Willis Wilson’s Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders picked up a solid road victory Sunday afternoon, as they beat defending Atlantic 10 champion Saint Louis 62-56. Junior guard John Jordan led the way offensively, scoring 13 points to go along with three assists and three steals. The 5-foot-10 Jordan also provided the highlight of the game, going baseline for the dunk over SLU’s Miles Reynolds.
According to the announces Jordan has a standing vertical of 38 inches, and with a running start he approaches 50 inches. Give Reynolds credit for attempting to make the proper help side rotation. But given how high Jordan jumped, he very well could have cleared Reynolds had the SLU guard made it directly in front of him.
Stephen F. Austin has a lot to live up to if they hope to achieve similar success in 2014-15. The 2013-14 iteration of the Lumberjacks went 32-3, 20-0 in the Southland, won 29 straight games and beat VCU in the Round of 64 before falling to UCLA.
That’s quite an accomplishment for first-year head coach Brad Underwood, a former assistant of Frank Martin, who had tremendous balance and perimeter shooting last season. Although Stephen F. Austin loses leading scorer Desmond Haymon and another double-figure scorer in Deshaunt Walker, they do return Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker, as well as Southland Tournament MVP Thomas Walkup and point guard Trey Pinckney.
The trio of returning starters is more than enough with others filling the departed players’ shoes to once again win the Southland Conference Title, as the Lumberjacks were one of the country’s best non-power conference teams last season.
Underwood’s team is the heavy favorite and he received an eight-year deal after last season.
The early runner-up candidate behind Stephen F. Austin is Sam Houston State, who returns seven contributors from last season including Southland Newcomer of the Year and 6-foot-4 senior Jabari Peters. Peters started all 35 games last season, along with three other returning starters: 6-foot-0 guard Kaheem Ransom, 6-foot-1 junior Paul Baxter and 6-foot-11 center Michael Holyfield.
This is a deep and experienced team. The Bearkats lost in the Southland title game last season and finished 24-11 (13-5).
Northwestern State is situated next as junior point guard Jalen West averaged 19.4 points and 6.4 assists last season for an offense that averaged 86.6 points per game, good enough for second in the nation. The Demons also return Southland Freshman of the Year, 6-foot-2 guard Zeek Woodley and 6-foot-9 center Marvin Frazier.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi returns after a 14-4 conference mark and all-league candidate John Jordan is back at point guard. The Islanders could compete in the Southland as 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Rashawn Thomas also returns. McNeese State and Incarnate Word both have all-conference caliber players in senior guards Kevin Hardy and Denzel Livingston. Both of those players are capable of making plays all over the floor and each averaged over two steals a game last season.
It’s worth noting that Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are playing full 18-game Southland schedules this season for the first time, but both remain ineligible for the NCAA Tournament after transitioning from Division II. Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist and Lamar are all banned from the postseason due to low APR scores.
Of the 13 teams in the Southland, only eight may play in the postseason in 2014-15.
Out: Oral Roberts
PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin
The reigning Southland Player of the Year, the 6-foot-6 Parker is one of three returning starters for a team that reached the Round of 32 in 2014. The senior averaged 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.4 steals per game last season while shooting 53 percent from the field, 46 percent from three-point range and 79 percent from the free-throw line. Efficient and productive from all over the floor, Parker will be the key for Stephen F. Austin to maintain last year’s success after the Lumberjacks lost some valuable seniors.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHLAND TEAM:
Kevin Hardy, McNeese State: Do-it-all 6-foot-2 senior guard averaged 11 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2 steals per game last season.
John Jordan, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: A dynamic, play-making senior guard, the 5-foot-10 Jordan averaged 14.8 points and 5.4 assists per game as a junior.
Denzel Livingston, Incarnate Word: The 6-foot-4 senior combo guard averaged 20.3 points per game and a Southland-leading 2.5 steals per game as he scored 20 or more points in 10 of the last 11 games in 2013-14.
Jalan West, Northwestern State: The 5-foot-10 junior point guard averaged 19.4 points and a Southland-best 6.4 assists per game last season and could de-throne Parker for Player of the Year honors.
