By Alex Crow
As far as mid-major conferences go, the Southland has a special place in my heart, thanks to the nostalgia of the ’13-14 Stephen F. Austin team. Watching Thomas Walkup, the embodiment of the Lumberjack, upsetting a feisty third-seeded West Virginia team before being beaten by one point by Notre Dame courtesy of a last-second tip in. That passion I saw in that tournament has kept me involved in Southland Conference Basketball since then, even after the departure of Walkup as well as then-SFA coach Brad Underwood, who, after this season, is no longer one of the most underrated coaches in the country after leading the Illini to what is looking like a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. If you watched that 2014-2016 Lumberjacks teams, you already knew what a phenomenal coach he is.
But enough about Stephen F.’s glory days, this season has four teams jam-packed at the top of the conference standings, leaving a lot of excitement looming in the conference tournament, especially considering that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has only whichever team wins the Southland Tournament in his current field of 68. I’ll be talking about teams to watch, as well as players that could disrupt the tournament and crush the dreams of the NCAA Tournament hopefuls.
The Colonels are currently Joe Lunardi’s current automatic qualifier from the Southland Tournament, and it isn’t a bad bet by one of the world’s foremost bracketologists. Nicholls State finished the year as the Southland’s regular season champion, finishing 14-2, with their only two losses coming against Sam Houston State (more on them later). Nicholls State isn’t the flashiest team in the conference, but they just play solid basketball. The Colonels lead the Southland in free throw attempts per game, as well as averaging the fewest turnovers per game in the conference. Advanced metrics don’t love the Nicholls, as KenPom has them as the fourth-best team in the Southland, but you can’t argue with results, which the Colonels have delivered.
The Colonels are led by juniors Ty Gordon and Najee Garvin, who provide a great two-man game, as Gordon runs the point with Garvin down low. With neither of them being great 3-point shooters, these two are going to do their damage in the pick and roll getting downhill to the basket and the free throw line. If they are able to suck the defense into the paint, that could free up Nicholls State’s shooters, such as Jaylen Fornes, who shoots 42.6% from beyond the arc and is capable of scoring in a hurry. With a team on a 7-game winning streak that’s shooting over 50% from the field, getting to the free throw line often and not turning the ball over, Nicholls State will be a tough out in the conference tournament.
The ACU Wildcats finished second in the Southland Conference, just a half-game behind Nicholls State, but advanced metrics like ACU the most out of everyone in the conference. This is largely due to the Wildcats ranking 37th in the country in points allowed per 100 possessions, solidifying ACU as the best defense in the conference. The Wildcats allow just over 60 points per game, almost 10 full points better than the next best defense, while also forcing opponents into a Southland-best 20.6 turnovers per game, including their 10 steals per game. With those statistics, it is no surprise that ACU also leads the conference in margin of victory at over 16 points per game. On offense, the Wildcats rely on Reggie Miller to facilitate at the point guard position, averaging over 4 assists per game, and the Wildcats typically showcase the triple threat of Kolton Kohl, Coryon Mason and Joe Pleasant, who combine to average about 34 points per game. With Mason and Pleasant doing damage from the outside and Kohl working down low in the post, Abilene Christian shows nice balance on offense to compliment their stellar defense. The Wildcats are also battle tested, as they played Texas Tech within single-digits in Lubbock and were within 13 of Arkansas. Aside from a questionable loss late in the season to Central Arkansas, Abilene has had a strong resume in conference, although they did not play conference champion Nicholls State during the regular season. In the Southland Conference Championship, ACU will be hoping that the old coaches’ moniker “Defense wins championships,” holds true for them.
Sam Houston State
With two wins over conference champion Nicholls State paired with a season split over second-seed Abilene Christian, it is no surprise that Sam Houston State finds itself in the “Contenders” section of this article. With the third-best offense and second-best defense, Sam Houston is trying to reach its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Playing at one of the fastest tempos in the country, Sam Houston, much like ACU, are great at forcing their opponents into turnovers, averaging 18 turnovers forced per game, just behind the Wildcats. That is largely the theme for the Bearkats, as they rank second to ACU’s first in nearly every category on defense. However, the Kats lead the conference in 3-point percentage defense, with opponents shooting just a paltry 30% from beyond the arc.
As far as their electric offense goes, SHSU is led by junior Zach Nuttal, who leads the conference and the Bearkats with nearly 19 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds. Nuttal benefits from a guard-heavy lineup that lets the Kats run up and down the floor and getting him the ball in space to attack. Demarkus Lampley is also a crucial part of the Bearkats offense, as he shoots nearly 40% from 3, chipping in 15 points a game. Sam Houston is going to try and get into a track meet with any team that they play in the Southland Tournament, as the Kats are quite at home with the frantic pace that tends to make their opponents uncomfortable. As long as Nuttal stays in rhythm and out of foul trouble, Sam Houston is capable of beating anyone in the conference and securing their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010.
Stephen F. Austin
In an era of basketball dominated by the 3-point shot, Stephen F. Austin plays an old school game, doing almost all of their damage inside the arc. With only 297 three-point attempts, Stephen F. Austin ranks last in the Southland in 3-point volume, with the next team clocking in at nearly 400 attempts. However, the Jacks make it work, as they are the 2nd best offense in terms of points per game while leading the conference shooting 52% from the field. In terms of points per 100 possessions, Stephen F. actually leads the conference with 104, buoyed by that strong field goal percentage. The biggest critique of the Lumberjack’s offense is that they turn the ball over as much as anyone in the conference at nearly 17 times per game. Despite that huge number, SFA managed to sweep Sam Houston, while being swept by Abilene Christian. When the Lumberjacks aren’t turning the ball over, they are a tough team to beat.
Considering their team field goal percentage, it is unsurprising that the Jacks’ scoring leaders, senior forward Gavin Kensmil (16ppg) and guard Cameron Johnson (15ppg) also rank among the sharpest shooters in the conference at 63% (1st in Southland) and 53% (3rd), respectively. With four players averaging in double figures, if Stephen F. Austin can play cleaner, turnover-free basketball, they would be incredibly hard to beat in the Southland Tournament.
My Prediction: Abilene Christian
Edited by Emma Moloney