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College Basketball Preview - Southland Conference

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: There are 13 teams in the Southland Conference entering the 2014-15 campaign, but a small chunk of those programs are ineligible for the upcoming postseason, which really limits the playoff outlook. It won't matter for Stephen F. Austin, which finished last season a perfect 18-0 in conference play en route to the NCAA Tournament, where the Lumberjacks upset VCU in the second round to advance through to face UCLA. SFA is absolutely eligible for the postseason, and fully expects to get back to the tournament, but will have a tough time doing so against the teams that are eligible. And the teams that aren't this season won't roll over against some of the better squads in the Southland. In fact, without a postseason bid on the line, some might say it gives teams a little extra motivation to play with a no-holds-barred attitude. We'll certainly find out this season as teams like Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word and Houston Baptist continue their elevation from the subdivision ranks of the college basketball realm.

Stephen F. Austin is the favorite to win the conference, although repeating is never an easy thing to do. Although the Lumberjacks are missing their leading scorer from a year ago, they'll do just fine with a returning core of strong players, led by forward and Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker. But they'll get a serious push from Northwestern State and reigning player of the year candidate Jalan West. Both Parker and West are on the preseason All- Southland First-Team, which is no surprise. The Demons came close to taking down the Lumberjacks last season, but fell just short. Sam Houston State finished with a better conference record than Northwestern State at 13-5 in the Southland, and they'll figure to be one of the top teams in the league again this year with a very healthy number of scorers returning for another go- around. And don't count out Incarnate Word, even though the Cardinals are ineligible for the postseason. UIW is an up-and-coming team in the conference, and is returning strong scorer Denzel Livingston.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi finished with the league's second-best conference record, ending the season at 14-4 in Southland play. The Islanders are expected to be a contender once again, but might not finish as well as they did last season despite the strong contingent of players returning for another season. It's a team that is on the rise, but maybe not quite there yet. New Orleans is a team that fixed its APR deficiencies last season, meaning the Privateers will be eligible for the postseason in 2014. But with a youthful roster in this upcoming campaign, it might be more realistic to think that New Orleans will just be a growing annoyance to the top teams in the conference rather than a real contender. McNeese State and Nicholls State both had middle- of-the-road seasons in 2013, and figure to be right about there once again. McNeese gets a solid core of players back, including Kevin Hardy (a preseason All-Southland Second-Team member), but will he be able to help out a Cowboys team that was a dismal shooting squad last year?

Southeastern Louisiana, which finished last season at 7-11 in conference play, figures to be in a rebuilding mode after signing a new coach in the offseason. Abilene Christian should be a much-improved team after finishing with just two conference wins last year, and the Wildcats have a pair of legitimate scorers this season. Lamar was near the bottom last season, but veteran coach Tic Price should use some of his more experienced scorers effectively this season. Central Arkansas and Houston Baptist are both ineligible for the postseason because of APR issues, although neither program figures to be much of a contender anyway.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Stephen F. Austin

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Stephen F. Austin, 2. Northwestern State, 3. Sam Houston State, 4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 5. Incarnate Word, 6. McNeese State, 7. New Orleans, 8. Nicholls State, 9. Southeastern Louisiana, 10. Lamar, 11. Abilene Christian, 12. Central Arkansas, 13. Houston Baptist

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN: Desmond Haymon isn't back for another year. Big Deal. The Lumberjacks (32-2, 18-0 Southland) dominated the Southland Conference a year ago, and finished up the conference standings four games ahead of the second-place team with a perfect 18-0 league record. SFA went on to the NCAA Tournament and took down VCU before bowing out to fourth-seeded UCLA. This year may not be an undefeated one in league play for Stephen F. Austin, but the Lumberjacks get a ton of power back from last year's squad, including Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 19 blocked shots, 48 steals). The team also returns talented juniors Thomas Walkup (13.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Trey Pinkney (3.0 ppg, 121 assists), and second-year coach Brad Underwood (who signed an eight-year deal following last season's run) will get to see what Samford transfer Clide Geffrard can do. Though the program lost three seniors who combined for 35.8 ppg, the Lumberjacks will be just fine with Parker and Walkup still around.

