(SportsNetwork.com) - The Southland Conference begins its 2015 Conference Tournament on Wednesday, March 11 with all the games set to be played at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy, Texas.
Top-seeded and reigning champs Stephen F. Austin is looking to become the first team to repeat as tournament champion since Louisiana-Monroe won four straight from 1990-1993, but the Lumberjacks should face stiff competition from their Lone Star State rival, the second-seeded Bearkats of Sam Houston State.
Winners of their last seven, the 27-4 Lumberjacks finished a near-perfect 17-1 in league play, winning their third consecutive Southland regular season title. They are led by 2014-2015 Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup, who averages 15.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg. Walkup was even more effective in league play, averaging 18.1 ppg. Head Coach Brad Underwood also took home Coach of the Year honors, as he helms a squad that scores 83.9 ppg, best in the conference. They do a lot of damage from the perimeter, shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the arc, which improves to 41.5 percent in league play, both top marks in the league. The Lumberjacks received a double-bye in the tournament and do not play until the semifinals on Friday evening.
Sam Houston (24-7, 15-3) excels on the defensive end of the court, paced by Defensive Player of the Year Michael Holyfield and his 7.6 rpg and 2.4 bpg. The Bearkats are the Southland's top scoring defense and top rebounding team. The Bearkats only give up 58.4 ppg while pulling down 40.1 rpg. The Lumberjacks also received a double-bye and will first play in the semifinals on Friday night.
The third-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders (18-12, 13-5) come into the tournament with some momentum, have won their last four regular season contests. They also handed the Lumberjacks their only loss, a 62-51 road victory by the Islanders. With a first-round bye, the Islanders wait to face the winner of the opening round matchup between Nicholls and New Orleans on Thursday night.
The Northwestern State Demons (18-11, 13-15) are the No. 4 seed and bring the league's most prolific offense to Katy, as they score at a 85.8 ppg clip in league play, led by the Southland's top scorer, Zeek Woodley (22.4 ppg) and Jalan West (19.2 ppg). The difficulty for the Demons is that they give nearly all of that back defensively, as they are yielding 81.8 ppg, second worst in the Southland. They also received a first round bye and take on the winner of McNeese State/Southeastern Louisiana opening round tilt in the other Thursday night game.
The fifth-seeded McNeese State Cowboys (14-15, 8-10) were victorious in their final four regular season games. They also won both matchups against Southeastern Louisiana, their opponent in the opening round on Wednesday evening.
The Nicholls Colonels (10-18, 7-11) are the No. 6 seed in the tournament, winning their last three games and hoping to continue their recent success. The Colonels field the worst offense of the teams in the postseason tournament, scoring just 64.9 ppg and being outscored by a margin of 5.2 ppg. They face New Orleans in the opening round nightcap on Wednesday, a team they swept in the regular season.
The seventh-seeded New Orleans Privateers (10-17, 6-12), losers of two of three coming into the tournament, will be playing in their first-ever Southland Conference Tournament. The Privateers allow opponents to make 48.3 percent of their field goals, second worst in the conference.
The eighth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana Lions (9-22, 6-12) have lost five straight games, and have not won since edging Abilene Christian 55-54 on Feb. 21.
Despite finishing with a 10-8 record in conference play, Incarnate Word (18-10) cannot participate in the conference tournament until the 2017-18 season. The Cardinals, along with Abilene Christian (10-21, 4-14), are in the second year of their four-year transitional period.
Lamar (15-15, 9-9), Houston Baptist (12-16, 7-11) and Central Arkansas (2-27, 2-16) are ineligible for 2015 postseason play for failure to meet enhanced NCAA Academic Performance Rating requirements
In Saturday night's championship game, look for Stephen F. Austin to finish off a dominating season and grab its second straight title.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Stephen F. Austin