March is (almost) here! Tournament season gets going on Tuesday with the Sun Belt conference, with the first round taking place on the final day of February.
The Sun Belt lost some of its presence in the state of Texas this year with UT Arlington—last year's conference tournament champs—now in the WAC, but the conference still has one team in the Lone Star State: Texas State, which enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed.
Can the Bobcats make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003? Let's take a look at what this tournament might bring.
What Texas State did this season
Coach Z has been building something in San Marcos, and the next week could be the culmination of that process for the 2022-23 Sun Belt Coach of the Year.
Kennedy Taylor is in her fifth season with the Bobcats. So is Da'Nasia Hood. Those two players have been the heart of this Bobcats team for years now, and this is their chance to get Texas State onto the biggest stage in college basketball.
This year's Bobcats team has won its most games since the 2017-18 season when the duo of Toshua Leavitt and Taeler Deer helped the team win 23 games. That team had the 18th-best net rating in the country, but once Deer graduated after that season, the team had to hit the reset button, and the Bobcats had to start over. They were 219th in net rating that next season. This season, they're back in the top 100 in that stat, sitting 97th right now.
Texas State's been a well-rounded team this season. If we look exclusively at conference games, we see the Bobcats have the second-best net rating in the conference at +9.6, just below Troy's +10.3. The team was fifth in the conference in offensive rating and third in defensive rating. That balanced play helped the team go 13-5 in conference play, tying it for the Sun Belt's best conference record with James Madison and Southern Miss.
Hood and Taylor get a lot of the attention when people talk about Texas State, and that's fair, since they're the team's best players. Hood missed six games this season, but led the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game, and the Bobcats had a +10.6 net rating with Hood on the floor per CBB Analytics, vs a -0.2 net rating when she sits.
Meanwhile, Kennedy Taylor was even more impactful from an on/off perspective, as the Bobcats were 18.4 points per 100 possessions better with Taylor on the floor. Makes sense, because she's one of the most underrated players in the country. Taylor's a magician with the ball in her hands—she averaged 5.8 assists per game this season, and was in the 95th percentile in assist/turnover ratio.
But it takes more than two players to be good. That's where Ja'Kayla Bowie comes in. The Bobcats were 14.8 points per 100 possessions better with Bowie on the floor, and in the 489 minutes that these three players played together, the team had a net rating of +15.3. Bowie averaged 9.0 points per game against Division I opponents this season, shooting 49.7 percent from the floor. She shot 72.7 percent at the rim, which ranked in the 93rd percentile.
The other top teams in the Sun Belt
The Sun Belt tournament setup makes it so the top four seeds get an automatic spot in the quarterfinals. Having that easier path means we can talk about these four teams as the favorites. Let's take a quick look at the teams by seed.
James Madison (1)
Despite being the top seed, JMU is fourth in net rating in conference games. The Dukes are a good rebounding team and have some strong rim defense—the team allows teams to shoot 51.9 percent at the rim, which ranks in the 87th percentile nationally.
Southern Miss (3)
Southern Miss is third in net rating in conference games. The team hasn't been as good offensively as the other top four teams, but they make up for it by being second in the conference in defensive rating, allowing 85.8 points per 100 possessions against Sun Belt foes. The team's also build some late momentum, winning five in a row to end the regular season, including a win over Troy.
Usually, we're talking about Troy as the favorites in the Sun Belt. The last three seasons before this one, the Trojans have a combined seven conference losses; this season, they've got six losses. The offense played as well as ever—they were top 10 in scoring for the fifth season in a row—but the defense really fell off. The team had four seasons in a row finishing in the top 100 in defensive rating, but this season they were 220th. The offense can get Troy wins, but can the defense slow down the rest of the Sun Belt and get Troy back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons?
Other teams to keep an eye on
The top four teams getting byes to the quarterfinals put those teams in the best position to win the conference, but there's some other good teams here. Old Dominion and Georgia Southern both went 12-6 in conference play and have byes to the second round. ODU faces the winner of Georgia State/South Alabama, and Georgia Southern faces the winner of Arkansas State/ULM. Upsets can happen, but those two teams should be viewed as favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, where Old Dominion would face Troy and Georgia Southern would face Southern Miss.
Georgia Southern is a lot like Troy in that they've been good on offense and have struggled some on defense. The Eagles are second in conference games in offensive rating, but have the fourth-worst defensive rating.
Old Dominion is the opposite: defense has been the team's forte this season. They're fourth in Sun Belt games in defensive rating, and while they're sixth in offensive rating, the five teams ahead of them are pretty firmly ahead.
We could see a team like Louisiana or Marshall make a run, but they'll have tougher second-round games, and would face the top seeds in the quarterfinals.