Those buying into the overhyped storyline about college basketball being unwatchable this past season could’ve found their antidote if only they watched a little bit more of Stephen F. Austin and the Southland Conference.
SFA ran through the Southland as Coach Brad Underwood led his team to a second consecutive memorable year. The Lumberjacks lost just once in SLC play and ran off 28 wins in 29 games before a cold-shooting performance in the NCAA Tournament kept them from duplicating their feat from a year earlier of scoring a first round victory as a 12 seed in the Big Dance.
As notable as Stephen F. Austin’s success, though, is how it has been accomplished. Going in a different direction from former coach Danny Kaspar-who was very successful at the school with a slowdown, halfcourt game-Underwood has the Lumberjacks playing fast and playing superbly on the offensive end. SFA’s constant-motion offense is a thing of beauty to watch and has been a smash hit-the Jacks ranked 10th nationally in scoring (78.6 ppg) and led the country with 17.5 assists per game while never being afraid to take a shot quickly.
Stephen F. Austin’s second straight year of dominance again overshadowed a terrific year for Sam Houston State and an entertaining one for the Southland.
One of the best rebounding teams in the country, Sam Houston was in hot pursuit of the Lumberjacks all season but came up dry in three chances against the champs. The Bearkats still won 26 games and advanced to the second round of the CIT, losing by a point to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Northwestern State tied for third in the league and led the nation in scoring, averaging 84.0 ppg and topping 90 points nine times. The Demons featured the nation’s second-leading scorer (Zeek Woodley, 22.2 ppg) and best assist man (Jalan West, who averaged 7.7 apg and also was 16th nationally in scoring at 20.0 ppg).
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was steady again in tying the Demons for third and winning 20 games, while NCAA Division I transitional member Incarnate Word scored one of the season’s biggest stunners by knocking off Nebraska while also toppling Princeton. Lamar and Houston Baptist also showed progress and helped give the Southland a respectable middle tier.
The overall package is a league worthy of more than the pittance of TV coverage it has typically received. If going on entertainment value, the Southland has earned at least a few more national showcases, especially in a time with so many games on TV that networks all but write off some of them as clunkers even while agreeing to show them.
|Stephen F. Austin||17-1||29-5|
|Sam Houston State||15-3||26-9|
|Texas A&M-Corpus Christi||13-5||20-14|
The 2015 Southland Tournament looked a good bit like the 2014 Southland Tournament. For one thing, the league has found a cozy home for its tourney in Katy, Texas, which drew a solid crowd of better than 5,000 for the championship game this year.
For another, the top four teams were the same with just one seeding difference, and the semifinal and final matchups were the exact same as the prior year. Sam Houston State was the No. 2 seed this year instead of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and the Bearkats again defeated the Islanders in a close game with a 70-67 win getting them to the championship game. Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State met in the other semifinal, and the Lumberjacks pulled away in the second half for a 91-79 win.
Sam Houston State met much the same fate against SFA in the title game as Northwestern State did in the semis. The Bearkats were right there for 15 minutes, but the Lumberjacks closed out the first half on a 13-2 run to take a 37-27 halftime lead, and then pushed the lead to 16 early in the second half. Thomas Walkup scored 24 points, Jared Johnson added 17 off the bench, and Sam Houston never recovered from 3-for-20 three-point shooting as Stephen F. Austin closed out an 83-70 win.
The first two rounds of the eight-team tourney were competitive, with first round winners No. 5 McNeese State (62-60 over No. 8 SE Louisiana in overtime) and No. 7 New Orleans (82-73 over No. 6 Nicholls State) playing well before bowing out in the second round. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi defeated UNO for the third time in the season, but the wins came by a combined 10 points, including a 61-58 tourney win. Northwestern State tied a SLC tourney record with 14 three-pointers, advancing to the semis for the sixth straight year by outlasting McNeese State 96-89.
