Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The lower level leagues rarely get any consideration from the NCAA Tournament selection committee for at-large bids, which devalues the importance of the regular season as the school that wins the conference tournament is the only one to advance to the Big Dance.
This flaw in the system negated a tremendous season by Stephen F. Austin in 2012-13, as Northwestern State, which finished the regular season second in the conference standings, defeated the Lumberjacks by two points in the Southland Conference Tournament title game.
After last season's surprising rally past the favored Lumberjacks, the Demons have a strong chance of winning the conference that lost all five of its first-team all-conference selections and longtime SFA head coach Danny Kaspar. History is not on the side of Northwestern State though, as no Southland Conference school has won back-to-back conference tournaments since ULM won four in a row from 1990-93.
While the Demons are the best team on paper, they will have to face an expanded field in conference action as the Southland now has its highest-ever membership count at 14 schools. Oral Roberts has high hopes as it added a very strong recruiting class after winning a pair of games in the CIT Tournament. SFA will look for redemption under Brad Underwood, who will try to rebuild the Lumberjacks using the knowledge he gathered while serving as an associate head coach at Kansas State and South Carolina under Frank Martin.
Sam Houston State was one of the nation's most offensively challenged units, but it could still be a competitor for the conference crown as it has four starters returning to the squad that was impressive in all other aspects.
The Bearkats' chemistry is going to be a big help with most of its league rivals facing rebuilding projects. After finishing in the middle of the pack, Nicholls has a great shot of climbing a couple of spots once it endures another very difficult non-conference slate. McNeese State could also drastically improve, providing that it find a new pair of guards to operate its backcourt.
While the Colonels and Cowboys appear to be on the rise, Southeastern Louisiana will have trouble finishing fourth in the conference again due to the loss of many of its key components. The Lions may be surpassed by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which looks to has four different players with potential to earn all- conference accolades. Central Arkansas is also facing some adversity due to the departure of Corliss Williamson, who unexpectedly left the program for an assistant coaching job in the NBA.
Lamar may avoid a last place finish without surpassing any of the teams that it finished behind a season ago due to the expansion. The Cardinals posted only three wins after making a run to the 2012 NCAA Tournament under coach Pat Knight.
Two of the new additions came from the Division I level as the Southland welcomed Houston Baptist from the Great West along with New Orleans, which won only eight games as one of the two Division I Independent schools last season. Houston Baptist could be a competitor immediately despite having to replace its top two scorers.
The league also added a pair of Division II programs in Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word. The former Division II schools will not be eligible for postseason competition until the 2016-17 campaign. UNO is also banned from postseason action due to low APR scores.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Northwestern State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Northwestern State, 2. Oral Roberts, 3. Sam Houston State, 4. Stephen F. Austin, 5. McNeese State, 6. Nicholls, 7. Houston Baptist, 8. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 9. Central Arkansas, 10. Southeastern Louisiana, 11. Lamar, 12. New Orleans, 13. Incarnate Word, 14. Abilene Christian
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NORTHWESTERN STATE: While the Demons were not the favorite to be the representative of the league in the NCAA Tournament, it was not a huge surprise considering they finished the season with a 23 wins and an impressive 15-3 mark against league opponents. Although their season ended with a lopsided loss to Florida in the second round, the expectations are very high for the 2013-14 campaign. Coach Mike McConathy lost valuable pieces to the puzzle when James Hulbin and Shamir Davis graduated, but there is plenty of depth still present on his roster to build upon last season's success. The Demons were one of the most exciting teams in the nation as their fast-paced style of play led to an average of 80 points per game, which was the second most among Division I programs. Only one of their nine losses came at home, where they pulled off a six-point upset of Louisiana Tech. Northwestern Stat will be led by the duo of DeQuan Hicks and Jalan West. Hicks was named the SLC Newcomer of the Year after posting 14 points and 5.9 rebounds off the bench while West earned the conference's Freshman of the Year honor by netting 10.2 ppg, also in a reserve role. McConathy's ability to recruit has made it possible for him to implement his uptempo system, which will cause problems for any team the Demons' take on this season.
ORAL ROBERTS: The Golden Eagles were predicted to be a dominant force in their inaugural season as a member of the SLC after building a reputation at the mid-major level as a member of the Summit League. However, coach Scott Sutton's squad finished third in the league standings despite ending the year with a respectable 20-15 record. The Golden Eagles were the most balanced team in the SLC, finishing third in both scoring offense (71.0) and scoring defense (66.9). ORU will have to replace a pair of first-team all-conference selections along with Steven Roundtree, who was dismissed from the roster following an offseason arrest. Sutton still has plenty to work with as Western Illinois transfer Obi Emegano is now eligible after sitting out last season. The sophomore guard averaged 13 ppg as a rookie at WIU and he should be able to take pressure off of 6-7 senior Shawn Glover (14.4 ppg). The Golden Eagles will also utilize ex-Arkansas commit Dederic Lee and junior college forwards Denell Henderson and Adrion Webber.