NORTHWESTERN STATE: The Demons (17-14, 12-6) had an up-and-down season a year ago overall, but finished with a respectable record in conference play at 12-6. This year should be an improved one for Northwestern State, which returns Jalan West, who could have easily won the league's player of the year award and not many would have objected. West led the Demons, averaging 19.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.4 apg and had a team-best 70 made 3-pointers. As a junior this season, West will be one of the more seasoned leaders on the Northwestern State roster. The Demons finished second in the entire Division I last season with 86.7 ppg, behind VMI's outlandish scoring total. West is helped along by another player that should explode as a sophomore - last season's Southland Conference Freshman of the Year Zeek Woodley. The then-freshman finished his campaign with 13.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 25 blocked shots. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages the Demons have over Stephen F. Austin is the presence of a true big man underneath. Center Marvin Frazier (5.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 56 blocked shots) will be a crucial factor for the team.

SAM HOUSTON STATE: The Bearkats (24-11, 13-5) played well in the Southland Conference last season, finishing with a 13-5 mark in league play - third behind Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Sam Houston State could finish higher than that this season thanks to a strong core of returning players, including seven scorers that averaged over half of the team's 75.6 ppg last year. Last season's Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year Jabari Peters (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 147 assists) is back for his senior season, along with talented senior guard Kaheem Ransom (11.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 127 assists, 51 steals). Both players were the only two to average double-digit point totals, but the Bearkats prided themselves on defense and limiting opponents' scoring (69.5 ppg allowed). Returning starters Paul Baxter (9.1 ppg) and 6-foot-11 Michael Holyfield (6.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 61 blocked shots) will reprise their roles with a strong lineup. Coach Jason Hooten led SHSU to its seventh 20-win season a year ago, and with the lineup he has now plus the addition of five freshman and junior college transfer Sean Goodwin, the Bearkats are in good shape for the upcoming year.

TEXAS A&M-CORPUS CHRISTI: The Islanders (18-16, 14-4) clearly had a rough time with non-conference opponents in the 2013 season, but the team appears poised to take the next step for the upcoming campaign. Having point guard and leading scorer John Jordan (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.4 apg) return for another season helps the Islanders in terms of the veteran playmaker factor. He'll be the go-to guy on the floor, but he can dish the ball to any number of options. Rashawn Thomas (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Hameed Ali (8.0 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.1 spg) are both going to be staples in the Islanders offense, along with junior guard Brandon Pye, who drilled 50 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. The loss of senior Joy Williamson and freshman Jeff Beverly hurts the team a bit, but coach Willis Wilson is ready for another round with a strong set of players for this season. Underneath the basket, junior forward Viktor Juricek (6-foot-11, provides the Islanders with a big man presence. Although Stephen F. Austin is the team to beat this season, look for Corpus Christi to take some serious strides toward the top of the league standings.

INCARNATE WORD: Sure, the Cardinals (21-6, 9-5) are ineligible for the postseason as they continue the transition process of moving up from the Division II level. But that doesn't mean this will be a pushover program by any means. In fact, Incarnate Word has the best shot of any ineligible team in this conference to knock off the top teams in head-to-head matchups. Led by standout guard Denzel Livingston (20.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 68 steals, 38 blocked shots), UIW is a team on the rise. Livingston is a 6-foot-4 points guard that combines the rare ability to shoot well outside with the explosiveness and determination to get the ball underneath the basket. That can be a matchup nightmare for many players in the Southland Conference. Add in guard Sam Burmeister (11.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 40.9 percent shooting from 3-point range) and 6-foot-5 shooting guard Kyle Hittle (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and the guard trio for the Cardinals might just be the most dangerous in the conference. There are only two seniors on this UIW team (one being Livingston), which means the future is very bright for this young team.

