Cinderella Watch: Can SFA Chop Down the Competition in March?

Hardy Meredith, SFA University photographer

Stephen F. Austin is one of the hottest teams in the country. Can the Lumberjacks exercise their demons and continue this tear right into America's living rooms as this year's Cinderella?

As we enter the home stretch in conference play everybody is going to be looking for this year's Florida Gulf Coast. That's why we've put together "Cinderella Watch" to profile all the mid-major teams you should know before heading into March.

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

Southland Conference
Overall Record: 24-2
Conference Record: 13-0
RPI: 77
Key Wins: vs Sam Houston State (109) Twice, vs Towson (119)
Losses: at Texas (21) at East Tennessee State (204)
Average RPI Win: 245
NCAA Tournament History: 1 Appearance (2009), 0-1

This Season

Last year, Stephen F. Austin had the most successful season in school history winning 27 games and capturing it's third ever Southland Conference Championship. With three weeks left in the regular season this year, it appears the Lumberjacks are well on their way to eclipsing both marks.

Coach Danny Kaspar's departure for Texas State opened the door for Brad Underwood, formerly Associate Head Coach at Kansas State and South Carolina under Frank Martin, to get his first head coaching gig and he has taken full advantage of the opportunity.

Currently at 24 wins, Underwood has already smashed the SFA record for most wins (15, twice) by a first-year coach. At 13-0 in the Southland, five games are all that separates Underwood and SFA from an undefeated season without rival in Southland history. Only four teams have ever finished Southland play undefeated, but none of those schedules included more than eight games.

The Lumberjacks haven't lost since November 23rd, which means they've compiled some pretty impressive streaks along the way. They've won 21 consecutive games, joining the last two undefeated teams, Wichita State and Syracuse, as the only teams in the nation with an active win streak in the 20's. The 21 consecutive wins smashes the previous Southland record of 16, accomplished twice.

SFA has won a remarkable 30 consecutive games at home inside William R. Johnson Coliseum. That streak ties the Lumberjacks with Duke for the longest current home court winning streak in the country. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the work done on the road this season. SFA has won 10 consecutive road games, 12 total. Both achievements are currently tops in the nation.

With all of that said, the stats listed above speak for themselves. In their only Top-100 RPI game this season, the Lumberjacks fell 72-62 at Texas. SFA will need to survive their two games in the Southland Conference Tournament to punch the school's second ticket into the NCAA Tournament.

Key Player: Jacob Parker

A junior from Bixby, Oklahoma, Jacob Parker has progressed every year of his college career and has blossomed into one of the best all-around players the Southland Conference has to offer. Most mid-major teams who are potential NCAA Tournament "Cinderella"s are led by a dominant scorer, but Parker provides so much more.

Now don't get me wrong, Parker can score. Just ask Marshall, who Parker torched for 31 points (on 12-of-15 shooting) in a wild overtime road win. On the season, he averages 15.2 points per game. He shoots 55.3% from the floor, 50% from behind the three point arc and makes 80% of his free throw attempts. He has led the Lumberjacks in scoring in 10 of their 26 games.

Where Parker really excels, though, is his rebounding. At 6' 6" tall, he isn't the most imposing figure on the court, but he averages a hair under seven rebounds per game. In 15 of their 26 games, Parker has led SFA (the best rebounding team in the league who hasn't played 12 non-DI games) in rebounds. In just under 30 minutes played a night, Parker commits less than three fouls per game. He has also committed just 32 total turnovers in 26 games.

In SFA's two biggest conference games (a pair of wins over 10-3 Sam Houston State) Parker put up 28 points/11 rebounds and 20 points/9 rebounds to assure the Lumberjacks their position atop the Southland standings.

Why They Will Succeed in March

Balance and experience.

As good as Jacob Parker is, the Lumberjacks are far from a one man show. Five different players (Parker, Desmond Haymon, Thomas Walkup, Deshaunt Walker, and Nikola Gajic) average double figures in scoring. All five of those players have been SFA's leading scorer in at least one game this year. Haymon joins Parker in the 30+ point club this year scoring 36 vs Cal State-Northridge and 30 at Lamar. You can't shut down the Jacks by just game planning around one particular player.

Experience is always a key for mid-major teams hoping to make a tournament run in March and the Lumberjacks have it. Of the five key players mentioned three are seniors (Haymon, Walker and Gajic), Parker is a junior, and Walkup is a redshirt sophomore.

All five players were a part of last year's team that dominated the Southland but fell two points short of reaching the NCAA Tournament in a tournament championship loss to Northwestern State, then one point short of knocking off Stanford in the NIT. They will be a motivated team in March, and one I wouldn't want to see in my bracket come Selection Sunday.

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