Last year, I took a stab at predicting the 2017-18 Sun Belt women’s basketball season. Before I try again, first I’ll see how I fared.
Right: Appalachian State lost one conference game from the previous year. (But I missed the reason why.)
Georgia Southern dropped further than I figured, from nine conference wins to three. The Eagles cratered, going from sixth to eleventh. But I nailed the explanation.
UL-Monroe was once again the cellar dweller.
I also hit on four of the five preseason All-Conference First team. I missed Cierra Johnson as I forgot to account for two members of the same team getting on.
As to what I got wrong, well, pretty much everything else.
In my defense, injuries hit several teams extremely hard. It’s almost impossible to forecast. So, keeping that in mind, I’ll make another effort, and hopefully do a better job. I’m listing who’s staying, who’s going, and what I believe each will need next season. Keep in mind this does not account for transfers, freshmen, new coaches, injuries, or suspensions. Without further ado…
Appalachian State Mountaineers:
2017-18 Record: 8-23 (9th in Sun Belt)
Leading Returning Scorer: Pre Stanley (13.4)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Bayley Plummer (11.4)
Key Losses: None.
The Mountaineers got bit by the injury bug bad. Madi Story, a preseason First-Team All-Conference choice, tore an ACL in the exhibition game and was out for the year. That forced coach Angel Elderkin into scramble mode, and, strangely enough, could be the best thing that happened to her. It forced a trio of young players (Stanley, Plummer, and freshman Tierra Wilson) to grow on the fly and they did. Rising junior Plummer led the Sun Belt in rebounding and was the only player to average more than 10. Story will be back for her last season, so the Mountaineers have a lot of scoring options. The one hole is another forward option to relieve Plummer. Wilson was second on the team in points, with 10.5. She and Stanley will make people pay for focusing on Story. I have no qualms about saying that Appalachian State will be the sleeper next season.
Arkansas State Red Wolves:
2017-18 Record: 15-15 (8th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Akasha Westbrook (13.4)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Westbrook (5.4)
Key Loss: Lauren Bradshaw.
One of my top lines over the year concerned Arkansas State when I remarked that they were consistently inconsistent. The team alternated wins and losses. Their longest winning streak was two (done twice), and the longest losing streak was also 2 (done once). Before the conference tourney, Westbrook went down with a foot injury, and they were outrebounded out of Lakefront Coliseum, losing to Appalachian State, 79-68. They went 0-3 against the Mountaineers but were the only Sun Belt team defeat an SEC school (an 70-69 win at Florida as the league went 1-16). Jada Ford didn’t develop into an all-around player like I figured, as the Wolves struggled to find a distributing point guard. Starr Taylor only had 62 assists, as the Red Wolves were last in that category. Bradshaw will leave a void in the middle, but the Wolves should be okay if Westbrook can recover from her broken foot. Expect Payton Tennison to take over the point, but it she falters, Brian Boyer might not have any choice to but to search for an incoming freshman.
Up/Down: Down (slightly).
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers:
2017-18 Record: 17-14 (7th)
Leading Returning Scorer: DJ Williams (14.5)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Naheria Hamilton (8)
Key Loss: Jas Adams.
Coastal had ten conference wins last season, and they seem to have all the pieces together to take the next step forward, except one, Adams. She led the league in scoring with 18.8, but Williams is no slouch. She was second in assists (146), and Hamilton is the leading returner in blocked shots. Look for coach Jaida Williams to emphasize DJ (no relation) in the offense and use Breelyn Blanding more as a facilitator. In Alise Davis and Janae Camp, the Chants have other options in the frontcourt, and they will need both to help the rebounding. Coastal also must develop Kaylin West more so she can spell Williams and Blanding and keep them fresh in the fourth quarter. The Chants finished seventh even with Jas Adams, so that might need some time to find their rhythm. But with the growth of other squads, they might not get that chance.
Up/Down: Down (slightly).
Georgia Southern Eagles:
2017-18 Record: 5-24 (11th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Alexis Brown (9)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Hailey Dias-Allen (3.8)
Key Losses: Sierra Butler, Alexis Foulks
The Eagles were the proverbial Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, finishing with a field goal percentage of 33.2%. To put that number in perspective, out of 349 Division I teams, Georgia Southern ranked 347th. Only Incarnate Word and Savannah State were worse. The Eagles were one of two teams in the league (along with Louisiana) to not have a double-digit scorer. Making things worse, they were outrebounded by nearly nine a game. Putting those together means it was a long season in Statesboro, and it might not get any better soon. Amira Atwater is a good guard, but somebody must emerge as a go-to inside threat and be able to get to the loose ball if the shots miss. Sierra Butler was expected to be that option but was suspended for a few games before leaving the team in mid-January. Brown is Southern men’s team All-Conference Player Tookie Brown’s sister. If Tookie leaves Statesboro for the NBA, it will interesting if Alexis goes as well. Either way, someone must come forward. If nobody does, it’s another long season.