1. Stephen F. Austin
2. Sam Houston State
3. Northwestern State
4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
5. McNeese State
6. Incarnate Word
7. Southeastern Louisiana
8. New Orleans
9. Nicholls State
10. Abilene Christian
11. Houston Baptist
12. Central Arkansas
When Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio, and Texas State left the Southland Conference prior to the 2013 season, the remaining teams breathed a collective sigh of relief. Before the trio departed (and the conference added Oral Roberts), the tournament allowed only the league’s top eight to compete, a bracket that forced each squad to play on the tourney’s first day and (unintentionally) encouraged upsets. During the past three Southland tournaments, the top seed has never won the NCAA’s autobid, but thanks to a new format, Stephen F. Austin (along with Texas A&M Corpus-Christi,) gets to bypass the first two rounds, potentially ensuring an NCAA appearance for the Southland’s most deserving team.
When: March 12-15, 2014 Where: Leonard E. Merrell Center, Katy, Texas Final: March 15, 7:30 (ESPN2)
Favorite: Stephen F. Austin
It is unclear why Stephen F. Austin hasn’t received more national press (though CBT’s Scott Phillips did outline several reasons for the Lumberjacks’ success this season). The team hasn’t lost a conference game since February 16, 2013, and what is remarkable about SFA is their dominance with a new coach at the helm. Brad Underwood is a branch on Frank Martin’s coaching tree, and so while the team fouls at a ridiculous rate (their defensive foul rate, 53.1 percent, ranks among the worst in DI, typical of a Martin-influenced coaching philosophy), SFA also the Southland’s most efficient offense (1.18) and completely lock down opponents (.95).
And if they lose?: Northwestern State
Mike McConathy’s squad has the most momentum entering postseason play: since mid-January, the Demons have won eleven of their last thirteen games. And while they have lost six Southland contests, four were by a combined nine points. Northwestern State’s offense is propelled by its backcourt; Zikiteran Woodley and Jalan West have won the Southland’s past two freshman of the year awards and both are proficient scoring within the arc (a combined 58 percent). The Demons are also the nation’s fastest team, using 76 possessions per game, running about fourteen seconds off the shot clock before a field goal attempt.
Texas A&M Corpus Christi: The second-seeded Islanders are defined by their defense, particularly from beyond the arc and in transition. While opponents don’t take many threes, TAMU-CC is effective chasing shooters from the line and preventing open looks, and have perfected their transition defense, allowing opponents to post an effective field goal percentage of 49.1 percent (39th best in DI, per Hoop-Math.com). This defensive fortitude also extends to the halfcourt, as the squad also has the conference’s second stingiest non-transition eFG percentage.
Oral Roberts: The Southland’s wildcard for a tournament title, Oral Roberts is arguably the league’s unluckiest team. Not only did the Golden Eagles drop six games to Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and Northwestern State, but each of the six losses were by single digits.
Sam Houston StateMichael Holyfield, the Bearkat’ junior center, is one of the conference’s most improved players, and it is inconceivable that the big didn’t earn a single Southland honor (especially an all-defensive team nod). Holyfield has seen a significant bump in minutes from his sophomore year, and has used the extra playing time to boost his rebounding percentages, grabbing nearly 19 percent of Sam Houston State’s misses (the nation’s eighth best rate this season) and 27 percent of opponents’ attempts (the seventeenth best rate). Combined with his block rate of almost ten percent, Holyfield can defensively control a game.
Jalan West, Northwestern State: The 5-foot-10 West excels at penetrating opposing defenses and wreaking offensive havoc. After a year spent probing, but not converting, within the arc, West upped his percentage of two-point (not at the rim) attempts and is efficiency connecting on those looks (45 percent).
Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin: The Southland’s player of the year, only one other DI player uses a higher rate of his team’s possessions and is most offensively efficient than the forward (TJ Bray of Princeton).
Shawn Glover, Oral Roberts: The squad’s offense runs through the senior. A high usage shooter, Glover’s game is predominantly in the paint, and he has attempted a whopping 445 twos this season (making half of those shots).
CBT Prediction: Stephen F. Austin earns the conference’s automatic bid.