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2016-17 Southland Post-Mortem

June 20, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

After four straight years of unprecedented dominance by Stephen F. Austin, the Southland Conference had a different look in the 2016-17 season.

Cooling off after making national waves the previous three years, SFA came back to the Southland pack some this past year. With a new coach, just four returnees from the year before and then a rash of injuries to boot, the Lumberjacks no longer were so clearly superior to the rest of the Southland. Stephen F. Austin finished 18-15 overall, though its finishing just one game out of a tie for the regular season title still sent a message of a program reloading, not rebuilding.

The Southland lost its top-heaviness, though it also lost out on the national notoriety SFA generated for the conference when it won a pair of NCAA Tournament games and very nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2016. In its place, though, the league still had one of the great comeback stories of the entire season.

The University of New Orleans athletics program was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a once-proud solid middle-to-upper level NCAA Division I school sent into tumult so deep that it considered a move to Division III and then Division II earlier this decade. UNO decided to stick it out in D-I, though, joined the Southland in 2012, and it all paid off this year.

Led by five returning starters, the Privateers doubled their win total from 10 games to 20 and went from a tie for ninth in the SLC in 2015-16 to first. UNO won both the league regular season and tournament titles, and its victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the tourney final resulted in the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years.

Behind UNO, the Sun Belt was defined by parity. Three teams finished tied for second one game behind New Orleans at 12-6. Two more tied for fifth at 10-8, while five teams finished in a dead heat for eighth at 7-11.

Corpus Christi also provided a highlight by advancing all the way to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament final, but it goes without saying the Southland did not have a team near the prominence of Stephen F. Austin in previous years. Even as a No. 27 final conference RPI ranking (per CBSSports.com) represented a slight improvement over being 29th-ranked the year before, a collective 0-31 record vs. teams in the RPI top 100 did not. For its national profile, the Southland certainly could use a little more separation at the top of the standings than it had this year.

Final Standings

Southland Overall
New Orleans 13-5 20-12
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 12-6 24-11
Houston Baptist 12-6 17-14
Stephen F. Austin 12-6 18-15
Sam Houston State 10-8 21-13
Lamar 10-8 19-15
SE Louisiana 9-9 16-16
Nicholls State 7-11 14-17
Abilene Christian 7-11 13-16
Northwestern State 7-11 13-16
Incarnate Word 7-11 12-17
Central Arkansas 7-11 8-24
McNeese State 4-14 7-22

Conference Tournament
The Southland marked 10 years holding its conference tournament in Katy, Texas, a place that has become a stable home for the league tourney. This year’s four-day, three-day event again saw the top two seeds given byes into the semifinals and the third and fourth seeds byes into the second round. While full of competitive games, it also was marked by few surprises, which was something of a surprise given how tightly packed the conference standings were.

The first round saw fifth-seeded Sam Houston State hang on after blowing nearly all of a 19-point lead, eventually dismissing Number 8 seed Central Arkansas 77-69. Sixth-seeded Lamar then pulled away from 7 seed SE Louisiana to win the second game 77-65.

The lone upset by seed wasn’t much of one, as preseason league favorite Sam Houston State avenged two regular season losses to Houston Baptist and eliminated the fourth-seeded Huskies 63-59. In the second quarterfinal, three-time defending champion Stephen F. Austin then built an early double-digit lead and easily handled Lamar 75-59.

Sam Houston State’s run ended in the semifinals, as top-seeded New Orleans got off to a fast start and knocked out the Bearkats 75-63, and Stephen F. Austin’s string of SLC tourney titles ended soon after. Rashawn Thomas dominated inside with 27 points and nine rebounds and Cole Martinez came off the bench to score 16 points as No. 2 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi topped the Lumberjacks 77-69.

A grind-it-out championship game saw Corpus Christi build a 10-point lead late in the first half. New Orleans shot just 31.3% in the first half but rallied in the second half to take the lead before the teams traded punches down the stretch and in overtime. The final 6:58 of regulation and overtime saw the teams trade the lead 10 times and tied on eight more occasions, but Tevin Broyles hit the go-ahead jumper with 2:58 left in OT for the Privateers and in all score the team’s final five points. UNO weathered a tying three-point attempt in the final seconds for a 68-65 win and its first conference tournament title since winning the 1996 Sun Belt tourney.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Erik Thomas, F, Sr., New Orleans
Defensive Player of the Year: Liam Thomas, C, Sr., Nicholls State
Freshman of the Year: Jalone Friday, C, Abilene Christian
Newcomer of the Year:
Jalin Hart, G, So., Incarnate Word
Coach of the Year: Mark Slessinger, New Orleans

