Here Comes the Sun (Belt). Two years in a row now, a lower-seeded team from the Sun Belt Conference has pulled off one of the NCAA tournament’s signature first-round upsets. In 2015, Georgia State that stunned third-seeded Baylor, highlighted by coach Ron Hunter’s memorable stool tumble. This past season, Little Rock, led by Josh Hagins’s 31 points, knocked off fifth-seeded Purdue in a double-overtime thriller.
Can the Sun Belt make it three straight this March? Time will tell, but the most likely candidate to pull of another upset—providing it gets there—seems to be UT Arlington.
The Mavericks had a rough start to this season, dropping three of their first four games, but all three losses were to Top 100 teams on the road, and in the final one—against Arkansas—they blew an 11-point halftime lead. Since then, the Mavericks have reeled off nine wins in a row, including two victories that garnered real attention.
The first came on Nov. 29 in Austin, when UT Arlington took on intra-state foe Texas and left the Frank Erwin Center with a 72–61 win over Shaka Smart’s young squad. The state’s flagship school has struggled through its nonconference slate, but even in a down year for Texas, the win is significant for UT Arlington. It was the first time the Mavericks had toppled the Longhorns in program history.
But it was the second notable win that truly proved the Mavericks are not to be taken lightly—not now, and not down the line in a potential NCAA tournament matchup. On Dec. 8, UT Arlington headed to California for what was already its seventh road game of the season, this time against then-No. 12 Saint Mary’s, and left with a 14-point win—its first ever over a top-25 team.
How did the Mavericks solve the Gaels and limit the country’s No. 9 offense in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com to 51 points? Saint Mary’s, which ranks seventh in the nation in two-point percentage, attempted just 24 shots from inside the arc, converting eight. It fared even worse from the three-point line, hitting only eight of its 27 attempts—a common theme for UT Arlington’s opponents this season. The Mavericks are holding opponents to 27.9% shooting from the perimeter, a mark that’s good for third in the country. They also took away another of the Gaels’ main weapons, limiting a team that averages 18.5 assists per game to 11.
Like most of their games, the Mavericks didn’t need anyone in particular to take over on offense in their wins over Texas and Saint Mary’s. Junior forward Kevin Hervey, who worked his way back from a torn ACL sustained last January, has emerged as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder at 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, including back-to-back double doubles in December. Hervey is UT Arlington’s main contributor, taking nearly 30% of its shots per kenpom.com, but he has help from senior guard Jalen Jones (12.8 ppg, 43.1% three-point shooting) and distributor Erick Neal (9.5 ppg, 7.1 apg). Senior guard Drew Charles also adds 46.0% shooting from the perimeter.
Eleven early candidates for college basketball player of the year
Honorable mention: Markelle Fultz, Washington
From a statistical standpoint, Markelle Fultz has better numbers than everyone on this list. Fultz is averaging 22.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game. The issue is Washington has underachieved and is 7–5 entering Pac-12 play. So basically, Fultz doesn't have a chance at winning this award. But since Fultz could very well be a top pick in June's NBA draft, his play should be noted. He's performing at a high level and has scored 20 or more in eight games this season. In high school, he was thought of as an average shooter. Now it's a strength, as he's averaging 46.8% from three-point range. — Evan Daniels
10. TJ Leaf, UCLA
Lonzo Ball seems to be getting most of the attention at UCLA, but TJ Leaf has been terrific as well. The freshman has had a seamless transition to college and has been as efficient on the offensive end as any player on this list. Leaf has hit 65.5% of his field goal attempts so far this season. He's been the difference maker in some of UCLA's biggest wins, including at then-No. 1 Kentucky. Leaf leads the Bruins in scoring with 17.5 points a game, but is also reeling in 9.2 rebounds and tossing out 2.8 assists a game. — E.D.
9. Joel Berry, UNC
This was a tough call, as you could easily have North Carolina wing Justin Jackson on this list, especially after his 34-point outburst against Kentucky. But thus far, Berry has been UNC's MVP, so we'll go with him for now. Berry is averaging 15.2 points, 4.7 assists and 3.9 rebounds through 13 games. Berry has been efficient and his percentages are up across the board from last season, including from three, where he's shooting 43.6% on 55 attempts. — E.D.
No. 8 Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
The Oklahoma State point guard is carrying coach Brad Underwood's team. Jawun Evans has taken a huge leap forward this season and raised his scoring average from 12.9 last season to 20.2 through 12 games. He's had four 25-plus point games and is averaging 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds. The only gripe about his game would be his 2.5 turnovers a game, but he's asked to do so much for Oklahoma State that it's hard to knock him. Evans has tremendous speed and is tough for opposing defenders to keep in front. Plus he's even shooting the ball well from deep (56.0% from three). — E.D.
No. 7 Amile Jefferson
Amile Jefferson has been active, consistent and efficient for the Blue Devils through the first third of the season. Jefferson is averaging 14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds a game, while shooting 64.8% from the field. With Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles now available, Jefferson's production may drop some, but he's been Duke's best rebounder and its vocal leader. — E.D.
No. 6 De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
John Calipari has had a long list of gifted point guards, from Tyreke Evans to John Wall to Brandon Knight. De'Aaron Fox was expected to be next on his list, and he is living up to expectations, averaging 16.3 points, 6.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds. His end-to-end speed and burst in the open court is beyond impressive. He's been difficult for the opposition to stop in transition and he lives in the paint. The lone bad spot in his game so far has been his outside shooting. Regardless, Fox is a big reason the Wildcats are 10–2. — E.D.
