Southland Conference Preview: Does Stephen F. Austin sustain success without Underwood, Walkup?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland Conference.

Things are going to look different in the Southland this season now that Stephen F. Austin has lost so many familiar faces. The three-time defending champion Lumberjacks lost head coach Brad Underwood to Oklahoma State and two-time Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup exhausted his eligibility as Stephen F. Austin tries to stay atop the conference with some new faces.

New head coach Kyle Keller is now in charge at Stephen F. Austin after a successful stint as an assistant coach with Texas A&M. Keller likely won’t match Underwood’s insane 53-1 Southland record with the Lumberjacks but he has plenty of talent and winning culture in place. The Lumberjacks have won a NCAA tournament game in two of the last three seasons as they return junior Ty Charles and sophomore T.J. Holyfield. Newcomers could be the key to the season or Stephen F. Austin as Keller brought in some talented transfers and junior college prospects.

Sam Houston State is once again knocking on the door as they return the top five scorers from last season. Senior forward Aurimas Majauskas and senior guard Dakarai Henderson both averaged 14.2 points per game last season as both players were All-Southland second-team selections. The return of talented point guard Paul Baxter, who missed last season with injury, could give the Bearkats six capable starters.

Coming off of a CBI appearance, Houston Baptist returns a lot of upperclass talent as they’re led by senior forward Colter Lasher. If center Josh Ibarra can return from injury and graduate transfer Atif Russell makes an impact from Pepperdine then the Huskies could be one of the Southland’s deeper teams. Texas A&M Corpus-Christi returns Player of the Year candidate Rashawn Thomas as forward as the senior will need help from a lot of new pieces. Seven seniors are gone from last season, but the Islanders are hoping guards Joe Kilgore and Ehab Amin can step up.

McNeese State has to improve its defense and rebounding but the Cowboys return a potent offense. Five of the top six scorers are back including senior guard Jamaya Burr and sophomores Jarren Greenwood and James Harvey and McNeese State should be one of the better perimeter shooting teams in the Southland. A young team who could be one to watch, Abilene Christian returns super sophomore guard Jaylen Franklin to lead the charge. The Wildcats only have one senior and need sophomores like Hayden Howell and Jaren Lewis to step up.

Things should be intriguing at Northwestern State as high-scoring guard Zeek Woodley is back but star senior point guard Jalan West is out once again with a torn ACL. Woodley is good for over 20 points a game but he’ll need more help this season. Senior guard Sabri Thompson was strong during a preseason trip to Canada. Head coach Jay Ladner returns seven of the top nine scorers for Southeastern Louisiana as the Lions should have plenty of scoring. Guard Joshua Filmore logged plenty of minutes last season while Southern Miss transfer Davon Hayes could provide another rotation piece.

Incarnate Word got hit hard by transfers this offseason as Jontell Walker and Derail Green left for other programs. Junior guard Shawn Johnson showed some promise late in the season and should be asked to lead. New Orleans returns three double-figure scorers in guard Christavious Gill, forward Erik Thomas and guard Nate Frye. The Privateers can make a jump if they  improve their perimeter shooting and get five new players involved.

After being banned from the postseason for a low APR, Central Arkansas is hoping for a better season. Junior Jordan Howard can pour in points and Derreck Brooks is a quality second piece. The Bears have to improve defensively after an abysmal 2015-16. Lamar is hoping that head coach Tic Price can get them back on track as leading scorer Nick Garth is back. The Cardinals will rely a lot on new pieces this season as they hit the junior college ranks hard for college-ready players. New coach Richie Riley takes over at Nicholls State as he signed five players this spring. Senior guard Ja’Dante Fry is back along with senior center Liam Thomas, the Southland’s leader in blocks last season.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

The reigning Southland Defensive Player of the Year was also top five in the league in scoring and rebounding a year ago as the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 16.6 points and a conference-leading 8.1 rebounds per game. Thomas also shot 55 percent from the floor and averaged 2.3 blocks per game as he’s one of the best all-around mid-major players in the country. On a team replacing a lot of experienced players, Thomas could put up huge numbers for the Islanders.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM:

  • Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State: Putting up 22.2 points per game the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2 senior has a serious chance at 2,000 career points.
  • Jaylen Franklin, Abilene Christian: The 6-foot-2 guard is reigning Southland Freshman of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds in his first season.
  • Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: A bright spot for Central Arkansas, the 5-foot-11 junior put up 20.2 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
  • Aurimas Majauskas, Sam Houston State: The 6-foot-7 senior shot 54 percent from the floor while averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

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