All-Conference Team
Ehab Amin, G, Jr., Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Jordan Howard, G, Jr., Central Arkansas
Erik Thomas, F, Sr., New Orleans
Rashawn Thomas, F, Sr., Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Colton Weisbrod, F, Jr., Lamar

Season Highlights

  • New Orleans won its first-ever Southland regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996, when it was a member of the Sun Belt.
  • Texas A&M-Corpus Christi just missed out on a postseason tournament title, falling in the final seconds to St. Peter’s in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament title game.
  • A total of five Southland teams played in the postseason, with Houston Baptist, Lamar and Stephen F. Austin all falling in the first round of the CIT.
  • Ironically, Houston Baptist had what may have been the Southland’s best regular season win of the season when it topped St. Peter’s 62-47 in December. New Orleans also won at Washington State, Abilene Christian won at New Hampshire and Sam Houston State won at Southern Illinois.
  • The Southland had a pair of national statistical champions, as TAMU-CC’s Ehab Amin led the country with 3.4 steals per game and Nicholls State center Liam Thomas was the nation’s top shot blocker at 4.2 per contest.

What we expected, and it happened: Not a whole lot from our view. We’ll call it a modest win that we noted that Houston Baptist should remain competitive in the league, as the Huskies tied for second and participated in the CIT.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Sam Houston State was one of our 20 teams we wanted to keep an eye on nationally entering the season, but the Bearkats started and then finished poorly in SLC play, offsetting an eight-game win streak in league. Also, our projection of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as a team on even a modest decline was a flat-out flop, as the Islanders behind Rashawn Thomas showed almost no ill effects from losing eight seniors.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: New Orleans brought back all five starters coming into the season, but there was still almost no way to anticipate the Privateers becoming the Southland’s top team.

Team on the rise: Lamar. After a tough 2015-16 season, the Cardinals under Tic Price are on the upswing again. Colton Weisbrod was a revelation in his first year after transferring from junior college and a great story too, and Lamar may well be the league favorites entering next season.

Teams on the decline: McNeese State, Northwestern State. The Cowboys couldn’t shoot straight and dropped to the bottom of the Southland, finishing with their fifth straight losing season. The Demons were again hurt badly by a season-ending injury to Jalan West.

2017-18 Southland Outlook
Has Stephen F. Austin fallen completely off its perch, or was last year just a one-year blip? That’s the biggest question that will be answered this coming season. Kyle Keller took over a hyper-young squad his first year with just one senior and a host of new faces taking on significant roles. The Lumberjacks suffered from injuries, were not a good perimeter shooting team and committed way too many turnovers, but with a year of seasoning have a chance to shoot right back to the top of the Southland. T.J. Holyfield and a healthy Ty Charles would form a dynamite 1-2 punch that few Southland teams can match.

If SFA doesn’t return to dominance, Lamar is poised to make a run at its first Southland regular season title in 10 years and just its third NCAA tourney appearance since the Billy Tubbs/Pat Foster glory years. Who ever knows with transfers these days, but at the time of this writing the Cardinals should return six of their top seven scorers. Weisbrod is one of the more fun players to watch in the country.

Elsewhere, the Southland’s parity throughout the standings last year suggests a league with a thin line between, say, third and 11th. Some good news for the Southland was that just six of the 15 players on its all-conference teams were seniors this past season. And while the leagues two dominant players (Erik and Rashawn Thomas) are departed, there are plenty ready to step up.

Incarnate Word finally will be eligible for the league’s automatic bid, and with Jalin Hart and Simi Socks leading the way the Cardinals should be better after slipping some this past year. Willis Wilson has built Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to the point where you can never count the Islanders out, and Ehab Amin may well be the favorite for conference top player honors next year. Keep an eye on Southeastern Louisiana, too-the Lions also have had their share of injuries the past two years but still have been a thorn in the side of many.

As for New Orleans, the Privateers will have work to do. The team’s top three scorers depart, including Thomas and point guard Christavious Gill. Travin Thibodeaux could become a perennial double-double threat, but UNO will have a number of players taking on different roles, providing a nice test of just how much staying power Mark Slessinger’s program can have at the top of the league.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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