Georgia State Panthers:
2017-18 Record: 8-22 (10th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Kierra Henry (14.2)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Shay Fluker (5.3)
Key Loss: None.
I wrote a detailed wrap up of Georgia State’s season a few weeks ago. The Panthers were decimated by injuries, as Freshman of the Year Jada Lewis was forced her to take a medical redshirt (foot). Fluker also lost considerable time with a stress fracture. The carnage forced Georgia State to make a coaching change as Sharon Baldwin is out after eight seasons. The good news is the Panthers don’t lose anyone (Appalachian State also claims that). The big problem is rebounding. It was spotty and must be consistent if Georgia State wants to advance past the first round of the tourney. Madison Newby looks to be assured at the point, and if Lewis and the other sharpshooters can scorch the nets, the Panthers should be able to take that step. But to do it, Lewis must be the catalyst.
Little Rock Trojans:
2017-18 Record: 23-10 (1st)
Leading Returning Scorer: Ronjanae DeGray (13.8)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Ronjanae DeGray (5.6)
Key Losses: Keanna Keys, Monique Townson.
Texas-Arlington’s stumble opened the door for Little Rock. They went 17-1 in conference, took the tourney’s top seed, and made the NCAA’s. Little Rock picked up a 14 seed and lost to Florida State in the first round. The Trojans don’t do one thing spectacularly well, but they do the little things just well enough to win. They only averaged under 60 points but gave up under 54. Their defense throttled opponents. Teams shot 38% against them. Keys is a veteran presence and will be missed, but the team will really feel Townson’s absence. She ran the offense like a well-oiled machine and had almost 60 steals. Without her, the Trojans won’t be as defensive minded. DeGray is a quiet superstar, but opponents will focus on her. I think Little Rock will lose more than one conference game, but I’m not sure another can catch them. I’ve got them penciled in to repeat.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns:
2017-18 Record: 17-16 (6th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Skyler Goodwin (9.6)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Kimberly Burton (4.7)
Key Losses: Simone Fields, Troi Swain, Nekia Jones.
The only other team (with Georgia Southern) not to have a double-digit scorer, but the Cajuns employ a physical defensive style that wore down the opposition. But the Cajuns lose some valuable elements. Swain and Fields were mainstay guards and Jones provided that needed spark off the bench. All three averaged more than twenty minutes. Goodwin proved to be a revelation. Jasmine Thomas took over for Swain at the point. She led Louisiana with assists. But Goodwin can’t do it alone. Burton will see her role expand, and the question is if Ty’Reonne Doucet can step in Jones’ shoes. The Cajuns were outscored by an average of two points per game and outrebounded by almost the same margin. With all their talent, they almost seem to be running in place. Another season like this may be in the offing.
2017-18 Record: 4-26 (12th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Arsula Clark (10.6)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Clark (5.9)
Key Loss: Gabriella Cortez.
The Warhawks hit a new level of futility, only winning one conference game (an early win at home versus Coastal Carolina). ULM didn’t have one win on the road. Not only that, they haven’t won away from Fant-Ewing since December 2016. Alexis Collins did not return, so coach Jeff Dow had to bring in a new point guard in freshman Clark. She had to learn as things progressed and led in assists with 82. But replacing Cortez’s 15.7 points will be difficult. Someone must come through. Jessica Harris averaged under eight, so they must develop a chemistry to flourish. It’s never a good sign when your point is also your leading rebounder. That’s the Warhawks’ situation. They’ve got some candidates with Tan Walker, Destini Lunsford, and Carissa Moody. They are role players who must come to the forefront. The future in Monroe doesn’t look like it will clear up anytime soon.
South Alabama Jaguars:
2017-18 Record: 21-13 (5th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Savannah Jones (12.1)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Antoinette Lewis (6.1)
Key Losses: Chyna Ellis, Genesis Perrymond, Erin Autio.
