By Kevin Sweeney
The Southland has been Stephen F. Austin and everyone else since the later years of the Danny Kasper era, with Brad Underwood taking the program to new heights and Kyle Keller doing his best to keep SFA among the nation’s best mid-major programs. This year, it appears the team best-suited to challenge the Lumberjacks for Southland supremacy is Southeastern Louisiana, but catching SFA seems like a daunting task to say the least.
#1. Stephen F. Austin
The clear choice here, SFA just flat-out recruits circles around the rest of this conference and brings back a bunch of production from a 28-win club last season. Adding Minnesota grad transfer Davonte Fitzgerald is the icing on the cake for a team that already features a pair of dynamic players in Kevon Harris and Shannon Bogues. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team wins an NCAA Tournament game.
Here’s an interview myself and my partner Brad Cavallaro recorded with SFA Head Coach Kyle Keller this offseason:
#2. Southeastern Louisiana
Jay Ladner gets diminutive dynamo Marlain Veal back for one more season, and as a result has a legit contender for the Soutland title in 2017-18. Replacing Jordan Capps will be tough, but the Lions should be stingy on defense once again and add another capable scorer to the backcourt in Tulane transfer Von Julien.
#3. Abilene Christian
Joe Golding has gradually built this ACU program as they’ve went through the difficult transition to D1 basketball, finally getting to .500 last season in year 5 of the transition. Now, ACU gets a chance to take the next step, returning 4 of its top 5 scorers from last season. Fixing their free throw margin (ACU sent their opponents to the line a lot but didn’t get to the line much at all) could be all it takes for this team to take the next step, especially if talented big Jalone Friday continues to improve.
#4. McNeese State
Heath Schroyer’s career arc has been an interesting one to say the least, seemingly mastering the “quick flip” rebuild before departing for greener pastures. His most recent head coaching reclamation project came at Tennessee-Martin, where he won more than 20 games in each of his 2 seasons there before departing for an assistant job at NC State. Schroyer appears to be looking to do similar work at McNeese, bringing in a slew of JUCO players and D1 transfers that should translate to winning over the next 2-3 years. I see this program following a similar trajectory to what Richie Riley did at Nicholls, and Schroyer bringing lots of short-term success to a program with little history but is unlikely to stay long.
#5. New Orleans
Mark Slessinger has done an underratedly-excellent job with this New Orleans program the last 2 seasons, winning 11 conference games last year after bringing the Privateers to the Big Dance in 2016-17. This year’s club takes on a different look, as the graduations of Travin Thibodeaux and Makur Puou leaves behind questions in the frontcourt. Instead, the backcourt seems like the strength of this club, with the young pairing of Bryson Robinson and Troy Green appearing to have a bright future for Slessinger’s group.
The Cardinals dipped into the transfer market to fortify their backcourt, with Jordan Hunter (New Mexico), LaQuarious Paige (Indiana State), and Michael Kolawole (UIC) all profiling as useful options for Tic Price next to returner Nick Garth. Losing Colton Weisbrod won’t be easy, but the Cardinals still have a solid frontcourt headlined by Josh Nzeakor and should be considered a legit dark horse in the Southland.
#7. Sam Houston State
This projection feels a little low given how consistently solid Jason Hooten’s clubs have been in recent years at SHSU, but I am a little concerned about how they create offense without John Dewey running the show. JUCO imports Chad Bowie and ZaQwaun Matthews will be looked to as immediate contributors, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the BearKats outperform this projection.
Richie Riley departs for South Alabama after a wildly successful short stint as head man for the Colonels, and assistant Austin Claunch takes over. Claunch, just 28 years old, appears to be embracing a similar “Transfer U” approach to recruiting that Riley employed, bringing in a trio of sit one, play one transfers in Nico Clareth (Siena), Dexter McClanahan (Savannah State), and D’Angelo Hunter (West Virginia) that should give this group a major talent injection in a year’s time. For now, he’ll rely on a pair of grad transfers in Gavin Peppers (Central Michigan) and Jeremiah Jefferson (Jackson State) along with some JUCO products to hopefully keep the Colonels’ heads above water in a transition campaign.
#9. Texas A&M– Corpus Christi
Losing a potential building block in combo forward Sean Rhea after his freshman season to JUCO is certainly a blow, but there’s still plenty of interesting young talent on this Islander club. They’ll have to find a way to be more efficient on offense though, or it will be tough for this club to take the next step.
#10. Central Arkansas
Over 2,500 points later, Jordan Howard has finally graduated and departed Central Arkansas for good, leaving Ross Pennell’s club with a gigantic hole in the backcourt. The good news for Pennell is that he has one of the more unique talents in mid-major basketball in Hayden Koval, a 7-footer who blocked over 3 shots a game as a freshman while also showcasing the ability to stretch the floor. Koval could be establish himself as a household name in the Southland with a big year this year.
#11. Houston Baptist
After several consecutive middling campaigns, HBU bottomed out in 2017-18, winning just 6 games and conceding over over 84 points per game. To make matters worse, the one bright spot from such a disappointing campaign in star freshman David Caraher transferred to St. John’s after the season. The good news is that the Huskies get back double-double machine Josh Ibarra, who was averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game before getting injured in the team’s 10th game last season. While that injury hurt last year, it was fortuitous timing given playing in an 11th game would have stopped him from being eligible to redshirt last season.
#12. Incarnate Word
After doing a pretty good job of making the Cardinals relevant during their 4-year D1 transition period, Ken Burmeister was fired after a brutal 2017-18 season that saw UIW win just 3 D1 games all season. His replacement is intriguing in former NAIA head coach Dr. Carson Cunningham, who brings in a 6-man freshman class that should set the tone for his tenure. The returning core of Charles Brown, Christian Peevy, and Keaton Hervey is a nice start, but they are going to need a lot of help to move up the standings.
#13. Northwestern State
The Demons were beyond bad offensively last season, shooting a putrid 28% from downtown on the season and averaging under 65 points per game. Ish Lane is a nice piece in the frontcourt, but this roster is just not very good.
All-Conference First Team:
- Marlain Veal– SLU (12.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.1 apg, .446/.360/.753)
- Shannon Bogues– SFA (15.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, .505/.352/.795)
- Kevon Harris– SFA (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, .480/.426/.680)
- TJ Holyfield– SFA (12.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.9 apg, .548/.412/.748)
- Hayden Koval– Central Arkansas (8.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.9 apg, .454/.330/.627)
Player of the Year: Kevon Harris (SFA)
There’s a chance all the star power for SFA “splits the votes” and this award goes to another deserving candidate in Veal, but to me, there’s no one better in the Southland than Harris. One of Kyle Keller’s first recruits at Stephen F. Austin, Harris has established himself as a prototypical pro-level wing who can shoot the ball and attack off the bounce. He’s a huge reason the Lumberjacks are heavy favorites in the conference once again.
Breakout Player: Hayden Koval (Central Arkansas)
I talked about Koval earlier, but I’m super excited to see his progression in his second year at UCA. He’s such an intriguing talent. One of just 5 players since 1992 to average at least 3 blocks per game while making at least 25 threes at a 33% or better clip, Koval is just simply a guy you don’t find every day, especially at a program like Central Arkansas.
Newcomer of the Year: Davonte Fitzgerald (Stephen F. Austin)
Kyle Keller gets Fitzgerald back after coaching him in his freshman season at Texas A&M, a season in which Fitzgerald was an all-conference freshman. Since, his career has been repeatedly been put on hold by injuries, but he possesses significant upside with his combination of size and athleticism. He should have a huge year in his final season of college basketball.