I have a secret to share with you: once upon a time, the Sun Belt was a powerhouse basketball conference. It’s true! This is not the FAKE NEWS! I wasn’t around for it, really, but I did a little research and poof, the truth. It’s all there. For example, 1986 was kind of a magic year for the Sun Belt – future members ULM and UALR made the tourney, as did UAB, Western Kentucky and Old Dominion (none of which play for the conference today). Or how about that time the Sun Belt nearly won a national title in 1977? What about that crazy season in 1985 that saw a Sun Belt program earn a #2 seed?
I’m telling you, there was a time the Sun Belt was really, really good at hoops.
So what happened?
I don’t really know and I haven’t the energy to ask. But I have a theory: The Sun Belt joined the Cult of Football, and basketball was sacrificed. Check it out. When the Sun Belt adopted football in 2001, the deep-ish runs into the NCAA Tournament came to an end, with the exception of the 2008 Western Kentucky squad who fell in the Sweet 16 to #1 UCLA. Just look at the conference standings in 1985-86:
- Old Dominion 23-9
- WKU 23-8
- UAB 25-11
- Jacksonville 21-10
- VCU 12-16
- South Alabama 16-16
- South Florida 14-14
- UNC Charlotte 8-20
That’s a stacked conference with FOUR twenty-game winners. And VCU wasn’t even one of them. Twenty years later, the Sun Belt doesn’t look anything like it did (except you South Alabama) and the conference’s basketball star has faded.
Believe it or not, the Sun Belt is making a bit of a comeback.
The Sun Belt will likely never recapture its hardwood glory days. But consecutive years with NCAA Tournament first round wins is encouraging. And that got
us me thinking: what are the best March Madness Teams in Sun Belt History? While digging through the ancient texts, I found some surprising stuff, like how many Sun Belt runs were stopped in overtime. Or how dominating UAB was in the early 1980s. Perhaps 15-seed Troy adds to this glowing legacy on Friday when it takes on Duke?
Ranking these teams is difficult, because I wasn’t paying attention during the conference’s glory years. And I probably missed a few great teams. If you note any absences, you are welcome to note them in silence or write your own column.
First Round Heroes
17) 1985 VCU
How does a team given a 2-seed in the NCAA tourney get ranked so low on a list of Sun Belt teams? By failing to live up to the hype. The Rams took care of business to open the Madness, dispatching 15-seed Marshall. But there would be no glory for the Sun Belt as VCU fell to 7-seed Alabama 63-59 in the next round.
16) 1992 Louisiana
Led by Byron Starks 21 points, the 13-seed Cajuns pulled off the stunning upset by dumping 4-seed Oklahoma in the first round. They would lose to future Sun Belt football member New Mexico State 81-72 in round two.
15) 1986 Western Kentucky
Entered the tournament an 8-seed and defeated 9-seed Nebraska. The Hilltoppers would lose to #1 Kentucky in the next round.
14) 1995 Western Kentucky
Nine years later, the Hilltoppers would find themselves the 8th seed again. This time, they took care of 9-seed Michigan and lost to #1 Kansas in the second round.
13) 2015 Georgia State
Will always be remembered as the the game when a hobbled Ron Hunter fell out of his chair will coaching his son, R.J. and the 14-seed Panthers to a crazy 57-56 victory over 3-seed Baylor. Georgia State would not advance past the second round.
12) 2016 Little Rock
The Trojans hadn’t enjoyed a win in the NCAA Tournament since Mike Newell led them to a win over Notre Dame in 1986. The drought ended when first-year head coach Chris Beard led 12-seed Little Rock to a 85-83 double OT win over 5-seed Purdue.
11) 1987 Western Kentucky
We see a ton of WKU in the 80s and 90s. The 10-seed Hilltoppers dispatched 7-seed West Virginia only to fall 86-104 to 2-seed Syracuse in the 2nd round of action.
10) 1985 UAB
Joining VCU from the Sun Belt in 1985 was UA Birmingham, who won the SBC conference tournament to earn a 7-seed. The Blazers defeated 10-seed Michigan, and then battled 2-seed Memphis to overtime before falling 67-61.
9) 2003 Western Kentucky
Given a 12-seeding, the Hilltoppers rolled 5 seed Illinois before being shown the door in round two.
8) 1986 UAB
What a great year for the Sun Belt! Too bad the SBC didn’t get much farther that round one. The 6-seed Blazers beat 11-seed Missouri, but fell to 3-seed North Caroline 77-59.
7) 1986 Old Dominion
The Monarchs didn’t enter the Big Dance with UAB’s fanfare, but 8-seed Old Dominion did knock off 9-seed Wester Virginia. Number One seed Duke took care of the Monarchs 89-61 in round 2.