SAM HOUSTON STATE: The Bearkats were expected experience a significant drop off after their top two scorers decided to transfer prior to last season. Although Sam Houston State did not have a scorer with a double-digit average and shot only 38.6 percent from the field as a team, it made up for it on the defensive end to finish at the .500 mark overall. It finished second to only SFA in scoring defense with an allowed average of 61.2 ppg and seventh in scoring offense at 63.8 ppg. Coach Jason Hooten's team benefited from a weak non- league slate that included only three opponents from major conferences. He will have four of his five starters back for the school's second tour of the SLC, including 6-5 senior James Thomas, who paced the squad with 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per tilt. Sophomore guard Paul Baxter (7.5 ppg) is the only underclassman projected to start for the group that features nine returnees. Hooten added depth, chemistry and experience at guard with the signings of Jabari Peters and Kaheem Ransom, who were teammates last season at Seward County Community College.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN: Even though the Lumberjacks only edged Northwestern State by a single game during the SLC regular season with a 16-2 league record, they were clearly the better team up until the conference tourney title game. SFA's five regular season losses came by a combined total of 19 points and four of them occurred on the road. The Lumberjacks did not lose consecutive games until they followed the loss to the Demons with a 58-57 setback at Stanford in the opening round of the NIT. The team lost three starters who combined for 33.8 ppg, including Hal Bateman, who ran the offense and dealt out a conference-best 5.7 apg. It also lost Kaspar, who took the same position at Texas State following a tremendous 13-year stint in Nacogdoches. It would be unfair to expect the same time of results out of the Lumberjacks in their first season under Underwood, but do not right them off completely as they still have Desmond Haymon (10.6 ppg) and Jacob Parker (7.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg) in the mix. Incoming freshman Dallas Cameron is going to be a contributor on the defensive end right away, while junior college transfer Tanner Clayton (6-9, 210) will provide much needed size and rebounding.
MCNEESE STATE: The Cowboys were 2-5 in conference play when they lost their most dangerous scorer, Ledrick Eackles, as he left the team suddenly for personal reasons. Prior to his departure, the Cowboys managed to pick up huge non-conference wins over Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech. They did a decent job down the stretch considering Eackles's absence en route to a 14-17 overall finish including a 7-11 SLC record. McNeese State was in the middle in the pack of the league in both scoring offense (66.3) and scoring defense (70.1). Eackles will back in the lineup this season as he joins the trio of Desharick Guidry (12.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Kevin Hardy (9.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Craig McFerrin (8.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg). At 6-2, Hardy is one of the top rebounding guards in the nation. McFerrin joined the team after missing the first seven games due to academic reasons. It will be interesting to see how coach Dave Simmons does with his whole roster intact to start the season. Desharick Guidry is going to be the x-factor for the Cowboys due to his 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc. When Guidry is knocking down shots from long range, it will open up the paint for McNeese State's capable forwards.
NICHOLLS: At a glance, Nicholls looked like a bottom tier program as it managed just a 9-21 overall record. The Colonels entered league play with just one win through 10 games due to their treacherous non-conference slate that featured only three home games. They were understandably overmatched as they made visits to Vanderbilt, Missouri, Michigan State, Tulane, Utah State and Nebraska. Their only win during that 10-game span came over New Orleans, but they performed much better in league play and completed season series sweeps of Lamar and Sam Houston State. Coach J.P. Piper encourages his players to stretch the floor with frequent attempts from 3-point range. Nicholls made only 159-of-521 of its 3-point field goal tries and had the worst field goal percentage defense (.472) in the SLC a season ago. Nicholls had a stellar senior leader last season in Fred Hunter, who won the SLC scoring title with 19.9 ppg. While any single player will have trouble replacing Hunter's production, Daniel Thomas (13.8 ppg), T.J. Carpenter (10.0 ppg) and Jeremy Smith (7.4 ppg) should all do fine in expanded roles. Piper added size by recruiting Cade Towers (6-9, 220) and Liam Thomas (6-10, 220) along with the sharpshooting Luke Doyle.
HOUSTON BAPTIST: The Huskies tied Utah Valley and Chicago State for last place in the one of the worst conferences in the nation in their final season before joining the SLC. After a 13-game stretch of losses versus Division I opponents dropped Houston Baptist to a 4-14 standing, it won 10 of its final 13 games to conclude the season only three games below the .500 mark. The Huskies have never before played in a conference that received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Coach Ron Cottrell gave his underclassmen plenty of action last season which should help its transition into the SLC. Houston Baptist did not turn too many heads with its averages of 63.9 points and 11.3 assists per outing. Cottrell's team has a noticeable lack of size as his starting backcourt consists of the 5-11 Rob Lewis (8.2 ppg) and the 5-6 Marcel Smith (7.0 ppg). The Huskies could receive a boost if Tyler Russell comes back for his junior season at full strength. Russell averaged 11.4 ppg before suffering a season-ending knee injury, however his questionable shot selection limited him to just 39.9 percent efficiency on his field goal attempts.
