By Kevin Sweeney
The Southland Conference has been one dominated by Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks have claimed 4 of the last 5 regular season titles, going undefeated in conference play twice and only losing more than 2 conference games once in that span. And while SFA was tripped up last season in a transition season with a new coach in Kyle Keller at the helm, the Lumberjacks are back and are the favorites once again in the Southland.
- Stephen F. Austin- Kyle Keller has done a tremendous job recruiting talent to Stephen F. Austin, landing one of the better mid-major recruiting classes in the country to compliment a returning core that brings back 4 starters. Look for freshman PG Cam Mack to have a huge year.
- Lamar- The Cardinals bring back their top 7 scorers from last season’s club, which went 10-8 in conference play. Undersized forward Colton Weisbrod is a conference player of the year candidate, coming off a season in which he averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds per game despite standing just 6-5.
- Texas A&M-Corpus Christi- This is a really tough team for me to predict this year. On one hand, losing the best player in the conference in Rashawn Thomas will be extremely difficult to replace. However, they still have a very talented guard in Ehab Amin and a solid recruiting class that features talented twins Sean and Deion Rhea.
- Southeastern Louisiana- This team is a team I think could really surprise. Star point guard Marlain Veal is one of the most fun players to watch in the country, making highlight-reel plays despite his 5-9 frame. They also bring back Jordan Capps, one of the better big men in the conference who seemed destined for stardom last season before seeing his season end after 2 games due to injury.
- Sam Houston State- Jason Hooten has quietly helped lead this SHSU program to 3 20-win seasons in the last 4 years, and I wouldn’t be stunned to see a 4th registered this season. A solid core of Christopher Galbreath and John Dewey should carry the load, but the Bearkats will need some newcomers to step up around them in order to contend for a title.
- New Orleans- Mark Slessinger’s team shocked the world last season as surprise winners in the Southland, claiming their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1996. 3 starters graduate, but the Privateers have a very solid big man in Travin Thibodeaux and a strong group of incoming guards who should play minutes from the get-go.
- Houston Baptist- Coming off a 12-6 mark in Southland play, HBU does lose 3 starters but brings back an excellent duo in junior guard Braxton Bonds and senior big man Josh Ibarra. Another team that could move up in the league’s middle tier.
- Incarnate Word- In their first season of full Division 1 status after 4 in transition, UIW has one of the more talented cores in the league in PG Jalin Hart, wing Shawn Johnson, and big man Simi Socks. This team is 1 piece away from being a very dangerous club.
- Abilene Christian- As a freshman, Jalone Friday averaged over 13 points and 5 rebounds despite only playing a little more than 20 minutes per night. This rising star will have to have a big year for ACU to move up in the standings.
- Nicholls- I’m not sure if Nicholls will be good this season, but they will definitely be interesting. They add a mass of transfers to the roster, with the headliners being former Maryland guard Roddy Peters and UNCG wing Tevon Saddler, each of whom are more than capable of averaging 15 points per game this season. This team has the talent to be a top 5 team in this conference.
- Northwestern State- The intrigue here is Jalan West, the 7th-year senior point guard who has missed the last 2 seasons due to injury but averaged 20 points and 7 assists as a junior in 2014-15. If he can return anything close to form, the Demons will be a tough out.
- Central Arkansas- Central Arkansas has the conference’s leading returning scorer in Jordan Howard, who is well on his way to 2,000 career points assuming he stays healthy. They also add a very talented freshman big in SK Shittu, a high-upside kid who could develop into a star in the Southland.
- McNeese State- 3 starters return for McNeese, but they do lose 2nd-leading-scorer Jamaya Burr. They’ll need a massive sophomore season from Kalob Ladoux, who was one of the more impressive freshmen in the conference a season ago.
Champions: Stephen F. Austin
I see SFA as a pretty clear-cut favorite in the Southland. With the exception of starting point guard Dallas Cameron, everyone of significance is back. Guys like TJ Holyfield, Leon Gilmore, and Ivan Canete all return as all-conference-level talents, and sophomore wing Kevon Harris is one of my breakout candidates in the conference. Meanwhile, there’s a ton of excitement about 3-star point guard Cameron Mack, a long, smooth guard who fill fit perfectly in the system Kyle Keller has implemented. This SFA team looks like it could make some noise on the national scale come March.
Dark Horse: Southeastern Louisiana
Whenever you have a dynamic open-floor playmaker like Marlain Veal leading the offense, you have a chance to win games. Combine him with a group of long, versatile forwards who can play on the wing or down low, and you get a roster that could be very dangerous. Capps and Keith Charleston, each of whom coming off redshirt seasons, should help the offensive flow as well as help the Lions on the boards.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Marlain Veal (Southeastern Louisiana)
- G: Jordan Howard (Central Arkansas)
- G: Ehab Amin (Texas A&M-CC)
- F: Colton Weisbrod (Lamar)
- F: TJ Holyfield (Stephen F. Austin)
Player of the Year: Ehab Amin (Texas A&M-CC)- Probably not the guy most will tab as preseason POY, but I love Amin’s game. He attacks the rim relentlessly from the off-guard position, fights on the glass, and is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He averaged over 3 steals per game a season ago, the defensive catalyst for an Islanders team that won 24 games and reached the CIT title game a season ago.
Breakout Player of the Year: Kevon Harris (Stephen F. Austin)- A long, athletic wing, I’m a huge fan of Harris’ upside at Stephen F. Austin. With his 6-6 strong frame, Harris is a very capable slasher and defender who is an improving shooter as well. He could develop into a star this year for the Lumberjacks.
Newcomer of the Year: Cameron Mack (Stephen F. Austin)- There will be newcomers who put up bigger numbers than Mack will as a freshman, but I doubt anyone will make the same impact. Mack seems likely to step in immediately at point guard, and is more than ready for the challenge. Mack is a guy we will be talking about for many years to come at SFA.