(SportsNetwork.com) - It's not too often a team goes undefeated in conference play, but when it does happen it's certainly a special achievement.
Wichita State got all the attention this year for its perfect record, but one of the most undervalued and under publicized stories on the year has to be the success of Stephen F. Austin's 18-0 campaign in Southland Conference play. The Lumberjacks became the first-ever Southland team to survive with a perfect 18- game league schedule, and in the process earned the conference's top overall seed headed into the Southland Conference Tournament.
The 2014 Southland Tournament, highlighted by Stephen F. Austin, starts on Wednesday, March 12, at the Leonard E. Merrell Center, and runs through Saturday, March 15. On the line is an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
SFA (29-2, 18-0 Southland) won its second consecutive regular-season conference title, and its fourth overall. The Lumberjacks have a national-best 33-game home win streak going, and have won 26 consecutive games - the nation's second-longest streak only to Wichita State. Sure, Southland Conference play doesn't equal the intensity as other schedules in the nation, but SFA proved it belongs in the conversation with key wins over programs like Samford, Towson, James Madison and Marshall.
The only two losses the Lumberjacks suffered this season were to Texas (72-62) and to East Tennessee State (66-58) - both on the road.
Only eight of the Southland Conference's 14 teams are playing for the tournament crown. SFA garnered the top overall seed, and will receive a double-bye into the semifinal round on Friday. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (17-14, 14-4) received the second seed in the conference and also gets a double-bye to Friday's semifinals. Sam Houston State (21-9, 13-5) gets the third seed and earns a bye to the quarterfinal round on Thursday, as does fourth-seeded Northwestern State (16-13, 12-6), last year's Southland champion.
The first round of the Southland Tournament kicks off Wednesday with a matchup between the eighth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana Lions and the fifth-seeded Nicholls State Colonels.
Southeastern Louisiana (12-17, 7-11) had a fairly rocky year, going on three separate losing streaks of at least three games. The Lions finished the regular season 1-4 in their last five games, ending on a high note by defeating Lamar, 71-62, on March 8. Southeastern enters the tournament having won just one conference title back in 2005, and brings a 6-8 all-time Southland Tournament ledger into the fray. The Lions had the ninth-best scoring offense in the conference this season, recording 69.7 ppg in 29 games played. JaMichael Hawkins topped the team in scoring this season with a 12.4 ppg average, and finished third in the conference in free-throw percentage at 83.5 percent. Antonio Benton checked in with an 11.8 ppg mark, adding a team high-tying 6.2 rpg average. Devonte Upson ranks third in the conference in blocks per game, averaging 1.7 per outing. The Lions gave up 72.5 ppg to their opponents this season, which was seventh-best in the Southland.
Nicholls State (13-14, 10-8) didn't fare that well in non-conference action, but turned things around when conference play started en route to a 10-8 mark in the Southland. The Colonels won three of their last five games of the regular season, although the team lost to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 58-44, in the season finale on Saturday. Nicholls hasn't won a conference title since the 1998 season, and owns just a 7-11 record in the conference tournament all- time. With a 68.3 ppg scoring offense, Nicholls State ranks 12th in the Southland Conference, and is 13th in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to hit 47 percent of their shots. Dantrell Thomas is the go-to scorer for the Colonels, averaging a team-best and seventh-in-conference 15.7 ppg. Jeremy Smith (13.9 ppg) ranks second in the conference in field-goal percentage at 56.7 percent. Nicholls State gives up an average of 72.7 ppg to opponents. The two teams split the season series, each winning on their home court.
The winner of this contest will move on to the quarterfinal round to face defending champion Northwestern State.
The second first-round clash will feature the seventh-seeded McNeese State Cowboys taking on the sixth-seeded Oral Roberts Golden Eagles.
McNeese State (11-19, 9-9) won three of the team's last four games of the regular season, including a 79-77 win over Houston Baptist in Saturday's season finale. The Cowboys have quite a history in the Southland Tournament, owning a 23-24 all-time record in the conference's postseason. The 23 wins in the tournament are the most by any current Southland team, although McNeese State hasn't won a conference title since 2002. Ledrick Eackles tops the Cowboys with a 17.5 ppg average, which is good for fifth in the conference. Kevin Hardy (11.1 ppg) and Desharick Guidry (10.1 ppg) round out the double- digit scorers for McNeese State on the season, but the Cowboys average only 68.3 ppg offensively, good for 11th in the Southland. Guidry's 8 rpg is the best in the conference, and Hardy's 4.2 apg average is fifth in the Southland. Hardy is the conference leader in minutes per game, averaging 35.5 per outing.