No. 5 Malik Monk, Kentucky
Malik Monk's 47-point outburst against North Carolina was borderline ridiculous and is clearly the best individual performance of the young season. Monk is an electric athlete, but it's been his balanced scoring attack that has been so impressive during his freshman campaign. Monk is averaging 21.4 points and shooting 39.4% from three through 11 games. — E.D.
No. 4 Lonzo Ball, UCLA
In high school, Lonzo Ball flashed keen vision and the type of passing that drew comparisons to Jason Kidd. Ball's transition to college has been flawless, and his unselfish nature and ability to facilitate is a major reason UCLA is undefeated. Through 12 games, Ball is 29-for-67 from three (43.3%) and is averaging 13.7 points, 8.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds a game. — E.D.
No. 3 Luke Kennard, Duke
At the beginning of the season, I don't think anyone expected Luke Kennard to be on this type of list. But Kennard has taken advantage of a big increase in minutes. Kennard has gone for 20 or more seven times on the season and is averaging 20.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game. Most thought Grayson Allen would be the best non-freshman on the Blue Devils' roster, but so far it's been Kennard. — E.D.
No. 2 Frank Mason, Kansas
The truth is, it's splitting hairs for the top spot and you couldn't certainly make a case for Frank Mason to be at No. 1. Mason's stats are as good as anyone's in the country, as he's averaging 19.7 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game. Mason is as tough as it comes and his tenacity on the defensive end sets the tone for Kansas. Kansas is 11–1 on the season. In the loss, Mason nearly orchestrated a late comeback against Indiana on his way to a 30-point, nine-assist and seven-rebound outing. He's also the primary reason the Jayhawks handed Duke its only loss of the season, as he hit a game-winner from the elbow at the Garden. — E.D.
No. 1 Josh Hart, Villanova
Not only is Josh Hart the best player on the nation's top-ranked team, he also had one of the best performances of the season when he went for 37 points on 14 shots in a win over Notre Dame. Hart has been sensational throughout the young season, but in his last three games is averaging a blistering 27.7 points. He's been efficient too, shooting 56.0% from the field and 43.3% from three on 58 attempts. And we haven't even gotten to his rebounding (6.6 rebounds) and passing (3.7 assists) yet. Hart impacts the game in so many ways, and that's the reason he's No. 1 right now. — E.D.
The Mavericks are one of the most experienced teams in the nation, with an entire starting lineup of juniors and seniors, but one area they struggle mightily is turnovers. They’re coughing the ball up on an alarmingly high 22.5% of their possessions, ranking second-to-last in the conference and among the worst in Division I. If not improved, that flaw could trip them up against conference foes like Louisiana Lafayette, Georgia State and Georgia Southern, who are all among the nation’s top 50 in defensive steal percentage.
Alas, perhaps the most important thing to take away from UT Arlington so far this season is that it appears to have learned how to close out tough games on the road. The Mavericks have led at halftime in all 13 of their games this season, but their three early losses all stemmed from losing their grip in the second half. Head coach Scott Cross’s willingness to schedule so many road games appears to have only benefitted his team, which enters Sun Belt play having played a top-30 nonconference schedule, including nine of its 13 games in true road environments.
Game of the Week: UNC Wilmington at Towson, Saturday at noon
The Seahawks and Tigers, picked to finish first and second in the CAA, respectively, open up conference play with a clash at SECU Arena on New Year’s Eve. It may be early, but for Towson to have a shot at upsetting UNCW for the CAA regular-season title, this home tilt could be crucial. The matchup will feature some excellent backcourt talent between the Seahawks’ duo of Chris Flemmings and C.J. Bryce (who combine for nearly 36 points per game) and Tigers junior Mike Morsell (17.6 ppg).
Player to Watch: Marcus Keene, Central Michigan junior guard
How could it be anyone other than Keene, who is putting on a show night in and night out for the Chippewas and scoring more than five points per game more than anyone else in the country? A former Youngstown State transfer, Keene is averaging 31.9 points through 12 games, and he’s doing it via 50.8% shooting from the floor and a 42.3% clip from behind the arc. He’s scored at least 30 points nine times already, including hitting the 40-point mark in two of his last three games. His lowest output in a game this season was 23 points.
Keene isn’t simply a scoring machine, either. In a Dec. 6 win over Green Bay, he poured in 40 points and made six of 12 three-pointer attempts, while also dishing out 11 assists and grabbing seven rebounds. On the season, Keene is adding 5.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game to go along his ridiculous scoring stats. But despite all that, the 5' 9" guard may be most recognized right now for the swagger he exhibited on this three-pointer late during that Green Bay win, which went viral:
College basketball hasn’t seen a player average 30 points per game over a whole season since LIU’s Charles Jones in 1996–97, so Keene’s chase at history is definitely something you’ll want to follow as conference play kicks off.
Stat of the Week: Two
The six remaining undefeated teams in college hoops deservedly get plenty of mention, but believe it or not, two Division I teams are still searching for their first win of the season: Mississippi Valley State and Alabama A&M, both of the SWAC. That last bit is important, since the two schools will meet for the first of two times on Jan. 7, and if both enter that day still winless, it would guarantee someone’s going to leave with their first W. The Delta Devils probably have the edge there, since it’s a home game and Mississippi Valley State has played the fifth-hardest schedule in the country, according to kenpom.com, providing a bit of an explanation for its zero in the win column.