6) 1981/1983/1984 VCU
From 1981 to 1985, VCU entered the NCAA tournament and won the opening round 4 times (missing the tournament in 1982). In ’81 and ’83, the Rams enjoyed a 5-seed and delivered wins over the SEC’s Georgia and Tennessee. In 1984, a 6-seed VCU beat Northeastern before falling to Syracuse 78-63.
Sun Belt Dance Kings
5) 1993 Western Kentucky
New Orleans went a blistering 18-0 in the Sun Belt, but the 14-4 Hilltoppers won the conference tournament to earn a trip to March Madness. WKU, led by the 1-2 scoring punch of Darnell Mee (18.9 ppg) and 5’8″ point guard Mark Bell (16.8 ppg), would finish the 1992-93 season ranked #20 by the AP. While the 8-seeded Privateers lost to Xavier in the first round, 7-seed WKU opened the Big Dance with a big win over 10-seed Memphis State 55-52, then bounced 2-seed Seton Hall 72-68 for good measure. The Hilltoppers would fall in dramatic fashion 78-81 in overtime to Florida State. Mee would later be drafted by Golden State in the 2nd round of the 1993 NBA Draft.
4) 2008 Western Kentucky
South Alabama received an at large bid in 2008 (!), but SBC tournament champ Western Kentucky was 16-2 in SBC play and not too shabby. South Bama was awarded a 10-seed but was ingloriously ousted by Butler. The Hilltoppers received a 12-seed from the Selection Committee and leaped into the Sweet 16, first ousting 5-seed Drake in an epic 101-99 bucket orgy, then besting 13-seed San Diego State by a more sedate score of 72-6. The Hilltoppers, led by Courtney Lee (20.4 ppg) finally fell to 1-seed UCLA 78-88, who would lose to Memphis in the Final Four. Lee would be drafted by the Orlando Magic with the 22nd overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
3) 1981 UAB
UAB (23-9,9-3) entered the Sun Belt Tournament a 3-seed, and was defeated by the 1-seed VCU 62-61. But the Blazers, led by Oliver Robinson’s 15 ppg, received an at-large 7-seed opposite 10-seed Western Kentucky, whom UAB pounded 93-68. Beating two Kentuckys is better than beating one, and that’s exactly what the Blazers did next, stunning 2-seed Kentucky 69-62. The run ended with an 87-72 Sweet 16 loss to 3-seed Indiana (led by Bobby Knight), who would go on to defeat North Carolina to win the championship.
2) 1982 UAB
After the magical 1981 run, Sun Belt Player of the Year Oliver Robinson (21.1 ppg) led UAB to the Blazers’ (25-6, 91) best season yet, with a Sun Belt conference championship and a 4-seed (and first round bye) in the NCAA Tournament. The Blazers went to work early, first avenging last year’s Sweet 16 loss by dropping Indiana 80-70. Next, UAB faced 1-seed Virginia, ranked #3 in the nation after going 29-3 (12-2) on the shoulders of 7’4″ center Ralph Sampson. Blazers didn’t care, delivering a stunning 68-66 upset. Though UAB would lose 75-68 to Louisville in the regional final, Robinson was named the Mideast Regional MVP and was later drafted by the San Antonio Spurs.
1) 1977 Charlotte
The last year the NCAA Tournament didn’t have seeds, the 20-7 49ers executed the most storied run in Sun Belt history. The 49ers entered the Tournament 28-5 (5-1) record and were led by a pair of super-scorers in Cedric Maxwell (22.4 ppg, 12 reb) and Lew Massey (19.7 ppg, 6.8 reb). Charlotte rolled Central Michigan 91-86, the bounced Syracuse 81-59. In the Mideast Region Finals the 49ers had little trouble with Michigan, dispatching the Wolverines 75-68. It was only when Charlotte ran into the tournament’s eventual champion, Marquette, when the 49ers finally stumbled, falling to the Golden Eagles 51-49 on a full-court heave and buzzer-beater with only three seconds left on the clock. Only two points separated the Sun Belt from a NCAA Tournament final!
The amazing Cedric Maxwell, who would be drafted by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 1977 NBA draft, was the tournament’s leading scorer with 123 points.
I asked y’all to keep my mistakes and gross omissions to yourself. Glad you didn’t!
1989 South Alabama
The first and only South Alabama NCCA Tourney win is a big one. The Shot That Rolled The Tide is arguably USA’s greatest moments in hoops, when Jeff Hodge tossed up a last second prayer and sunk hated privileged rival Alabama 86-84. The Jags went 11-3 in conference to win he Sun Belt regular season, and then won the conference tournament too, earning South Alabama an 11-seed in the Big Dance – a match-up opposite an in-state team who refused to play them, the Alabama Crimson Tide led by coach Wimp Sanderson and 4 future NBA draft picks. The Jaguars would lose to the tournament’s eventual champion, Michigan, in the next round.