We are so close to college basketball! Today, we dive into the Southland, a league that always plays a fun brand of basketball. The Southland ranked second nationally among the 32 conferences in tempo and had more turnovers than any other league – representative of a conference full of teams that love to play fast and heat you up on the defensive end. Three Southland teams ranked in the top five nationally in forcing turnovers per KenPom, a remarkable stat. This one should be fun:
- Stephen F. Austin – Even if we ignore the unforgettable win over Duke in late November, last season was a special one for Stephen F. Austin. To bounce back the way the Lumberjacks did from a down 2018-19 season was incredibly impressive – Kyle Keller did a fantastic job with JUCO guys like Gavin Kensmil, Cameron Johnson, and Roti Ware to build out a good supporting class for a star in Kevon Harris. Despite the graduations of Harris, starting PG John Comeaux, and key rotation cog Nathan Bain, this team is still well-positioned to win the Southland and be a factor in March. Kensmil is one of the league’s best big men, a guy who draws fouls and is excellent around the rim. Ware and Johnson will need to step up their games as shot-makers with the graduation of Harris, but each certainly showed flashes of brilliance on that end of the floor a season ago. UTEP transfer Nigel Hawkins should boost the defense with his size and athleticism, but struggled on the offensive end for the Miners. Losing the experience of three seniors who knew the ins and outs of Keller’s aggressive, ballhawking defense will hurt, but the system is still in place to force tons of turnovers and get lots of easy buckets off of that. Expect the ‘Jacks to win big in the Southland yet again.
- Abilene Christian – Joe Golding and ACU followed up an NCAA Tournament berth in 2018-19 with a 20-win campaign that was overshadowed by SFA’s dominance in 2019-20. With just one rotation player graduating (albeit leading scorer Payten Ricks), the Wildcats should be well-positioned to compete for a league crown yet again. While it’s SFA’s defense that’s known for taking the ball away, ACU actually outpaced the ‘Jacks in that department during conference play last season and ranked second nationally overall in opposing turnover rate. That’s where the loss of Ricks will perhaps be most noticed – not only was he the team’s best shot creator, he also led the team in steals with 2.3 per contest. Freshman guard Logan McLaughlin could step into a fairly key role right away to help replace Ricks, as could a physical JUCO wing fresh off a redshirt year in Immanuel Allen. Meanwhile, don’t sleep on Kolton Kohl, one of the tougher big men to handle in the conference. Golding likes to limit Kohl’s minutes, but he has soft touch around the basket and gets to the line with regularity. With Ricks gone, Kohl could become more of a focal point on offense when in the game.
- Nicholls State – The third Southland team that ranked in the top 5 nationally in forcing turnovers, the Colonels won 21 games in Austin Claunch’s second season on that back of that elite turnover margin. Claunch was rewarded with a contract extension this November, and a well-deserved one at that given the job he has done to keep the program moving in the right direction following Richie Riley’s departure for South Alabama. This is a very old team – Nicholls will suit up nine seniors, three juniors, and just one freshman this season. However, there are a lot of new faces to integrate into that aggressive defensive style. Shawn Williams (East Carolina via NMSU) and Jaylen Fornes (UNCW) each have averaged double figures in scoring in their careers, with Williams in particular being an intriguing buy-low candidate after a down year in Las Cruces. Add in top-100 JUCO recruit AJ Rainey and a pair of returning starters in Kevin Johnson and Andre Jones, and you have a backcourt with plenty of firepower to match up with anyone in this conference. The bigger concerns lie up front – highly versatile forward Warith Alatishe was the secret sauce of this dynamic defense a season ago, a guy who used his length and instincts to change the game at that end of the floor. Transfers Najee Garvin (Charlotte) and Damien Sears (St John’s) are certainly talented enough to be impact additions in the frontcourt, but I fear some defensive regression without a playmaker like Alatishe at the back end.
- Lamar – Three starters and several other key cogs return in Beaumont for Tic Price’s club. It starts offensively with talented scoring guard Davion Buster, a high-volume shooter who drained 95 threes at a 38% clip last season. Buster is undersized and will without a doubt miss having a bigger distributor next to him in VJ Holmes, who struggled to shoot the ball but was an impact defender and steady ballhandler. The other key departure is TJ Atwood, a versatile combo forward who could hurt teams from inside and out. That said, the returns of Buster and big man Avery Sullivan is a good place to start, and I’m excited about some of the younger players on this roster. Anderson Kopp is a better shooter than the 29% he put up last season, and I’d expect him to make a big jump in year two just as his brother Miller did at Northwestern. Meanwhile, I’m also high on sophomore big man David Muoka. Muoka is still a very raw offensive player, but he has limitless upside and made a big impact last season as a rim protector. If he continues his growth, watch out.
