This season, one of the best rivalries in any mid-major conference may be Stephen F. Austin/Northwestern State.
The two teams split the season series, taking their home games against one another with the total point differential being five points. Now, the Lumberjacks and Demons head into the Southland Conference tournament as the top two seeds and own byes into the semifinals as a result.
Individually, Stephen F. Austin has been getting most of the press clippings there year with their three overall losses. The lone non-conference loss came at Texas A&M, and they own wins at Florida International and Oklahoma.
But a team like Northwestern State has just as many games the Lumberjacks to get to the NCAA Tournament, and they know it. Oral Roberts is also a solid bet to open a few eyes in the coming days as well, while a few other teams have positive vibes they may be able to ride heading into the tournament.
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Where: Katy, Texas (Leonard E. Merrell Center)
When: March 13-16
Final: March 16, 8:30 EST (ESPN2)
Favorite: Stephen F. Austin
A three-loss team in any conference has already proven they are for real. The Lumberjacks, who at 26-3 overall, 16-2 in-conference have one of the more impressive records this season, are anchored by Taylor Smith, with the security of four seniors and five juniors playing high-level ball. They proved early in the season that they can play with the power conference teams — they only lost at Texas A&M by eight — and they carried that confidence into the conference season. They’ve got all the tools to easily take the tournament championship, plus the benefit of only needing two wins to do so.
And if they lose?: The Lumberjacks are one of only three teams in the nation with three or less losses, with the two conference defeats coming by a combined eight points. One of those losses came on the road at Northwestern State, who finished second in the conference at 15-3 and 21-8 overall. The Demons also gave the Lumberjacks a run in Nacogdoches, Texas on March 2, with Stephen F. Austin escaping with a 64-63 win. These two are as close as you can get to a lock to play in the tournament finals.
Sleepers: Despite their 12-17 overall record, Southeastern Louisiana handed the Lumberjacks one of their two conference losses this season. Oral Roberts is only one of three teams in the Southland to own an overall winning record. Central Arkansas has won four in a row heading into the tournament.
Taylor Smith, Stephen F. Austin – He averages 15.6 points and nine rebounds per game, leads SFA in both categories. Also leads the league with three blocked shots per game.
Fred Hunter, Nicholls State – The conference’s leading scorer at 19.8 per game. He can fill it up.
Damen Bell-Holter, Oral Roberts – He’s fourth in the conference in scoring (15.8) and leads the league in rebounding at nine boards per game.
CBT Prediction: Stephen F. Austin. They’re one of the best teams of any one-bid conference in America and they have the confidence of a roster flooded with experience. Northwestern State has the benefit of a win over the Lumberjacks, but conference losses happen. Stephen F. Austin did everything they had to to get to this point and there’s no reason to believe they’ll stop now.
Follow David Harten on Twitter at @David_Harten