The Southland Conference has had greatness in its midst the past four years, as Stephen F. Austin has put together what is nothing less than the most dominant four-year stretch in the league’s 53-year history.
The Lumberjacks in 2015-16 completed their second perfect 18-0 conference season in three years, becoming the first to win four consecutive outright regular season titles in Southland annals. SFA is a staggering 69-3 in league games over that stretch and 116-19 overall, averaging a nifty 29 wins per year. The last two years, Brad Underwood’s team followed a familiar pattern of taking a few early season losses against top competition before gelling and thoroughly dominating in conference, winning 35 of 36 league games.
The Jacks are calling to mind the SLC’s dominant programs from well in the past. Only Lamar’s stretch of six titles in seven years from 1978-84 under Billy Tubbs and Pat Foster as well as Mike Vining’s teams at Northeast Louisiana (now Louisiana-Monroe) from 1990-97 (six titles in eight years) measure up in consistent dominance to Stephen F. Austin’s current roll of six championships in nine years now.
The Lumberjacks also won an NCAA Tournament game for the second time in three years, hammering third-seeded West Virginia. And perhaps there’s never been a 14 seed to feel like it let an opportunity for so much more get away, for SFA was seconds away from disposing of Notre Dame in the second round. Next would’ve been a very winnable matchup against Wisconsin, and it’s not an exaggeration at all to say Brad Underwood’s team had a very realistic chance to reach at least the Elite Eight.
Stephen F. Austin missed out on becoming the first Southland team to make the Sweet 16 since Karl Malone’s Louisiana Tech team in 1985, but it is undeniable the team’s impact. SFA has raised the level of what is possible in the Southland, a league that for years has fought to stay out of 16 seeds in the NCAA tourney. Also: for anyone who wants to move beyond strictly recruiting for athletes and would like to play offensive and defensive styles that are unique, pleasing to the eye and effective, the Jacks’ spread offense and denial defense should be a template for how a team like SFA can become a pest from rather modest origins.
Stephen F. Austin truly separated from its conference brethren last year, as the league’s No. 29 conference RPI ranking was primarily responsible for a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament that was nowhere near its actual quality. The Southland did have a few other bright spots. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi won 26 games, its best showing since an NCAA tourney appearance in 2007, led by Rashawn Thomas and a strong defense. Sam Houston State also remained solidly in the top half of the league after major personnel losses from the year before, Houston Baptist was a pleasant surprise before struggling down the stretch, and Incarnate Word continued to be a contender even while it continues its transition to Division I.
|Stephen F. Austin||18-0||28-6|
|Texas A&M-Corpus Christi||15-3||26-8|
|Sam Houston State||12-6||18-16|
Much like the regular season, Stephen F. Austin was dominant amidst an otherwise balanced field in the Southland tournament, which for the ninth straight year was held in Katy, Texas. The top-seeded Lumberjacks hammered No. 4 Houston Baptist 104-68 in the semifinals and downed No. 2 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 82-60 in the final to win their third consecutive SLC tourney title. Thomas Walkup was named the tourney MVP for the third straight year, unprecedented in the event’s 36-year history.
The remaining five games in the tournament were decided by a combined 23 points. Seventh-seeded Nicholls State had the most eventful experience, first knocking out No. 6 McNeese State 94-90 in double overtime in the first round before falling to 3 seed Sam Houston State 60-59 in the second round. The Bearkats also were involved in a pair of close games, falling to A&M-Corpus Christi 79-76 in the semifinals as Hameed Ali hit the winning three-pointer with seven seconds left to advance the Islanders to the final.
Fifth-seeded SE Louisiana also defeated No. 8 New Orleans 84-74 in the first round before bowing to Houston Baptist 73-68 in the second round. The tourney again used a double-bye format for the top two seeds, with SFA and A&M-Corpus Christi both needing to win just one game to get to the title game. Walkup scored 19 points in the final as the Lumberjacks built a 48-29 halftime bulge and Clide Geffrard added 18 points off the bench.
