With the 20-game schedule Sun Belt Conference teams are playing this season, there’s still much to be decided toward seeding in next month’s postseason tournament in Hot Springs.
UALR (14-9, 8-4) sits in a good position as it hosts South Alabama (11-9, 8-4) at 7 p.m. tonight at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. But tonight’s game looks like it could say a lot about who is seeded where when the Sun Belt Tournament begins.
UALR and South Alabama are tied for second in the overall standings at 8-4. For the tournament, the East and West Division champions will be seeded 1 and 2. Middle Tennessee currently holds a three game lead over South Alabama for first place in the East. UALR holds a one-game lead over Arkansas State for first place in the West.
The winner of tonight’s game will have the inside track at the No. 3 seed should UALR fail to win the Division championship. If South Alabama wins tonight, the Jaguars will have swept the season series with UALR and would win a tiebreaker vs. the Trojans. If UALR wins, it would even the season series and tiebreakers would begin to kick in.
Why does it matter if you get a No. 3 seed instead of the 4 or 5 (the top five get byes)? Because teams 4 and 5 will be paired together in the second round on the same side of the bracket as Middle Tennessee. There’s no guarantee once you get to postseason, but Middle Tennessee is having one of the best regular seasons in the Sun Belt in several years.
UALR also can't afford a loss tonight with Arkansas State likely to pick up a home victory against North Texas.
South Alabama still has road games at Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and rival Troy after tonight. UALR’s remaining road games are against Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State, Florida International and Florida Atlantic.
BURN BABY BURN
UALR and South Alabama appear to be a lot different than the teams that met Dec. 22 in Mobile, Ala. South Alabama won that game 77-62, using a 14-0 first-half run to take command in the first half. UALR got as close as three points in the second half before another USA run put the game out of reach.
UALR was led by John Gillon’s 14 points while Will Neighbour had 11 points and 9 rebounds. Interesting to note that Josh Hagins only played eight minutes that game. It was the Trojans’ next game when Hagins really began to assert himself. UALR actually outrebounded USA 42-30 in that game and had 19 offensive rebounds to the Jaguars’ 11.
South Alabama’s leading scorer that day was Augustine Rubit with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Barrington Stevens made 3 of 4 three-pointers and added 17 points. Two solid contributors that day are no longer available. Xavier Roberson had 13 points and made three 3-pointers. He was dismissed from the team before their next game. And Freddie Goldstein, who had 6 points, 4 assists and 2 steals, is out with an injury.
South Alabama’s Augustine Rubit is in that Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year conversation. He averages more than 19 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game. He had 18 points and 9 rebounds on Thursday vs. Arkansas State. Rubit is tough and you can’t really just put him at the line. He’s shooting 79 percent from the free throw line and made 12 of 12 vs. ASU. UALR has to get a body on Rubit and keep him off the glass.
BTH KEYS TO VICTORY
Freedom: UALR needs to win the free throw battle by making adjustments to how the game is being called. It doesn’t matter if UALR shoots 10 or 30 free throws. But they have to get to the line more than South Alabama does. UALR is 10-1 this season when outscoring its opponent at the free throw line.
Turning point: South Alabama wants to press off of all deadballs and makes. UALR struggled with pressure like this early in the season (including the USA game). The Trojans have been better of late and need to handle it today. UALR is 0-6 when it commits more turnovers than its opponents.
Better start: UALR has fallen behind several times in the first half this season. That includes the last home game when the Trojans trailed by 22. UALR needs to get off to a better start today. South Alabama is 11-0 this season when leading at the half and 0-9 when trailing at the half.
UALR is a five-point favorite.
Waiting on The Sports Network for their prediction. So far everyone's gone with UALR in a close one:
OmniRankings (11-3): UALR 69, South Alabama 64
OmniRankings (11-3): UALR 69, South Alabama 64
RealTime RPI (17-5): UALR 72, South Alabama 66
Jeff Sagarin (15-6): UALR 74, South Alabama 71
The Sports Network (15-6): UALR 67, South Alabama 65
CBS Sportsline (14-8): UALR 68, South Alabama 63
BTH Average (14-7): UALR 70.0, South Alabama 65.8