By Kevin Sweeney
To say that Stephen F. Austin has dominated the Southland Conference in the last few years would be an understatement. The Lumberjacks have lost just 1 conference game in the past 3 seasons, and have won at least 12 conference games every season since 2010-11. They have certainly taken full advantage when on the national stage, winning a game in 2 out of the past 3 NCAA Tournaments and coming within seconds of the Sweet 16 last season. However, SFA head coach Brad Underwood left to take the Oklahoma State opening this offseason, and the Lumberjacks’ top 3 scorers from last season all graduated. With the Lumberjacks no longer in position to dominate the Southland, opportunity arises for another team to take the title for the first time since 2013.
- Sam Houston State
- Stephen F. Austin
- Texas A&M-CC
- Abilene Christian
- Houston Baptist
- Northwestern State
- McNeese State
- New Orleans
- Southeastern Louisiana
- Incarnate Word
- Central Arkansas
- Nicholls State
Champions: Sam Houston State- Despite the heavy losses they suffered, it was still difficult for me to pick against Stephen F. Austin. After all, there has been no team more dominant in their conference over the past 3 seasons in all of college basketball. However, with the talent returning at Sam Houston State, I consider them the favorite to take the Southland this season. They return all 5 starters from last season’s team that finished in a tie for 3rd place in the Southland. The high-scoring duo of guard Dakarai Johnson and center Aurimas Majauskas will be asked to provide much of the scoring punch. Each of them averaged 14.2 points per game last season. The x-factor for the Bearkats will be graduate transfer forward Phillip Jones Jr, who spent his first 3 seasons at UTSA. He didn’t put up huge numbers last season, but finished the year with 3 double-doubles in his final 4 games. If he can provide that type of production this season, it might put the Bearkats over the top.
Dark Horse: Northwestern State- There is certainly potential for this Northwestern State squad. They bring back virtually all of their production from last season, including one of the best scorers in college basketball in Zeek Woodley. I would have picked the Demons to contend for the league title if not for a season-ending injury suffered by superstar point guard Jalan West, who re-tore his ACL in August after suffering the same injury in the season opener last season against Ole Miss. Despite that huge loss, the Demons still have a strong core in place that is as talented as that of any other team in the league. The big problem to solve for Northwestern State is their defense. They were one of the worst defenses in college basketball last season, giving up a whopping 86.2 points per game. If they can solve their defensive woes, the Demons could be one of the top teams in the Southland even without West.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Rashawn Thomas- Texas A&M-CC
- G: Jaylen Franklin- Abilene Christian
- G: Jordan Howard- Central Arkansas
- G: Zeek Woodley- Northwestern State
- G: Ty Charles- Stephen F. Austin
Player of the Year: Zeek Woodley- The third-leading scorer among returning players in all of college basketball, Woodley certainly qualifies as a take-over scorer. He is remarkably consistent, scoring in double figures in all but 2 games since his freshman season. There is nothing Woodley can’t do on offense, as he is an excellent 3-point shooter who also has the ability to drive to the basket and finish through contact. Northwestern State can ill afford for Woodley to have any bad games, as their entire offense flows through him and his ability to score in bunches. With a player of the year-type season, Woodley could carry the Demons into contention in the Southland.
Newcomer of the Year: Leon Gilmore (Stephen F. Austin)- The Lumberjacks will need their 8 newcomers to make an impact in order to offset the loss of 3 starters from last season’s squad. Gilmore might be the best of the group. A former highly-recruit who chose to begin his career at Creighton over multiple Power 5 offers, Gilmore spent last season as one of the best players in the NJCAA, leading his team to a 33-2 record. He is capable of playing all 3 forward positions, but should do most of his damage at the power forward spot for the Lumberjacks. If he can be an instant player, he could help Stephen F. Austin stay atop the Southland.