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.