TEXAS A&M-CORPUS CHRISTI: The Islanders tallied only six wins and missed the SLC Tournament for the second year in a row in 2012-13, but there is a lot of optimism that they will be able to earn a spot in the conference tourney with all five starters and four role players returning to coach Willis Wilson's squad. TAMU-CC rarely picked up victories due to its weakness on the offensive end that limited to just 60.1 ppg. It usually kept the score close though, as it allowed only 67.7 ppg, which was the fourth-best scoring defense average in the SLC. Junior point guard Johnathan Jordan (12.8 ppg, 5.5 apg) proved himself as one of the top floor generals in the conference by dealing out 159 assists to only 82 turnovers. His ability to run the offense will be crucial as the Islanders' weakness on that end is clearly their main cause for concern. Senior forward Will Nelson (13.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and junior guard Hameed Ali (7.5 ppg) will both aid TAMU-CC's effort for a turnaround.
CENTRAL ARKANSAS: The Bears were already in trouble coming into the season as they lost 40.1 percent of their scoring due to the graduation of Jarvis Garner and Robert Crawford. They also lost Jordan Harks, who decided to transfer to Illinois-Chicago, and took his averages of 7.9 points and 4.2 rebounds Williamson's decision to join the Sacramento Kings as an assistant in August then left Central Arkansas without a head coach with the beginning of the fall semester just around the corner. Williamson's final season resulted with a 13-17 record, which gave the Bears twice as many wins as they had registered over the first two seasons of his tenure. His assistant, Clarence Finley, was hired on an interim basis to try to keep the progression steady, which will be an enormous challenge with the depleted roster. UCA had the second highest scoring offense in the SLC at 76.5 ppg, but it also ranked last in scoring defense at 78.6 ppg. The Bears will rely on senior guard LaQuentin Miles (15.4 ppg), who has a great chance of claiming the scoring title with little help around him.
SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA: Like much of the rest of the SLC, Jim Yarbrough's Lions used a late season surge to balance out their record after a poor showing in their non-conference slate. The Lions did not defeat a Division I opponent until their Jan. 5 victory over Central Arkansas. They did not have an easy road before entering SLC play as they lost road games to notable programs such as Wisconsin, Marquette, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech and Florida. SE Louisiana still managed to finish 13-17 overall with a 10-8 record versus league rivals. It will have trouble reaching a double-digit win total again after losing more than half of the minutes from last season. The leading scorer among returners is 5-9 senior guard Dre Evans, who netted 9.3 ppg as the third option. The Lions could remain in the mix if junior college transfers JaMichael Hawkins and Julian Chiera adapt to the new system quickly enough. The team will also benefit from 6-9 freshman Devonte Upson as his shot blocking ability will be very helpful for the interior defense.
LAMAR: The Cardinals experienced a dramatic decline in Knight's second year at the school. The former Texas Tech coach led Lamar to 23 wins and a First Four appearance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Knight's team earned 20 less wins and went 1-17 in SLC action last season and ended the campaign on an eight- game losing slide. Lamar's offensive system was predictable as it attempted a national low total of 188 3-point field goals and hit on only 57 of those tries. Two different players in the SLC took and made more shots from beyond the arc than Lamar's entire team. Knight's philosophy to avoid shots from long range clearly did not work with the unit he had last season, but five junior- college newcomers will join the program to give the Cardinals a lift. Among the crop of new talent is former South Dakota guard Nimrod Hilliard.
NEW ORLEANS: The Privateers appeared to be destined for Division III basketball after budget cuts caused by Hurricane Katrina. After leaving the Sun Belt and spending a few seasons at the Division II level, UNO resurfaced as one of the few Division I Independent schools and will now try to rebuild in the SLC. Coach Mark Slessinger's team finished 8-18 last season and lost a pair of double-digit scorers from that disappointing unit that earned half of their victories over non-Division I foes. The Privateers went 0-13 on the road with six of the setbacks coming by 20 points or more. They averaged 68.9 ppg on 44 percent shooting from the floor, however they were also lit up for 75.3 ppg on 45.5 percent efficiency. The SLC has other struggling programs at the bottom that UNO should be able to compete with, but it is not ready to take on the league's top dogs.
INCARNATE WOOD: The Cardinals will begin their four-year transition towards postseason eligibility after a 14-14 finish as a Division II program. UIW will play an altered schedule with two matchups against Abilene Christian and only one versus the other school in the conference once. Had it not moved up a level, UIW would be a very dangerous team at a lesser level due to the healthy return of former Wisconsin center, Ian Markoff (7-0, 265). The Cardinals like to run and gun which led to a lofty scoring average of 74.4 ppg in addition to an even higher allowed average of 75.7 ppg. Coach Ken Burmeister has a decent backcourt to start the transition in Denzel Livingston (12.6 ppg) and Kyle Hittle (10.5 ppg) returning.
ABILENE CHRISTIAN: Once a charter member of the SLC in 1963, Abilene Christian is now taking its first steps to fully rejoining the league 50 years later. The Wildcats' transition will be even more difficult as they try to replace three starters that combined to average over 40 ppg. They will also have the task of meshing their nine newcomers together quickly as sophomore guard Parker Wentz is the only player returning with any significant playing experience. Wentz averaged 8.3 points and 2.2 assists per outing as a freshman and those numbers are expected to rise due to the team's current situation. Just like Incarnate Wood, Abilene Christian will only play the full-Division I members once and the Cardinals twice this season.