Southland Preview: Stephen F. Austin returns as heavy favorite

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland.

The Southland has turned into a league in which its Stephen F. Austin and everybody else. This isn’t to insult a league which features some talented teams and players, but the Lumberjacks have won three consecutive regular-season titles, have three consecutive players of the year and own a dominating 35-1 mark in league play over the last two seasons.

This season, Stephen F. Austin looks to once again be one of the better mid-major programs in the country as head coach Brad Underwood returns Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup and three other starters. While the versatile Walkup will be the team’s main catalyst, standout defender Trey Pinkney returns along with talented sophomore guard Ty Charles. The Lumberjacks have lost some talented players from back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances but when you go 61-8 over two seasons and win a tournament game, you land some talented recruits. With more size and depth, Underwood might actually have his most talented team in three seasons.

Although Stephen F. Austin is the favorite, Northwestern State returns the highest-scoring duo in Division I basketball from last season as both senior guard Jalan West and junior guard Zeek Woodley return. The Demons were the highest scoring team in the country last season, as they averaged 84 points per game, but their scoring defense ranked dead last as they allowed 83 points per game. If Northwestern State can get a bit better on the defensive end, they could compete with Stephen F. Austin, but that remains a giant question mark heading into the season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is coming off of a solid season which saw them finish 20-14 with a second round appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Do-it-all guard John Jordan has exhausted his eligibility but junior forward Rashawn Thomas is an all-league candidate and he’s flanked by a very experienced roster that includes eight seniors. Head coach Willis Wilson got his team to really defend last season and they’re hoping for more of the same in 2015-16. It will be a new-look Sam Houston State as the team loses four starters, including Defensive Player of the Year Michael Holyfield. Senior guard Paul Baxter is the team’s lone returning starter and the Bearkats will rely on a deep recruiting class that features six junior college players.

Opening some eyes last season was Incarnate Word, who picked up road wins at Nebraska and UMKC before going a respectable 10-8 in league play. All-league candidate Kyle Hittle is back to lead the Cardinals and sophomore guard Jontrell Walker had some big games before an ankle injury slowed him down. Incarnate Word is still in the third year of a four-year transition phase from Division II to Division I but making last season’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament is a great step for the program. Lamar loses its top three scorers, but head coach Tic Price led a remarkable turnaround last season that saw the Cardinals finish .500 (15-15, 9-9) after only winning seven games the previous two seasons. The top three scorers might be history, but the rest of the rotation returns, including promising freshman point guard Kevin Booze.

Houston Baptist returns eight rotation players from last season, including talented senior guard Anthony Odunsi and junior forward Colter Lasher. Turnovers were a huge issue for the Huskies last season, so if a recruiting class filled with perimeter options can help in that category, Ron Cottrell’s team could be in good shape. If Nicholls State can improve its woeful perimeter shooting, they return nearly the entire roster from a team that went 7-11 in league play. Senior guard T.J. Carpenter and junior forward Ja’Dante’ Frye are both double-digit scorers who return for the Colonels.

With three double-digit scorers returning in junior guard Christavious Gill, senior forward Kevin Hill and junior guard Nate Frye, New Orleans can certainly put the ball in the basket, they just have to get better on the defensive end. The Privateers allowed opposing teams to shoot 48 percent against them last season, good for 342 out of 345 Division I teams. Southeastern Louisiana returns some scoring in guards Zay Jackson and Joshua Filmore but a lot of question marks fill the rest of Jay Ladner’s roster. If Leroy Fludd, the NCJAA Division I National Tournament MVP is as good as advertised, the Lions might be able to finish in the league’s top half.

Showing some life at the end of conference play was McNeese State, who closed the Southland season nicely after a 1-6 start. Only two starters and the entire bench are back from that group, but head coach Dave Simmons had his group playing hard and playing good ball in the late weeks. Abilene Christian is still two years from full Division I status and they’ve struggled to win league games. The Wildcats only have one conference road win in two seasons, but return four of its top six rotation players from last season. Central Arkansas played eight freshman last season and still have a very young team. Southland Freshman of the Year Jordan Howard is back but the Bears had the worst field-goal percentage defense of any team in the country last season, allowing opponents to shoot 49.6 percent from the field.

 

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Stephen F. Austin has completely dominated our league and they’ve done a great job of reloading in problem areas through recruiting.”
  • Sleeper: “You saw Incarnate Word go into Nebraska and win last season; they have no fear. Ken has a lot of pieces back and Kyle Hittle is a problem.”
  • Star to watch: “Thomas Walkup is the deserving Player of the Year on the league’s best team, but I think the average basketball fan would be blown away by how talented Jalan West is.”

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Walkup, Stephen F. Austin

The senior is the reigning Southland Player of the Year and also made the league’s All-Defensive team last year, so this is a pretty obvious choice. Walkup is a solid all-around contributor for the Lumberjacks as he led the team in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage last season. Although his 3-point percentage dipped a little as a junior, Walkup is still a threat to score from many places on the floor and he’s also a very good distributor, averaging 3.7 assists per game.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHLAND TEAM:

  • Jalan West, Northwestern State: One half of the nation’s highest-scoring duo last season, West averaged 7.7 assists per game to go along with his stellar 20 points per game. Besides being an offensive force, West is a three-time conference All-Defense selection.
  • Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State: The Robin to Jalan West’s Batman, the junior averaged 22 points and 5 rebounds per game last season. The 6-foot-2 guard also shot a ridiculous 56 percent from the line while also shooting 39 percent from 3-point range.
  • Kyle Hittle, Incarnate Word: The senior had a very efficient junior season shooting the ball as he put up great splits (49% FG, 75% FT, 41% 3PT) while averaging 15.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
  • Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: A second-team All-Southland selection a season ago, this is now Thomas’ team after the departure of talented guard John Jordan. Thomas put up 13.3 points, 7.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

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PREDICTED FINISH

1. Stephen F. Austin
2. Northwestern State
3. Texas A&M CC
4. Sam Houston State
5. Incarnate Word
6. Lamar
7. Houston Baptist
8. Nicholls State
9. New Orleans
10. Southeastern Louisiana
11. McNeese State
12. Abilene Christian
13. Central Arkansas