By: Eric Graves
The Southland Conference got thrown into the spotlight last season when it’s champion, Stephen F. Austin made a run in the NCAA tourney. Stephen F. Austin upset West Virginia in the first round in and then lost at the buzzer to Notre Dame in the round of 32. Stephen F. Austin has won the Southland Conference Tournament the last 4 years, but Sam Houston State sits atop the Preseason Poll this year.
The Sam Houston State Bearkats was able to make the jump into first overall in the preseason rankings because they returned all 5 of their starters from last season. The Kats were the third place team in the Southland conference last year with an 18-16 record. Returning all 5 starters is huge for continuity and should help the Bearkats make a huge jump from last year. Coach Jason Hooten has his two leading scorers returning now as seniors in Dakarai Henderson and Aurimas Majauskas who both averaged a touch above 14 points per game last season. Majauskas was selected to the Southland Conference Preseason First team along with Henderson who received second team honors. With this guard and forward combo the Kats are going to be tough to defend this year.
The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks welcome first year head coach Kyle Keller after Brad Underwood departed for Oklahoma State last year in the off season. Junior Ty Charles looks to take over the reins of the squad as the only member of the team to receive Southland Conference Preseason Second Team honors. Charles average 9.4 points and 4.8 rebounds last season and is the top returning scorer, assister, rebounder, and steeler. The Lumberjacks not only lost their head coach, but also graduated 5 seniors, including Thomas Walkup, who made a name for himself in the NCAA tournament this past spring. SFA’s biggest challenge this year will be finding their new identity with a first year head coach and the loss of 5 seniors.
Outside of these two teams, look for Northwestern State to cause some trouble due in large part to one man, Zeek Woodley. Woodley is a senior at Northwestern State who averaged 22.2 ppg last year and has been named to the Southland Conference Preseason First Team. He is the highest scoring returner in college hoops and he has the scoring prowess to help his team compete against other squads in the conference.
In my eyes, this league is set up to be a two team race, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin. Despite SFA winning the conference tournament for 4 straight years, I believe this is the year for the Bearkats. The Lumberjacks have a new head coach and lost some great seniors, so it only makes sense they’ll need time to adjust. The Kats are returning their entire starting five from the season before which just creates even better continuity among the players. This would be Sam Houston State’s first trip to the tournament since 2010 if they could win the Southland Conference Championship.