Oral Roberts (16-15, 10-8) enjoyed a relatively successful end to its regular season. The Golden Eagles took home six wins in the team's last nine games of the year, which significantly boosted the team's conference record. Oral Roberts has only played in one Southland Conference Tournament game in its history, which it lost. The Golden Eagles will be searching for their first conference championship, and will start by going against a McNeese State team that defeated them back on Feb. 1 by 11 points. Oral Roberts will trot out top scorer Shawn Glover, who is second in the Southland this year at 21.7 ppg. The Golden Eagles have the conference's second-best field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to just 43.6 percent shooting. Their scoring defense, third in the conference, gives up 69.5 ppg. Korey Billbury is the only other active Oral Roberts player to average a double-digit point total on the season, netting 15 ppg with a team-leading 6.8 rpg mark.
Whichever team wins this first-round battle will advance to the quarterfinal round on Thursday to face Sam Houston State.
The quarterfinal round begins on Thursday with a matchup with either Southeastern Louisiana or Nicholls State taking on Northwestern State. The Demons will have some tall tasks ahead if the team wants to repeat as the Southland Conference champion. There's no doubt the Demons have the scoring offense to take down any Southland program. Northwestern State averages a conference-high 86.9 ppg through 29 games played. But with one great strength, there is usually a glaring weakness. For the Demons, it's on the other end of the court, allowing a conference-worst 84.2 ppg to opponents. Northwestern State boasts two players on the conference's top 10 scoring list with Jalan West (18.9 ppg) ranking fourth (and adding a team- and league-high 6.6 apg average), and DeQuan Hicks (15.1 ppg) at eighth. Hicks leads the team with a 7.2 rpg average. Zikiteran Woodley adds 14.1 ppg, and Brison White chips in 13.5 ppg. The Demons have won three conference titles in league history - the second most behind Lamar's four - and own a 19-13 record in the Southland Conference Tournament all-time. Northwestern State has won four games in a row entering the tournament.
The second quarterfinal round game will be between the winner of McNeese State/Oral Roberts and third-seeded Sam Houston State. The Bearkats won two in a row to end the regular season, and have won three of their last five altogether. Sam Houston State brings a 14-14 record all-time in the Southland Tournament into this postseason with two conference titles to its program's name. The last win for the Bearkats came in 2010 when they defeated Stephen F. Austin for the crown. SHSU ranked third in the conference in scoring offense at 77.2 ppg, and was fourth in scoring defense by allowing just 70.4 ppg to opponents. Michael Holyfield ranked eighth in the Southland in rebounding, grabbing a 6.9 rpg average, and was fourth in blocked shots at 1.7 bpg. Jabari Peters led Sam Houston in scoring with 12.8 ppg, adding a team-best 126 assists on the year. Kaheem Ransom chipped in 11.6 ppg with a team-high 41 steals.
On Friday, the winner of Southeastern/Nicholls/Northwestern State will take on the top-seeded Lumberjacks in the first semifinal round contest.
Stephen F. Austin was simply dominant in the conference this season, as its record would suggest. But the Lumberjacks weren't overpowering on any side of the stat sheet - they just played the best as a cohesive unit. SFA averaged 76.5 ppg - good for fourth-best in the conference. The Lumberjacks did lead the league in scoring defense, allowing just 62.6 ppg to opponents, but was eighth in the Southland in field goal percentage defense, allowing the enemies to hit 45.3 percent of their field goal tries. The 'Jacks topped the league in rebounding defense, allowing 28.9 rpg to their opponents, and hit a fifth-best in-conference 46.4 percent of their shot attempts. They also have a league- best 1.47 assists to turnover ratio. Jacob Parker netted a team-high 14.5 ppg this season, connecting on 53.7 percent of his tries from the floor. His 7.1 rpg average was a team best and seventh in the Southland. Desmond Haymon chipped in 14.2 ppg, Thomas Walkup added 12.9 ppg and Deshaunt Walker contributed 11.9 ppg. Stephen F. Austin last won a conference title in 2009 - the only title the Lumberjacks have obtained in program history. SFA holds a 14-15 all-time record in the tournament, but will put its 26-game win streak to the test, possibly against the defending Southland champs.
The last semifinal matchup will be between the winner of McNeese State/Oral Roberts/Sam Houston State and the second-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders. TXAMCC didn't do so well against non-conference competition this season, at one point suffering through an eight-game losing streak that ended in the team's first Southland matchup of the season. The Islanders dropped only four conference games all year, including a 10-point defeat to Stephen F. Austin in Corpus Christi. But the Islanders have now won seven games in a row entering the tournament, and will be looking to slow down the surging Lumberjacks. TXAMCC is 5-2 all-time in the Southland Tournament, and has won one division title back in the 2007 season. The Islanders pride themselves on a strong defense, allowing a Southland second-best 67.2 ppg to opponents. A strong defense is necessary for AMCC, which scored just 69.2 ppg in 31 games played during the regular season. Big man Zane Knowles leads the team and is second in the conference in rebounding, bringing down an average of 7.7 rpg. John Jordan leads the Islanders in scoring with a 14.9 ppg average, adding a team-high and second-in-conference 5.2 apg mark. Rashawn Thomas is the second and final player to have a double-digit scoring average, netting 10.5 ppg on 58.4 percent shooting.