That’s where the good news ends. In those two years, they got a 15 seed and absorbed 40-point first round loss (first to Oregon State, then Mississippi State). The Trojans running style just does not work with a Power 5 team. They have the speed to close off the passing lanes. But doing this for a third year will be difficult. The Trojans graduate their top four scorers from this season. Mendoza will be back to run the offense, but after her, the leading returning in terms of minutes per game is Kayla Robinson with 14.1. Fils-Aime has to develop in the talent inside that Ramirez was. Simply put, this team will have to get in much better condition for the Trojans to get a third straight berth. Chanda Rigby might have to slow down a little bit until that conditioning comes forth.
2016-17 record: 22-9 (2nd)
Leading returning scorer: Rebekah VanDijk (16.5)
Leading returning rebounder: VanDijk (8.8)
Key loss: Breck Clark
I confess to sampling bias with VanDijk. She doesn’t play well against Georgia State. In her last three games versus the Panthers, she failed to reach double figures, and in her last outing, she only hit one field goal and tallied eight points. Everyone else is a different matter. Her 16.5 points is tops among returning players, and she probably will repeat as Preseason Player of the Year. Where the Mavs are scary good is at the guard. Cierra Johnson won the Defensive Player of the Year, and she joins Christina Devers and Ericka Mattingly to form the best guard component in the league. They are quick and hawk to the ball. They also take pressure off VanDijk so it feels like she does not have to do everything. The entire starting group returns, so it will be absolutely no surprise if the Mavs are picked to win it all next season. It will also be no surprise when they do.
And now, my projected order of finish for next season:
3. Texas State
4. Little Rock
5. Georgia State
7. Arkansas State
8. South Alabama
9. Georgia Southern
10. Appalachian State
11. Coastal Carolina
And, my projected all Preseason Conference team:
I hope someone saves this, just to rub it in my face about how wrong I am.