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2014-2015 College Basketball Preview: Southland Conference Predictions

After wearing the glass slipper last March, Stephen F. Austin returns as the favorites in the Southland Conference. It's not as clear cut as you might think, though, as several teams are poised to make a serious run at the Lumberjacks atop the Southland in the 2014-15 season.

Coach Brad Underwood and the SFA Lumberjacks celebrate after beating VCU in last year's NCAA Tournament
Coach Brad Underwood and the SFA Lumberjacks celebrate after beating VCU in last year's NCAA Tournament
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

1. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks 32-3, 18-0 (NCAA 3rd Round)

Head Coach: Brad Underwood 32-3 (1 year), All at SFA

Key Losses: Desmond Haymon (14.5 ppg) Nikola Gajic (9.6 ppg 5 rpg) Deshaunt Walker (11.7 ppg)

Key Returnees: SLC Player of the Year Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg 7.1 rpg) Thomas Walkup (13.1 ppg 5.3 rpg) Trey Pinkney (3.5 apg 3 ppg)

Key Newcomers: Jared Johnson (Jr. 6-0 G) Clide Geffrard (Jr. 6-5 F) Demetrious Floyd (Jr. 5-11 G) Bobby King (Sr. 6-7 F) Ty Charles (Fr. 6-5 G)

2013-14 was a magical year for the Lumberjacks from Stephen F. Austin. Everyone remembers the four point play and overtime win over VCU in the NCAA Tournament, but before they got to that national stage the 'Jacks tore through the Southland Conference in historic fashion winning all 20 league games. Repeating that dominance will be a tall task for this year's team, but Brad Underwood's squad is the favorite to claim the Southland crown as we get set to kick off the 2014-15 season. One of the most well-rounded players you'll find, Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker, returns. Thomas Walkup and starting point guard Trey Pinkney are also back, but the 'Jacks lose a lot of points with the departures of Haymon, Walker, and Gajic. Returning reserves like Tanner Clayton, Dallas Cameron, and Connor Brooks will be relied on to take a big step up while the many transfers (led by Johnson and Geffrard) will be asked to contribute immediately as SFA competes against an upgraded non-conference schedule in 2014-15.

2. Sam Houston State Bearkats 24-11, 13-5 (CIT 2nd Round)

Head Coach: Jason Hooten: 72-60 (4 years), All at SHSU

Key Losses: Terrance Motley (8.5 ppg 4.3 rpg) James Thomas (8.6 ppg 3.7 rpg)

Key Returnees: Jabari Peters (12.6 ppg 4.5 rpg 4.2 apg) Kaheem Ransom (11.6 ppg 4.1 rpg) Paul Baxter (9.1 ppg 3.7 rpg) Michael Holyfield (6.7 rpg 6.5 ppg1.7 bpg)

Key Newcomers: Sean Goodwin (Jr. 6-7 F) Marcus Burwell (Jr. 6-5 F) Jamal Williams (Fr. 6-4 G)

There's nothing a coach, especially a Mid-Major coach, likes more than retaining a lot of key guys from one season to the next. Even better when you retain your core off of a 24-win team who won in the postseason. Jabari Peters, Kaheem Ransom, and Paul Baxter provide Head Coach Jason Hooten with a talented, deep, experienced backcourt. And while the losses of Motley and Thomas will be felt, mammoth Michael Holyfield (6-11 255 lbs) returns to anchor the post along with junior transfers Sean Goodwin and Marcus Burwell. After falling to SFA in the Championship Game last season, the Bearkats are motivated. Their depth and experience make them a serious contender to the 2014-15 Southland title.

3. Northwestern State Demons 17-14, 12-6

Head Coach: Mike McConathy: 592-386 (31 years), 240-227 at NSU (15 years)

Key Losses: DeQuan Hicks (15.1 ppg 7.3 rpg 2.6 apg) Brison White (13.1 ppg)

Key Returnees: Jalan West (19.4 ppg 6.4 apg 4 rpg 2.5 spg) Zeek Woodley (13.9 ppg 4.6 rpg) Marvin Frazier (5.3 ppg 4.6 rpg 2.1 bpg)

Key Newcomers: Tony Dobbinson (Jr. 5-10 G) Deji Adekunle (Jr. 6-11 F) Ta'Jon Welcome (Jr. 6-3 G)

There are questions surrounding the Northwestern State Demons, but over his career Head Coach Mike McConathy usually finds the answers. There's no reason to think it won't happen again in 2014-15. It certainly helps when you return the most talented player in the conference, and one of the most talented anywhere in guard Jalan West. Zeek Woodley returns after winning SLC Freshman of the Year playing the power forward position while standing just 6-2. Shooter Sabri Thompson and post player Marvin Frazier are expected to step up into larger roles this season, while a host of talented newcomers will get a chance to contribute immediately in McConathy's deep rotations. The Demons should definitely be in top four contention, and could be a legitimate threat to the top of the SLC.