MCNEESE STATE: McNeese State (11-20, 9-9) was the definition of a mediocre team last season, but the offense was, by all accounts, below average. The Cowboys only managed 68.1 ppg a season ago, led by then-senior Ledrick Eackles. It was the reason McNeese State finished with a pretty dismal overall record. But the Cowboys turned on the jets in the offseason and developed what could possibly be one of the more explosive offenses in the Southland Conference, led by senior guard Kevin Hardy (11.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.3 apg). Hardy will be the key to McNeese State's success this season, but he has plenty of help beneath him in that offense. Forwards Desharick Guidry (10.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Craig McFerrin (9.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 30 blocked shots) will play huge roles both on the offensive and defensive sides of the floor, and Keelan Garrett (6.1 ppg) should see an increased role a guard opposite Hardy. Last year's McNeese State team ranked dead last in the Southland Conference in field goal accuracy and 3-point accuracy, so that needs to improve with this year's squad.

NEW ORLEANS: New Orleans (11-15, 8-10) overcame last season's APR issues and is now eligible for the postseason in 2014. The problem is, do the Privateers even have a shot to get there? The team took a serious hit in the offseason, where its four top scorers all departed, leaving just Kevin Hill (7.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 25 blocked shots) and Christavious Gill (7.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.3 apg) as the go- to offensive playmakers. But there is hope on the horizon for Mark Slessinger's squad, which landed six freshman recruits in the offseason, and three of the team's players are sophomores. Then-freshman Tevin Broyles started in 20 of the team's 25 games a year ago, so his role will increase with the Privateers as they enter the upcoming season. New Orleans will have to navigate a tough non-conference portion of its schedule, as the Privateers are taking on TCU, Texas A&M, San Diego and Indiana this year.

NICHOLLS STATE: The Colonels (14-15, 10-8) will be in search of some offense for the upcoming season after the team graduated its top two scorers from a year ago in Dantrell Thomas (15.9 ppg) and Jeremy Smith (13.9 ppg). It was an average season for Nicholls State last year, as the Colonels finished with a 10-8 record in league play. They may struggle to reach to double-digit win plateau in 2014 without Thomas and Smith. Instead, Nicholls State will rely on T.J. Carpenter (9.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Shane Rillieux (6.0 ppg, 70 assists), who started every game in which he played. The Colonels also added transfer Chad Simpson from Australia, who played at John Tonkin College. He has plenty of potential to develop into a top scorer after averaging 23.7 ppg for John Tonkin last season, and the Colonels are hoping the 6-foot-7 swingman buds into that same type of player. A class of three freshman guards bolstered the Nicholls State backcourt in the offseason, and head coach J.P. Piper is hoping they can bring some scoring into the lineup.

SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA: It looks like it will be a rebuilding year for new coach Jay Ladner's Lions (12-18, 7-11), who couldn't seem to grasp a .500 record last season in conference play. Ladner comes into his first season with high hopes of running a fast-paced, offensive-driven squad that can compete immediately. Well, the fact is the players just might not be there for Ladner, who loses second-leading scorer Antonnio Benton (11.7 ppg) to graduation. But last year's leading scorer JaMichael Hawkins (12.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 21 steals) is back for his senior season, and is joined by a core cast of Joshua Filmore (6.9 ppg, 2.9 apg) and forward Onochie Ochie (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 34 blocked shots). Unfortunately for Ladner, of those three pieces to which he can build a team around, only one if an underclassman. Filmore, a sophomore, will be around for longer than just a year, which means come next offseason he may have to start again. But six freshman recruits on the roster this season will help him going forward, so the Lions have some hope and direction for the future. Unfortunately for Ladner and company, this just won't be the year.