Out of the three teams to garner postseason invites, the Jaguars advanced the furthest. They lost a semifinal game to Yale (in overtime) in the WBI. It was a fitting send off for Ellis, who exits the stage as the Sun Belt’s all-time leader in blocked shots (338). Normally losing your leading scorer, rebounder, (Ellis), and facilitator (Perrymond) from last season would be the kiss of death but give coach Terry Fowler some credit. He spent considerable time grooming replacements. Both Shaforia Kines and Perrymond tallied over 100 assists (the only teammates to do so). Lewis proved she could bang the boards, and Jones was named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. Don’t forget they gained considerable experience with that deep playoff run. Now the forwards may not be the shot blockers like Ellis (not many are), but they could do quite nicely with 60 blocks instead of 100. Look for the Jaguars to get a first-round bye and maybe give Little Rock a title run.
2017-18 Record: 19-12 (3rd)
Leading Returning Scorer: Laurynn McGowan (7.5)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Dianne Machado (4.2)
Key Losses: Rebekah VanDijk, Crystal Allen, Shelby Richards.
The Mavericks were the third team to have a promising season derailed by injuries. In their case, first team preseason All Sun Belt and probably the league’s best defender Cierra Johnson tore in ACL in the third game. Her void caused UTA to stumble through the early part of the conference slate. The team found their stride, and managed a third-place showing, but Johnson was missed. VanDijk’s scoring dipped as UTA only averaged about 62 points. Johnson did take a medical redshirt and will be back in November, but she won’t have the same offensive firepower. The top three scorers are gone, and the middle will be manned by Machado and Jennifer Parker, who also had injury problems. McGowan’s numbers should go up (as should Aysia Evans) and the defense should be better, but the Mavs might have to win slugfests of 59-55 instead of 63-60.
Texas State Bobcats:
2017-18 Record: 23-10 (2nd)
Leading Returning Scorer: Toshua Leavitt (17.9)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Brooke Hollie (5.7)
Key Losses: Taeler Deer, Ti’Aria Pitts, Ericka May.
The Bobcats lost in the tourney final and they did get a WNIT berth. That didn’t last long and were defeated by Rice in the first round. But don’t blame Leavitt. She was a three-point machine, as an astounding 78% of her field goal attempts came from beyond the arc (actual stat). She chased the record for most three-pointers in a season, and she pushed the bounds of good sportsmanship. If TSU was in a rout, she would still run the outlet late in the game, bypass a layup, go to her favorite spot on the court, and swish a three. She did break the record, but her total of 137 was bypassed by Jessica Kovatch of St. Francis (PA), who hit 141. (Leavitt could have had it, but she was suspended for two games. Yes, the Violation of Team Rules struck again.) She’ll need a new point guard if she wants to try again. Deer, the 2018 Player of the Year, graduated, along with her 213 assists. May and Pitts were fierce down low, but they are gone too, leaving Hollie the lone rebounding threat. Texas State will need Leavitt to contribute in other ways, not just from three. How well she responds will dictate their season.
2017-18 Record: 18-13 (4th)
Leading Returning Scorer: Amber Rivers (13.9)
Leading Returning Rebounder: Sky’Lynn Holmes (8.4)
Key Losses: Amanda Mendoza, Chelsey Gibson.
Mendoza doesn’t really count as a loss, as she was bounced from the team halfway through the season due to the catchall Violation of Team Rules. That thrust Kayla Robinson into point guard duties. All she did was become Sun Belt Player of the Week three straight times (a league record) from late January to mid-February. The Trojans are essentially a one-trick pony, but what a trick it is. They like to run and wear down a team with that breakneck tempo. The mantra is to get a shot in the first eight seconds as Troy always looks to bust out of the backcourt. Robinson knows her duties, so coach Chanda Rigby isn’t breaking in someone new. Rivers will be a junior next season. Everyone is plugged into the scheme. Holmes stepped in for Caitlin Ramirez in the middle and held her own. Next season should be more of the same.
And my predicted order for 2018-19:
1. Little Rock
2. South Alabama
5. Appalachian State
6. Texas State
7. Georgia State
9. Coastal Carolina
10. Arkansas State
11. Georgia Southern
Lastly, my predicted 2018-19 Sun Belt First Team All-Conference:
Toshua Leavitt, Texas State
Madi Story, Appalachian State
Cierra Johnson, Texas-Arlington
Amber Rivers, Troy
Savannah, Jones, South Alabama
If you take one thing from this article, let it be this: I will be completely wrong.