Few college basketball teams in a season have a true program-defining year, with unprecedented success that resets the bar for what they’re capable of accomplishing. What Stephen F. Austin did this year out of the Southland Conference, though, most certainly qualifies.
The Lumberjacks had a truly special season, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the Southland since Louisiana Tech was a member and none other than Karl Malone was leading the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 in 1985. Stephen F. Austin went 32-3, including a 29-game winning streak and a perfect 18-0 run through the SLC. Topping it off was a memorable NCAA Tournament win over VCU before the run finally ended in the Round of 32 against hot-shooting UCLA.
In terms of the biggest surprise smashing successes this season, SFA ranked behind perhaps only Wichita State, and even then only because of how rare an undefeated regular season is. The Lumberjacks were less likely than the Shockers to be as good as they were, though, given the team had a new coach (Brad Underwood) and lost three starters from last year, one of them the Southland Player of the Year.
Somehow, Stephen F. Austin came back even better, with yet another player of the year (Jacob Parker) and Underwood taking the success of excellent former coach Danny Kaspar to another level. The Lumberjacks generally spanked their Southland opponents, winning by an average of nearly 14 points in league play, including just four wins by less than 10 points. Their dominance was a big reason SFA received a workable 12 seed in the NCAA tourney, even while playing a schedule that did not grade well in large part due to the Southland’s No. 27 RPI ranking of 32 conferences.
Stephen F. Austin’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win was easily the season highlight for the Southland, a league that lurks off the radar as much as any Division I hoops conference. Like the SEC, football is unapologetically its flagship sport. The league also doesn’t have a national TV contract for basketball, but also doesn’t quite spend as much time as some other low-profile leagues hitting the road in November and December to take beatings in guarantee games, the scores of which end up on ESPN’s ticker. SLC teams are more likely to play non-Division I schools at home (41 of the league’s 73 non-conference wins came against such teams), which is great for win-loss records, not so much for power ratings.
The top four of the Southland wasn’t bad-Sam Houston State and Northwestern State were tough as usual and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was a nice surprise-while the rest of the league has catchup to do. The Southland did find some intriguing prospects for the future in its three new members. Incarnate Word was very competitive in its first season in the league, Abilene Christian was a solid all-around Division II program for years, and New Orleans is trying to rebuild its once-proud athletics program after ditching a move to Division III.
|Stephen F. Austin||18-0||32-3|
|Texas A&M-Corpus Christi||14-4||18-16|
|Sam Houston State||13-5||24-11|
Another of those tournaments that brackets an extra round to wear out lower seeds, the Southland tourney in Katy, Texas, went almost according to script, with higher seeds winning six of seven games.
The tourney opened with No. 5 seed Nicholls State over No. 8 SE Louisiana 71-64 and No. 6 Oral Roberts edging No. 7 McNeese State 66-62. The Colonels and Golden Eagles were then dismissed in the next round, with No. 4 Northwestern State running past Nicholls State 88-72 and No. 3 Sam Houston State topping ORU 70-61.
That set up a pair of excellent semifinal games. Northwestern State rallied from a 16-point second half deficit to take the lead from top seed Stephen F. Austin, but the Lumberjacks finished on a 14-4 run to hold on for an 85-78 win. The second game was controlled by Sam Houston State, which led almost the entire way and overcame just four second half field goals by going 21-for-29 from the line in the half for a 69-63 win over No. 2 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Sam Houston then gave SFA a run for a while in the championship game, trailing by just three early in the second half. The Lumberjacks took over in the final 20 minutes, though, holding the Bearkats to nine points over a span of over 15 minutes for a convincing 68-49 win.