4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders 18-16, 14-4 (CIT 2nd Round)

Head Coach: Willis Wilson: 249-309 (19 years), 30-63 at TAMU-CC (3 years)

Key Losses: Zane Knowles (7.6 rpg 7 ppg) Jeff Beverly (8.2 ppg 3 rpg)

Key Returnees: John Jordan (14.5 ppg 5.4 apg 4.5 rpg) Rashawn Thomas (10.7 ppg 5.2 rpg) Hameed Ali (8 ppg 2.4 apg)

Key Newcomers: Bryce Douvier (Jr. 6-7 F) Ihab Amin (Fr. 6-3 G) Joe Kilgore (Fr. 6-4 G)

Electric point guard John Jordan and steady scorer Rashawn Thomas both return as the Islanders look to build on a historic turnaround season last year. Corpus Christi won 14 Southland games and won a game in the CIT, and hopes are high that they can at least match those achievements this season. Hameed Ali joins Jordan in an all-senior backcourt. Freshman Ihab Amin joins the rotation after turning heads playing internationally for Egypt over the summer. The graduation of Zane Knowles and transfer of Jeff Beverly leave a hole in the front court, but Northern Colorado transfer Bryce Douvier is expected to step in after sitting out last season. Perhaps another 14 wins is optimistic, but the Islanders do expect to be right in the thick of the race for the top four seeds again in 2014-15.

5. New Orleans Privateers 11-15, 8-10

Head Coach: Mark Slessinger: 36-48 (3 years), All at UNO

Key Losses: Cory Dixon (13.5 ppg 7.7 rpg) Tradarrius McPhearson (9.2 ppg) Isaac Mack (8.6 ppg, 3.3 apg)

Key Returnees: Kevin Hill (7.9 ppg 6.9 rpg) Christavious Gill (7.8 ppg) Terrance Syon (4.3 rpg, 4 ppg)

Key Newcomers: Kevin Brown (Sr. 6-1 G) Colton Weisbrod (Fr. 6-5 F) Mike Zeno (Fr. 6-5 F)

New Orleans is postseason eligible for the first time since the 2009-10 season, and Head Coach Mark Slessinger has assembled a deep team that, with a few breaks, may challenge for one of the top four spots in the Southland. Losing three seniors who were key contributors hurts, but UNO returns five key contributors and has brought in five newcomers who all are expected to enter the rotation immediately. The returnees are led by junior forward Kevin Hill, who appears ready to elevate into an All-Conference player. Already one of the league's best rebounders, Hill shot over 50% and closed last season with four straight double-doubles. Christavious Gill is a fearless slasher at under six feet tall, but also showed a good three point touch last season as a freshman. Guard Kevin Brown transferred to UNO from Louisiana-Lafayette where he was among the team leaders with 35 made three pointers. As a senior he provides the young, deep Privateers with some much needed experience in the backcourt.

6. McNeese State Cowboys 11-20, 9-9

Head Coach: Dave Simmons: 139-165 (10 years), 112-136 at MSU (8 years)

Key Losses: Ledrick Eackles (17.8 ppg)

Key Returnees: Kevin Hardy (11 ppg 6.7 rpg 4.3 apg) Desharick Guidry (10 ppg 8 rpg) Craig McFerrin (9.2 ppg 6.5 rpg)

Key Newcomers: Marcus Mathieu (RS Fr. 5-11 G) Stephen Oguchukwu (Fr. 6-7 F)

McNeese must replace dynamic scorer Ledrick Eackles, but they return so many guys who contributed last season that a repeat (or improvement) on last year's .500 league record appears very possible. Kevin Hardy is one of the more unique players in all of college basketball. He stands just over six feet tall, but plays like an athletic small forward. For a guard, he has a tremendous ability to rebound. If Marcus Mathieu, who sat out and redshirted his freshman season with a leg injury, can claim the starting point guard position Hardy could light up the box scores with more freedom on the court. Desharick Guidry is a tremendous rebounder and is expected to improve his scoring as he steps into an even bigger role for the Cowboys.

