Conference games begin shortly after New Year’s Day for the Sun Belt Conference, which holds a 53-57 record against its non-conference opponents. The 2013-14 season was supposed to be one where the Sun Belt took the next step toward being a competitive conference. Georgia State, South Alabama, UL-Lafayette and WKU got some early preseason love from NCAA basketball analysts.
So far no team has stood out. It seems that just about any Sun Belt team could beat any other conference opponent on any given day.
One of those teams is Arkansas State, which currently boasts a 6-4 record as it enters its final non-conference game on Monday against underdog Southern Arkansas. The Red Wolves have been helped by a strength of schedule that currently ranks 242nd in the nation. Despite the somewhat easy schedule, the Red Wolves still have the fourth best RPI in the Sun Belt at No. 140.
Can Arkansas State emerge as a dark-horse threat within the Sun Belt? Yes, and here are three reasons why:
Arkansas State averages 76.6 points per game, which is fourth among Sun Belt teams. The Red Wolves have done a very nice job early on this season shooting from behind the arc. They score 26.4 points per game from beyond the three-point line and rank 19th in the nation in three-point field goals per game.
Senior guard Melvin Johnson III deserves most of the credit for the success. He has converted 32 of his 54 three-point attempts, which is good for 59.3 percent on the season. Johnson also ranks second on the team with 16.1 points per game.
No Foul Play
Nothing drives a coach crazy like seeing his team get into foul trouble. Coach John Brady’s team has kept him a sane man throughout the team’s first 10 contests. The Red Wolves average 17.2 fouls per game, which is ranked 40th in the nation.
Keeping opponents away from the free-throw line is a great recipe for limiting scoring opportunities. The Red Wolves have done this, and are rewarded with a better than .500 record approaching conference play.
It’s Their Ball
The Red Wolves enjoy another top 100 ranking when you look at their possessions per 40 minutes, which is 56th in the nation. The more possessions a team has, the more opportunities it has to score. With Arkansas State featuring big scorers like Johnson and fellow senior Kirk Van Slyke, it’s good to get the ball in their hands often, as they both average more than 16 points per game.
With the Sun Belt struggling as mightily as it has this year, the Red Wolves do enough right that they can emerge as a legitimate threat to win the conference tournament and enter the big dance as the Sun Belt representative in March.
Arkansas State was a team that many had written off, but it may be time to rethink that assessment.