Player of the Year: Jacob Parker, F, Jr., Stephen F. Austin
Newcomer of the Year: Jabari Peters, G, Jr., Sam Houston State
Freshman of the Year: Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State
Defensive Player of the Year: Jalan West, G, So., Northwestern State
Coach of the Year: Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
Shawn Glover, G/F, Sr., Oral Roberts
John Jordan, G, Jr., Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
LaQuentin Miles, G, Sr., Central Arkansas
Jacob Parker, F, Jr., Stephen F. Austin
Jalan West, G, So., Northwestern State
- Stephen F. Austin finished 32-3 overall and 18-0 in Southland play, the first SLC team to go undefeated in conference play in 40 years.
- The Lumberjacks also scored the Southland’s first NCAA Tournament main draw win since Northwestern State knocked off Iowa in 2006.
- Sam Houston State won a game in the College Insider Tournament, defeating Alabama State 71-49 before falling to San Diego 77-72.
- Texas A&M-Corpus Christi won 18 games, 12 more than the season before, and leaped from ninth to second in the SLC.
- In its first year transitioning to Division I, Incarnate Word was an impressive 9-5 against a partial SLC schedule. The Cardinals finished 21-6 overall, though all 12 of their non-conference wins were over non-Division I schools.
What we expected, and it happened: Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State and Northwestern State continued to be the Southland’s steadiest programs. SFA and Sam Houston have both sustained and built on success by former coaches, while Mike McConathy’s Demons have been pests for years with their frenetic pace and endless depth.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Oral Roberts never quite got it going in the Southland. The Golden Eagles were perennial frontrunners in the Summit and were expected to be here too, but never duplicated that form. ORU is headed back to the Summit this summer.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Stephen F. Austin’s banner year, obviously, but just as big of a surprise was Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. In Willis Wilson’s second year, the Islanders went from second-to-last in 2012-13-to second place in 2013-14, from 6-23 overall to 18-16 and from 5-13 to 14-4 in the Southland.
Team on the rise: SE Louisiana. Not based on anything the Lions did this past year, either. New coach Jay Ladner has been mining the D-I transfer market heavily, specifically in his home state of Mississippi. Ladner has already brought in players from Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Mississippi Valley State.
Team on the decline: Will go with Nicholls State. Though they shouldn’t fall to the cellar, the Colonels do lose their only two double-digit scorers in Dantrell Thomas and Jeremy Smith, who combined for nearly 30 points per game.
Next Season Conference Outlook
On paper, the Southland next year looks a whole lot like the Southland this year. The best teams should remain where they are, the worst teams are going through thorough rebuilds, and the middle teams closer resemble the bottom than the top.
Stephen F. Austin loses three of its top five scorers and would look to be hard-pressed to top last year…but that’s what everyone said coming into 2013-14, too. SFA looks to be building a power that expects to go toe-to-toe nationally against anyone. We’re curious to see if the Lumberjacks’ non-conference schedule starts to reflect this, because this is a team definitely capable of playing better non-conference competition as well as a few TV dates. It would be far more intriguing to see the Jacks in November and December against bigger name schools instead of yet another conference challenge or made-for-TV event.
Sam Houston State and Northwestern State could both be real threats to SFA. SHSU returns four starters, while the Demons return exciting guard Jalan West, who will challenge Parker for player of the year honors. Corpus Christi won’t go away, either, with smooth guard John Jordan as one of the best players in the league. And while Incarnate Word is new to the league and may sound more like the name of a convent (half-true; the school is Catholic) than a Division I power, this is a program to take seriously. The Cardinals return three double-figure scorers, including high-scoring Denzel Livingston, and Ken Burmeister is a seasoned coach who has taken teams to the NCAA Tournament before (Texas-San Antonio in 1988).
After that? Pick a number. SE Louisiana is worth keeping an eye on, as Ladner is fresh off making Jones County JC the first Mississippi school to win a juco title. The Lions and McNeese State would seem to be the best of the rest. New Orleans and Nicholls State both appear to have lost too many key contributors to challenge the top 4-5. Lamar, Houston Baptist, Abilene Christian and Central Arkansas are in serious rebuild mode.