By Kevin Sweeney
Last season in the Southland was defined as much by who WASN’T good as who was good. Stephen F. Austin is the biggest brand in the conference by a long shot, and the ‘Jacks struggling after coming in with such high expectations is akin to a down year for Kentucky in the SEC. Abilene Christian took advantage with a veteran group that played together, and the year was a chance to showcase the continued improvement of the other programs in the league.
#1. Stephen F. Austin– I may be in the minority here in projecting the ‘Jacks to win the league, but I think it’s safe to project a big turnaround from the best program in the conference. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in 2018-19– SFA was hit with a rash of injuries, had point guard woes, and were ugly on the offensive end. It will be a very different-looking roster for Kyle Keller’s bunch this season, but he does hold onto a star in Kevon Harris for his senior campaign. Freshman forward Sama’Zha Hart comes in highly-touted, and a big crop of JUCO imports headlined by bruising forward Gavin Kensmil and scoring guards Cameron Johnson & Roti Ware. Key will be finding a steady hand at the point guard spot– fellow JUCO product David Kachelries put up terrific numbers at Mineral Area last season and could be the right fit to run the show.
#2. Sam Houston State– Jason Hooten doesn’t have an NCAA Tournament berth to show for it, but he is quietly one of the more consistent mid-major coaches in America. Under his direction, SHSU has won 21 or more games in five of the last six seasons, and the Bearkats sprinted through Southland play last season in route to winning the conference’s regular season. Back for Hooten’s bunch is skilled forward Kai Mitchell, the type of undersized, bruising frontcourt piece that can thrive in the Southland. Hooten also addressed the team’s most pressing concern of the offseason by adding Elon grad transfer Dainan Swoope, a steady game manager who can take over at the point guard spot after the graduation of Josh Delaney.
#3. New Orleans– Tabbed by the conference’s coaches and SIDs to win the conference, the Privateers are a well-coached bunch that returns a lot from a team that played in the postseason ago. I can’t wait to track Gerrale Gates’ progress– the defending Southland ROY looked like a future star at times in his freshman campaign. However, this team will win games with its defense– namely, by taking the ball away. The Privateers were in the top 15 nationally in defensive turnover rate a season ago, a stat that Slessinger’s teams have consistently dominated since he took over.
#4. Texas A&M-CC— Graduating your starting backcourt is never easy, but I think the Islanders are well-positioned to remain in the mix in the Southland despite the departures of Kareem South and Emmanuel Toney. Getting Myles Smith back after he missed the team’s final 18 games due to an undisclosed injury will be critical– he profiles to start at guard after scoring in double figures in seven of 14 games a season ago. Physical wing Jashawn Talton will also have to step up and give TAMU-CC some steady scoring punch.
#5. Abilene Christian– Some respect is deserved for the defending champions, but this ACU bunch loses so much from a season ago. It’s easy to project Payten Ricks having a big year, but he’s the only returner who clearly projects into a role for this season. Sophomore forward Joe Pleasant likely slots in up front, but a quartet of JUCO guards and wings will have to learn on the fly if the Wildcats are to compete for another conference title.
#6. Central Arkansas– UCA has one of the more uniquely talented players in the nation in Hayden Koval, a seven-footer with a “Unicorn”-type skillset– able to shoot the three and protect the rim. Getting help around him will be critical– Deandre Jones is a very solid point guard, but more talent is necessary to make this team a contender. BYU transfer Rylan Bergersen is a prime candidate to give this team a boost– he posted 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in the team’s charity exhibition against Oral Roberts in October.
#7. McNeese State– I really expected McNeese to be better in year one for Heath Schroyer– his roster was set up for a nice two-year quick flip, but a horrible defense destroyed any hopes of year one success. Adding well-traveled guard Jalen Poyser should give this group some scoring punch, but Poyser has never been able to contribute positively to winning in his career. I’ve never been a big fan of his archetype– an inefficient, shot-happy guard with a bad A/TO ratio and little defensive impact. We’ll see if he can resurrect his career in Lake Charles: he’ll certainly be freed up to go get buckets.