Player of the Year: Thomas Walkup, F, Sr., Stephen F. Austin
Defensive Player of the Year: Rashawn Thomas, F, Jr., Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Freshman of the Year: Jaylen Franklin, G, Abilene Christian
Newcomer of the Year: Derreck Brooks, G, Jr., Central Arkansas
Coach of the Year: Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
Jordan Howard, G, So., Central Arkansas
Anthony Odunsi, G, Sr., Houston Baptist
Rashawn Thomas, F, Jr., Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Thomas Walkup, F, Sr., Stephen F. Austin
Zeek Woodley, G, Jr., Northwestern State
- Stephen F. Austin finished the season on a 25-game regular season winning streak in Southland play, won its fourth straight regular season title, third consecutive tournament championship, and won a game in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. The Lumberjacks also led the country in scoring margin and turnover margin and ranked second in assists per game.
- Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Sam Houston State both played in the CIT and fell in the first round, with the Islanders losing at Louisiana-Lafayette 96-72 and the Bearkats falling to Jackson State 81-77 in overtime.
- Houston Baptist also played in the CBI, losing a narrow 69-65 decision to UNC-Greensboro in its opener. It was the Huskies’ first postseason game since playing in the 2007 NAIA Division I tourney and its first NCAA D-I postseason since playing in the 1984 NCAA Tournament.
- Incarnate Word knocked off a major opponent on the road for the second straight year, traveling to St. John’s and hammering the Red Storm 73-51 in December just over a year after winning at Nebraska.
What we expected, and it happened: Stephen F. Austin was the class of the Southland once again. Also, we pegged Houston Baptist as a team on the rise entering the season, and the Huskies behind Anthony Odunsi made a nice move into the league’s top five.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Northwestern State was not the top challenger to SFA for the title and in fact sunk to 12th of 13 Southland teams. Of course, a big reason for that was the loss of star guard Jalan West to injury very early in the season.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: We thought Texas A&M-Corpus Christi would be solid, but did not foresee 26 wins and ascendance into the top challenger role to SFA. Former Rice coach Willis Wilson has done a very nice job down on the island.
Teams on the rise: SE Louisiana, Incarnate Word. The Lions got off to a 3-17 start and didn’t even beat a Division I team until mid-January, but came into their own late and won nine of their final 13 games. Incarnate Word continues to build a program that appears it will be a perennial challenger for the title once eligible for the Southland tournament.
Team on the decline: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but with a catch. The Islanders lose eight seniors, but the drop could be a modest one since they return the league’s premier post presence-especially on defense-in Rashawn Thomas.
2016-17 Southland Outlook
We may find out just how firm the foundation at Stephen F. Austin is, as the program will debut its third coach in five years with Kyle Keller coming over from an assistant’s chair at Texas A&M. It’s easy to forget that Danny Kaspar-now at Texas State-was the original crafter of the SFA program and won 27 games and the Southland title in 2012-13, so this isn’t the first time the Lumberjacks have had to face change. Will the success continue, or has it been much the work of two particular coaches coinciding with some prescient recruiting that has netted the past four SLC Player of the Year award winners? That will be one of the better questions entering the 2016-17 college basketball season.
The truth is, though, that SFA has been so far ahead of the Southland the last couple years, and the top couple teams have been separated from the rest of the pack anyway, that the Lumberjacks could still come back to the pack somewhat and still be its best team. Outside of a group of a few teams, it’s hard to picture someone coming from deep in the pack to challenge for the top spot.
Northwestern State will be a story worth following, as the prolific backcourt of Jalan West and Zeek Woodley already has the eyes of the media with the news of West receiving NCAA clearance for a sixth year of eligibility. The Demons are almost a lock to at least double their win total from a year ago and could certainly be one of the most improved teams in the country. Sam Houston State also should be loaded for another run for the title, returning all five starters plus redshirt Paul Baxter back from injury, and the Bearkats will be hot on the hunt for their first NCAA bid since 2010.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi also will remain a tough out with the return of Thomas, Incarnate Word will continue to be solid and Houston Baptist should remain competitive, but it would be a longshot for any others to seriously contend this year. Programs like Central Arkansas, Lamar and New Orleans need to continue taking incremental steps to the top.