Player of the Year: Thomas Walkup, Jr. F, Stephen F. Austin
Freshman of the Year: Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas
Newcomer of the Year: Tyran de Lattibeaudiere, G, Sr., Lamar
Defensive Player of the Year: Michael Holyfield, C, Sr., Sam Houston State
Coach of the Year: Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
Desharick Guidry, F, Sr., McNeese State
John Jordan, G, Sr., Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Denzel Livingston, G, Sr., Incarnate Word
Thomas Walkup, F, Jr., Stephen F. Austin
Jalan West, G, Jr., Northwestern State
- Stephen F. Austin made its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
- Incarnate Word pulled off a huge upset in winning at Nebraska. SFA also won at Memphis, while Sam Houston State recorded the league’s best non-conference win by RPI, defeating Eastern Washington 76-52.
- Northwestern State led the nation in scoring (84.0 ppg) while Sam Houston State ranked fourth nationally in free throws attempted and made. Stephen F. Austin also ranked seventh in field goal percentage and 10th in scoring
- Lamar’s Tyran de Lattibeaudiere added a chapter to college basketball’s delightfully rare tradition of players who have their first name on the back of their jerseys instead of the last name, as ‘Tyran’ fit infinitely better on the back of the Cardinals’ uniforms than all 17 letters of ‘de Lattibeaudiere.’
What we expected, and it happened: The top four teams in the Southland looked quite clear cut entering the season, and that’s exactly how the year played out with SFA, Sam Houston, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Northwestern State a step ahead of everyone else.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: SFA’s Jacob Parker did not repeat as the Southland’s player of the year and wasn’t even named first team all-conference. That had far less to do with anything Parker did, though, than with teammate Thomas Walkup’s ascension as a hyper-efficient all-around player in claiming the conference’s top honor.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Lamar was a pleasant surprise, finishing a solid sixth after being picked 10th in both the preseason coaches and sports information directors polls.
Team(s) on the rise: Northwestern State, Houston Baptist. The Demons aren’t rising as much as they will be expected to take a step beyond their past two seasons and will be a favorite-maybe even the favorite for some-for the league title next year. That’s what happens when you return a pair of 20-ppg scorers. The Huskies made a nice jump last year and should return four of their top five scorers from a team that had good size and rebounded at a +6.3 rate last year.
Team(s) on the decline: Sam Houston State, Lamar. It’s harsh to predict either of these programs is “on the decline” long term, but on paper they’ll have work to do to match their results this past year. The Bearkats lose four senior starters, while the Cardinals lose their top three scorers who averaged better than 38 ppg in SLC play.
Next Season Conference Outlook
After three consecutive terrific seasons, two of them earning national recognition, the Southland has become Stephen F. Austin’s to lose. The Lumberjacks will miss Parker, but the rugged Walkup is back again. Johnson and Demetrious Floyd will provide more instant offense around him. Underwood also maximizes his depth, regularly going 11 deep, and his undersized-but-tough squads execute so well that they are the team to beat and could certainly earn another workable seed in the NCAA Tournament again.
Northwestern State will be expected to ascend to Sam Houston State’s role as the top challenger to SFA, with the return of West and Woodley. Just as Underwood does at Stephen F. Austin, Demon coach Mike McConathy plays a ton of people devoted to executing his team’s fast-paced style. SFA and NSU already have had an entertaining rivalry for years, and their meetings next year should be appointment viewing for any serious college hoops fan.
On paper, the elite group in the league drops from four to two, but don’t overlook Texas A&M-Corpus Christi or Houston Baptist. Willis Wilson has done a nice job on the island, while HBU should have the frontcourt and experience to cause problems. It’s hard to imagine Sam Houston State dropping too far, either, with the standard that has been set by former coach Bob Marlin and continued by Jason Hooten. Incarnate Word will continue to be a pest as well, though the Cardinals are still two years from being eligible for the conference tourney and automatic NCAA bid.
The rest of the league will again be challenged to close the gap on the top teams, a gap that has widened in recent years. Whether that changes is dependent on Stephen F. Austin coming back to the pack or Northwestern State disappointing, but it also could turn around if teams like Lamar and New Orleans continue to improve or an experienced Nicholls State team picks it up a couple notches. As it is, a dominant SFA team has been good for the Southland the past couple years, but a tougher road to hoe for the Lumberjacks in conference play might be better for the league in the long term.