#8. Lamar– This feels like a transition year for Tic Price and company, as the Cardinals lose their top three scorers from a season ago. It will be difficult for Price’s bunch to control the inside in the way they did last season with the departure of Josh Nzeakor on the inside, though Christian Barrett remains one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. The big issue is that Lamar profiles to be guard-poor this season, something you NEVER want to be in mid-major basketball. Well-traveled wing Kain Harris might help there– he never quite got his footing at Kent State, but once upon a time averaged 9 points per game at Tulane.
#9. Houston Baptist– Ian DuBose is a truly high-level scoring guard who could play at any level, and that’s a pretty good place to start if you’re HBU. DuBose is the type of guy who can anchor an offense– he’s efficient, can really shoot the ball, and is physical getting downhill. The Huskies play at breakneck speeds, but that fast-paced style has lended itself to very poor defensive output year over year for Ron Cotrell’s bunch. It seems unlikely that end of the floor will improve too much, and if it doesn’t, this group’s upside may be limited.
#10. Nicholls State– Austin Claunch’s bunch had plenty of gunslingers a season ago, but they lacked the presence of a guy who could consistently get downhill and draw contact at the rim. That caused quite the free throw disparity, and was a big reason the Colonels struggled to maintain the success they had under Richie Riley in 2017-18. We’ll see this year if that foul shooting disparity was systematic under Claunch or just a product of the team’s personnel this season. Savannah State transfer Dexter McClanahan seems to fit more into the shot-happy mold, but should provide needed scoring punch on the wing with the graduations of Jeremiah Jefferson and Gavin Peppers. One who could provide an edge is West Virginia transfer D’Angelo Hunter, an elite athlete who can play multiple positions.
#11. Southeastern Louisiana– The Lions were late entering the coaching search market after Jay Ladner jumped to Southern Miss in the ripple effect of Doc Sadler taking a spot on the Nebraska staff. They elected to hire from within with David Kiefer, a logical move given how involved Kiefer was in building this successful recent run at SELA. However, this year will be a rough one: the graduations of Marlain Veal and Moses Greenwood is just too much to replace and still expect early success.
#12. Incarnate Word– I think Carson Cunningham is going to get the ball rolling at Incarnate Word, but it’s going to take some time. He brings in a solid seven-man recruiting class, and Chicago native Morgan Taylor looked the part of a building block when healthy last season. But the cupboard is still relatively bare and very young– this season may not translate to many wins.
#13. Northwestern State– There are truly not many redeeming qualities about this group on paper– bruising big Ismael Lane was the lone bright spot last season on a team was just downright awful on the offensive end. NSU has no shooting an no plus playmakers. That’s not a recipe for success.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ian DuBose (Houston Baptist)
- Payten Ricks (Abilene Christian)
- Kevon Harris (Stephen F. Austin)
- Kai Mitchell (Sam Houston State)
- Hayden Koval (Central Arkansas)
Player of the Year: Kevon Harris (Stephen F. Austin)
In a season where virtually all else went wrong, Harris kept performing. He’s ridiculously efficient at the rim, gets to the line a ton, and has improved as a shot-maker every season. With tons of newcomers on the roster, Harris has to be a leader and provide a veteran presence in the locker room. There have been plenty of greats to play at Stephen F. Austin, but a big season and another NCAA Tournament berth would clinch his spot among the greats.
Breakout Player: Gerrale Gates (New Orleans)
Gates showed tons of promise as a freshman, scoring in double figures 15 times in his first collegiate campaign. He’s the type of player that can thrive in a league like the Southland, a bruising, undersized frontcourt piece who is active on both ends around the rim. If he can expand his jump shooting range, he could be an absolute superstar.
Newcomer of the Year: Rylan Bergersen (Central Arkansas)
Bergersen gets a second chance at UCA after never consistently cracking the rotation at BYU and should be a critical piece for Ross Pennell’s club. A wing with good size and the ability to shoot the ball from deep, he’s the perfect 3&D piece to compliment Hayden Koval and the rest of this Central Arkansas roster.