As we get closer to March, Southland leader Stephen F. Austin might be one of the scarier teams a program could potentially face in the NCAA Tournament.
At 25-2 — and 14-0 in the Southland with a three-game lead — the Lumberjacks have won 22 consecutive games and are winning by an average of 13.8 points per game in conference play while playing with a balanced attack.
Stephen F. Austin has five players averaging at least 10 points a game and all five of the them shoot at least 31 percent from the three-point line, while four of them are above 33 percent.
But the shocking part about their success? The Lumberjacks are playing under first-year coach Brad Underwood — a longtime assistant at Kansas State and a year at South Carolina under Frank Martin — and lost three seniors that were regular contributors last season.
Underwood credited the team’s unique bond and work ethic for the win streak.
“They’ve been very receptive to listening, very receptive to the work ethic we’ve required and when you have a senior leader who is also your hardest worker, that is a bonus from day one,” Underwood said to College Basketball Talk last week. “And that’s helped with the winning streak. We’ve developed a tough mentality. That’s one of the thing’s I’m most proud of is the road winning streak. These kids have been able to be resilient and tough-minded and this is an extremely hard-working group.”
The senior Underwood is referring to is Desmond Haymon, a 6-foot-3 guard that doubles as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game.
“Just an extremely high-character guy,” Underwood said. “There’s no question that no matter what Desmond does in life he’s going to be successful because he has great character and great passion. He’s not afraid to tell other guys to step up and tell the young guys and challenge them to work.”
Stephen F. Austin’s offensive balance has been great for a first-year coach like Underwood to work with.
“It’s probably helped us more than any one thing. We’re basically a position-less team,” Underwood said of the balance. “My power forward can play the point for us. My five man is our best three-pointer shooter, statistically. They can all pass it, they can all dribble it. It’s probably as good a passing team as I’ve been apart of.”
The defense for the Lumberjacks has also been surprisingly good despite their lack of size. Jacob Parker is the team’s tallest starter at 6-foot-6 and is also the team’s best three-point shooter, but Stephen F. Austin relies on getting heavy pressure on the perimeter.
“One thing I’ve learned from Hugs and learned from Frank (Martin) is on the defensive side of things,” Underwood said of his team’s pressure. “I can’t play backline defense with this team and expect to win. We don’t have the roaming presence in terms of tremendous size. We pressure and we get out and deny. Our point guard Trey Pickney is just as good an on-the-ball defender as I’ve been around and we try to take other team’s first options away.”
With the Lumberjacks on a 22-game winning streak, a potential NCAA Tournament bid has come into question. Stephen F. Austin lost to Texas and East Tennessee State on the season and don’t have any marquee wins over tournament competition. That makes their Southland Conference tournament win vital for a league that is definitely a one-bid league.
“You have to win your (conference) tournament,” Underwood said. “If that means that’s in the cards for us and we’re able to do that, I think we become a team that not a lot of people want to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, we’re not worried about that. This team deserves what we’re getting. All of our fans, and administration should be proud of this winning streak. Winning is hard. We’re a team that is very grounded in terms of our general approach.”