- Texas A&M-Corpus Christi – Willis Wilson hasn’t quite been able to maintain the success he had this program operating at a few years ago, but his teams are always competitive in this league. With the Islanders returning their top two scorers, the future looks bright. Virginia native Jordan Hairston is on a path to stardom after an impressive freshman campaign during which he averaged 12.9 points and shot 44% from downtown. Hairston could be next in a line of great guards that have been in this Islander program under Wilson. He shares a backcourt with Myles Smith, another undersized sharpshooter who struggled with turnovers last season. Getting more secure ballhandling from that duo will be critical: no team in America turned it over more last season than TAMU-CC, and that’s unacceptable particularly when you play two guards who can handle the ball together. I’ll be tracking a JUCO-heavy class of newcomers headlined by do-it-all guard Cyrie Coates to see if they can help correct the turnover woes and get the Islanders back into the top 5 of the Southland.
- Sam Houston State – Jason Hooten’s program has been a model of consistency in recent years, but it will be challenging to keep their streak of winning seasons alive given the graduations of three key starters. The departures of starting point guard Dainan Swoope, top big man Kai Mitchell, and defensive stopper Chad Bowie will be tough to overcome. Hooten will look to keep the Bearkats relevant with a quintet of JUCO imports to give top returning scorer Zach Nutall the help he needs. Nutall is one of the conference’s best players, an excellent slasher and defender who can hit outside shots. Of those, I’m most excited about Tristan Ikpe, a double-double machine at Blinn JC who is a terror on the interior despite standing just 6-6. Hooten has had success with undersized big men in the past, and Ikpe could be next on that list. SHSU could also use an impact year from fellow JUCO import Donte Powers, who averaged just over 13 points per game at East Mississippi CC. Being heavily reliant on newcomers during this pandemic-disrupted offseason is without a doubt a challenge, but we’d be foolish to bet against a Hooten-led program remaining competitive in this conference.
- Central Arkansas – After taking over midseason for Ross Pennell, Anthony Boone deserves a lot of credit for righting the ship of a UCA team that started 1-9. While they do need to replace talented center Hayden Koval, the Bears should be competitive once again in the Southland. The emergence of 6-6 wing Ryland Bergersen was game-changing after the Boise native barely got any run at BYU – in conference games, Bergersen averaged close to 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. He pairs nicely with tough-minded point guard Deandre Jones to form one of the better backcourt duos in the league. The likely replacement for Koval is undersized energy big Samson George, who joins the fray after three seasons sitting the bench at Pittsburgh. George is super athletic and was expected to be a good mid-major recruit when he originally committed to Iona, so he’s a worthwhile reclamation project for UCA. He should pair nicely up front with steady 2-way guy Eddy Kayouloud.
- Northwestern State – After slowing the tempo the last two years, Mike McConathy’s team revved back up the pace in 2019-20 and found success doing so. The team’s 11-9 conference finish was the program’s best since 2014-15, and the return of several key cogs opens the door to replicating that performance. The big loss is without a doubt the grad transfer of Chudier Bile (Georgetown), who not only was the team’s leading scorer and a key force drawing fouls, but also was big part of what made this defense click: blocking shots. Bile, Nikos Chougkaz, and Jamaure Gregg formed a three-heaaded monster in the frontcourt that swatted shots in bunches, but Bile led the way for them on that end thanks to his high-major athleticism and energy. Loss of Bile and Chougkaz threaten that strong frontcourt. Growth from the likes of Trenton Massner will be critical: Massner was highly efficient and picked his spots well last season, but with Bile gone NSU needs guys who will attack and hunt shots. Massner may not fit the traditional mold of a leading scorer, but he’ll be relied upon heavily.
- McNeese State – There would be no better feel-good story of the college basketball season than McNeese State finding a way to win big this season. The damage multiple hurricanes inflicted on Lake Charles and the McNeese campus this summer was staggering, and I’m praying that this team can bring a little joy to a hurting community this winter. This will be a team built around its guards – high-level playmaker AJ Lawson and sharpshooter Dru Kuxhausen return, and Cowboys also add a potential impact player at that position in Zach Scott (FGCU). But replacing an absolute superstar in Sha’Markus Kennedy will be a challenge: not only was Kennedy the second-most efficient shooter in the country per KenPom, he also anchored the boards and was in the top 50 nationally in block rate. Given that Heath Schroyer’s club was already one of the worst defenses in the country last season WITH Kennedy playing big minutes, it’s scary to think how bad they might be on that end without him anchoring things. Mississippi State transfer KeyShawn Feazell will be needed to buoy the frontcourt, which also loses Roydell Brown in addition to Kennedy.