LAMAR: It a tough season for the Cardinals (4-26, 3-15), as Lamar finished with the third-worst conference record and the worst overall record in the Southland. It was, for lack of a better word, a nightmare. But coach Tic Price may have some reason for optimism headed into the new year, as 6-foot-5 senior Donovan Ross (10.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 20 blocked shots) will lead his Cardinals offensively. The downside of the upcoming season for Lamar is the fact the Cardinals have to live without leading scorer Nimrod Hilliard (14.1 ppg, 4.9 apg) and second-leading scorer Amos Wilson (11.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg). But Ross will fill the shoes of those players well. He's a combo guard and forward that can handle the ball well and shoot well, but can get his hands dirty underneath the basket and scrap for a rebound. Sophomore guard Preston Mattingly (2.3 ppg), who is the son of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, will be a prominent member of the Lamar offense this season after seeing action in just 19 games a year ago. Also, Vincennes (Indiana) College transfer Tyran de Lattibeaudiere, a senior, has to make his last year of eligibility count. He figures to be an impact player on offense.

ABILENE CHRISTIAN: Abilene Christian (11-20, 2-12) is one of the three remaining teams that is ineligible for the postseason. The Wildcats are in the process of making the transition to Division I basketball final, so that means they'll have another year of sitting on the sidelines when the playoffs start. But let's not kid ourselves, this team wasn't (and isn't) going to be a contender anyway. The Wildcats were dismal in 2013, finishing up the season with a 2-12 conference mark - the second-worst record behind Houston Baptist. It doesn't look like it will be a whole lot better in 2014, even though ACU returns most of its top performers from a year ago. The lineup certainly didn't help the Wildcats then. Parker Wentz (13.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 86 assists) led Abilene Christian in scoring, followed by LaDamien Williams (12.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Harrison Hawkins (12.3 ppg, 51 assists). All three are back for another go-around this season, but it should still be a rebuilding year for coach Joe Golding's team. Forward Austin Cooke (6-foot-7) figures to see an increased role as well.

CENTRAL ARKANSAS: Turnover is the central theme at Central Arkansas (8-21, 5-13) as well. When new coach Russ Pennell was hired in the offseason, the first thing he did was rebuild his team from the ground up. The only player that survived his transition phase was 6-foot-7 forward Ethan Lee, who averaged just 4.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg and had 10 blocks a season ago. Pennell clearly wanted to build a powerhouse with a lot of big bodies out on the floor, so he added six players to the roster who are at least 6-foot-7. Last year, LaQuentin Miles was one of the league's best players, and as the Bears leading scorer he averaged a whopping 23.2 ppg, adding 7.5 rpg and 58 assists to his resume. The loss of Miles and DeShone McClure (13.0 ppg, 64 assists) will hurt the Bears as they head into this season not knowing which players will be the best on-the-floor scorers. It doesn't matter much anyway, considering Central Arkansas is ineligible for the postseason after posting low APR scores.

HOUSTON BAPTIST: Houston Baptist (6-25, 2-16) finished at the very bottom of the Southland Conference a year ago with a dismal two-win campaign in league play. Coach Ron Cottrell will be looking to change all of that, but his team is, like several others in the conference, ineligible for the postseason. The Huskies, similar to Central Arkansas, have APR issues which led to their offseason disqualification. It won't be a pretty transition for Cottrell's squad, which loses its top two scorers from a year ago. But the good news for the Huskies is that four starters and 10 lettermen return. Tyler Russell (8.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is the team's returning leading scorer after starting in just 13 games last season. Caleb Crayton (7.1 ppg), Ricmonds Vilde (6.5 ppg) and Marcel Smith (6.2 ppg) are all back, along with Colter Lasher (5.7 ppg), who figures to have an increased role this season. The guard presence on HBU is strong, but that is not the case up front. The 6-foot-11 Vilde will try to be a force down low. Four freshman recruits show Cottrell is building for the future, which is going to be necessary in another rebuilding effort for the Huskies.