New members officially join Sun Belt Conference lineup
A- State, UALR now part of 14- team, 2-division SBC
A-State Media Relations JONESBORO — Move-in day has arrived for the Sun Belt Conference’s new institutions.
James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi are officially members of what is now a 14-team Sun Belt.
JMU left the Colonial Athletic Association to join the Sun Belt, while Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi exited Conference USA.
All four announced plans to join the Sun Belt last fall and July 1, 2022, became their official starting date earlier this year.
Southern Miss joins Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State and Troy in the Sun Belt West Division.
James Madison, Marshall and Old Dominion move into the Sun Belt East with Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern and Georgia State.
The move made an immediate impact on Arkansas State’s Sun Belt schedule.
The Red Wolves will play three of the four new members this fall as they host James Madison and travel to Old Dominion and Southern Miss.
Arkansas State head football coach Butch Jones said in the spring that the Sun Belt membership changes will force the school to up its game.
“How are we going to continue to increase our football budget, our overall athletic budget, to be able to compete with teams we’ve added?” Jones said in the spring. “I think that’s the challenge we face, but also it’s an exciting opportunity for us to continue to grow and elevate not just football but every sport here.”
Both ODU and Marshall made bowl appearances last season, the Monarchs losing to Tulsa in the Myrtle Beach Bowl and the Thundering Herd falling to UL Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. JMU was 12-2 last season, losing to North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals, and USM was 3-9.
Arkansas State baseball coach Tommy Raffo said the new additions, particularly USM and ODU, will elevate an already strong league in his sport.
The Sun Belt sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament this year in Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, UL Lafayette and Texas State. USM was the No. 11 national seed, reaching the super regional round before falling to eventual national champion Ole Miss, and ODU was among the first four teams left out of the NCAA field. “Southern Miss should be the top dog in the league,” Raffo said. “They’ve got everybody back from a team that went to a super regional, including their starting rotation and position players. They would be the odds-on favorite, as of today, to win the Sun Belt next year.”
Raffo said ASU’s 2023 schedule will not include Marshall. The Red Wolves will visit USM, he said, while ODU and JMU will come to Tomlinson Stadium.
Nine of the 14 Sun Belt members were in the top 100 in the final NCAA baseball RPI, with Georgia Southern (11), USM (17), Texas State (26), Coastal Carolina (30) and ODU (40) in the top 50.
“We were anywhere from fifth to sixth total RPI out of 30 conferences,” Raffo said. “My expectation with adding Southern Miss and Old Dominion is we should be in the top four conferences in the country, probably kicking out somebody.
Obviously the SEC and ACC will be at the top.
With adding those four teams, I think we have a great chance to be a top four conference in the country.”
James Madison, which was 15-14 last season, was the
Continued on Page 13 SUN BELT CONFERENCE (cont.)
15-14 last season, was the only one of the four to finish above .500 in men’s basketball in 2021-22.
ODU finished 13-19, Marshall 12-21 and USM 7-26.
ASU men’s basketball coach Mike Balado expressed respect for all four head coaches at the new Sun Belt programs.
JMU’s Mark Byington is especially familiar since he spent seven seasons at Georgia Southern before taking over the Dukes, who won the 2021 CAA regular- season title.
“We were able to spend some time with them at the spring meetings. I know them from a distance and I’ve respected what they’ve done for a long time,” Balado said. “Mark Byington was obviously in our league already, so I know Mark really well, and the other three have been coaching for a long time.
Those are four very good programs. I think basketball has gotten that much harder and that much more competitive in the Sun Belt because of those four teams.”
Three of the four new members finished above .500 in women’s basketball earlier this year.
ODU reached the second round of the Women’s NIT before ending the season with a 24-10 record. USM ended the season 18-12, Marshall had a 15-13 record and JMU finished 14-15 in women’s basketball.
Arkansas State coach Destinee Rogers said the new schools will add to Sun Belt women’s basketball.
“They brought in four really good teams, teams that have been really successful. I think it makes it tougher, but I think it also makes it more exciting,” Rogers said. “I don’t think it will be easy for anyone. I think it’s going to be tough night in and night out. All the teams they brought in, they’re tough and they play exciting ball. I think it’s going to be good for the conference.”
The Sun Belt sponsors 18 sports. The league announced in April that men’s soccer will return this fall with nine teams, including 2020 national champion Marshall.
Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington, which were the Sun Belt’s only non-football members, officially join other leagues today. UALR is in the Ohio Valley Conference, while UTA moves into the Western Athletic Conference.
Photo courtesy of SBC Football