- New Orleans – A 21-loss campaign stunted what had been a terrific three-year run for Mark Slessinger and the Privateers. UNO’s undoing was without a doubt its defense – a strength of the previous three years, the Privateers flopped HARD on that end and finished 342nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. There were almost no redeeming qualities on that end: they fouled a ton, gave up a ton of offensive rebounds, couldn’t stop anyone on the interior, and gave up almost 37% from 3 on high volume. In short, it was ugly. Slessinger has done too good a job in the years prior to that for me to sell all my stock, but it is going to take some MAJOR improvement to get that D workable again. Undersized big man LaDarius Marshall could help beef up the frontcourt: he blocked 61 shots last season at Hinds CC and should be an upgrade over Gerrale Gates up front. Meanwhile, Slessinger grabbed Jacksonville State transfer Derek St. Hilaire to pair with talented point guard Troy Green in the backcourt. Overall, this roster still has a scary lack of shooting and a lack of proven answers to the defensive woes. We’ll see if UNO can right the ship, otherwise it could be a tough 2020-21.
- Incarnate Word – It was always going to be a slow rebuild for Carson Cunningham at UIW, and winning five more conference games than they did in year one should be considered a relative success in 2019-20 for the Cardinals. Cunningham has begun to find some guys to build around – young guards Keaston Willis and Drew Lutz shined as freshmen, and young big Marcus Larsson showed some fight after being thrown into the fire as freshmen. Cunningham has elected to build with freshmen in a league where many teams go heavy on JUCOs, which is a risk given the near-constant threat of the up-transfer these days. That said, UIW does add one JUCO this season, a potential impact guy in athletic combo forward Bradley Akhile. Akhile has great size at 6-8, can stretch the floor and defend multiple positions. We’ll see if Cunningham found any more building blocks its 5-man 2020 freshman class… if he did, the Cardinals are not long for the cellar of the Southland.
- Southeastern Louisiana – The Lions really struggled in year one of the David Kiefer era, and the departure of star forward and building block Ty Brewer will make this rebuild all the more challenging. A pair of transfers should give the backcourt a big boost – Keon Clergeot was known mostly as a scrappy defender at UMass, but should be given the chance to shine for the Lions in his senior season, while speedy JUCO import Joe Kasperzyk had the look of a future star at Bryant before being dismissed from the team following his freshman campaign. If that duo can live up to their considerable promise, it gives Kiefer’s club a lifeline and something to build around. My main concern with a Clergeot/Kasperzyk duo is shooting: both are certainly not known for that aspect of their games, and SELA was one of the nation’s worst from beyond the arc last season.
- Houston Baptist – Things may not be pretty at HBU this season. The Huskies were just 4-25 last season thanks to a putrid defense, only hanging around at times because of the presence of star guard Ian DuBose and his ability to almost single-handedly lift an offense. With DuBose now at Wake Forest and top shooter Jalon Gates having graduated, things could get even more ugly. Playing as many possessions a game as possible when your defense is the worst in the country at protecting the rim doesn’t seem like the best idea, but I’m not a basketball coach. We’ll see if Ron Cottrell can find some magic and turn the HBU program back around.
All-Conference First Team:
- Davion Buster (Lamar)
- Jordan Hairston (Texas A&M – CC)
- Zach Nutall (Sam Houston State)
- AJ Lawson (McNeese State)
- Gavin Kensmil (Stephen F. Austin)
Player of the Year: Gavin Kensmil (Stephen F. Austin) – It was clear that Kensmil had promise in his lone season at Iona. And after a pitstop in JUCO ball, he blossomed under Kyle Keller at SFA. Kensmil was the type of low-post force that every mid-major wants, living at the free throw line and finishing through contact. Expect the ‘Jacks to feed him even more this year with Kevon Harris having graduated. For my money, he’s the conference’s best player.
Breakout Player: David Muoka (Lamar) – If I’m Tic Price, I’m doing everything in my power to get Muoka on the floor – particularly in a year that won’t count against his eligibility. Yes, Muoka still has tons of work to do polishing his offensive game, and the free throw struggles were ugly last season. But the upside of a 6-10 big who moves as well as Muoka does and has the shot-blocking instincts Muoka possesses is too much to overlook. If he improves his offensive game, he could blossom into one of the conference’s best players.
Newcomer of the Year: Shawn Williams (Nicholls State) – Williams struggled during his lone season at New Mexico State, but this is the same player who averaged over 12 points per game in each of his first two seasons at East Carolina. Williams take and makes tough shots with regularity and loves to fire away from deep. That gunner mentality should fit in well with Austin Claunch’s offense and give them the jolt they need to contend for a Southland title.