7. Nicholls Colonels 14-15, 10-8

Head Coach: J.P. Piper: 111-182 (10 years), All at Nicholls

Key Losses: Dantrell Thomas (15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) Jeremy Smith (13.9 ppg)

Key Returnees: TJ Carpenter (9.3 ppg) Sam McBeath (7.4 ppg) Liam Thomas (3.3 ppg 3.2 rpg) JaMarkus Horace (4.7 ppg 3.7 rpg)

Key Newcomers: Luka Kamber (So. 6-7 F) Richie Lewis (So. 6-3 G) Adam Ward (Jr. 6-6 F)

Dantrell Thomas and Jeremy Smith carried Nicholls to a winning Southland record last season. If they are going to repeat that feat in 2014-15, Head Coach J.P. Piper will have to find a new group of go-to guys. Fortunately for Piper, he has a deep roster of experienced players from which to find those new leaders. TJ Carpenter appears ready to assume much of the scoring load. The junior scored just under 10 a game and led the team in three pointers made in a supporting role last year. A pair of Australians with injury histories (junior forwards Sam McBeath and Lachlan Prest) could also be key contributors if they can stay on the court. Louisiana-Lafayette transfer, sophomore forward Luka Kamber, can shoot and rebound and figures to be a focal point for the Colonels.

8. Southeastern Louisiana Lions 12-18, 7-11

Head Coach: Jay Ladner: 1st Year

Key Losses: Antonnio Benton (11.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg) Dre Evans (9.5 ppg, 2.8 apg)

Key Returnees: JaMichael Hawkins (12.3 ppg) Devonte Upson (8.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) Onochie Ochie (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg)

Key Newcomers: Cedric Jenkins (Sr. 6-1 G) Zay Jackson (So. 6-0 G) Daniel Grieves (Jr. 6-6 G)

Southeastern added five Division I transfers in Jay Ladner's first offseason as a Division I Head Coach, three of which are eligible immediately. So while they don't have much experience together, they aren't as inexperienced as a team with so many new faces might normally be. This makes Southeastern a very interesting team to watch this year. How quickly all the new parts come together around dynamic scorer JaMichael Hawkins and solid post players Devonte Upson and Onochie Ochie will determine how successful 2014-15 will be for the Lions. It appears evident that Ladner and Southeastern plan to make a big jump next season when the remaining transfers come on board along with Ladner's first recruiting class.

The remaining five teams are all ineligible for postseason play in the 2014-15 season. UIW and ACU are transitioning from Division II, while LU, HBU, and UCA are serving APR penalties.

1. Incarnate Word Cardinals 21-6, 9-5

Head Coach: Ken Burmeister: 93-50 (5 years in DI), 148-77 at UIW (8 years, including non-DI seasons)

Key Losses: Anthony Horton (11.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) Ian Markolf (7.4 rpg, 6.9 ppg)

Key Returnees: Denzel Livingston (20.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.5 spg) Kyle Hittle (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, +40% 3pt) Sam Burmeister (11 ppg, +40% 3pt)

Key Newcomers: Traylin Farris (Fr. 6-8 F)

Yes, the overall record last year was inflated due to a ton of non-DI opponents, but if you followed my updates last season you know how good I think Incarnate Word legitimately was. And there is no reason to think they won't be just as dangerous again in 2014-15. Denzel Livingston is arguably the best player in the Southland Conference, and one of the more unknown talents in all of college basketball. Sharpshooters Kyle Hittle and Sam Burmeister add scoring punch, but Incarnate Word will have to find some replacements in the post game with the departures of the underrated Anthony Horton and 7-foot mountain Ian Markolf. 6-10 Winslo Barry and freshman Traylin Farris will look to fill those voids. It's a shame UIW has been ineligible the past two seasons, because they would certainly be a dark horse threat near the top of the Southland standings.

2. Abilene Christian Wildcats 11-20, 2-12

Head Coach: Joe Golding: 35-50 (3 years), All at ACU

Key Losses: Julian Edmonson (11.1 ppg) Jacob Lancaster (6.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg)

Key Returnees: Harrison Hawkins (12.3 ppg) LaDarrien Williams (12.3 ppg) Parker Wentz (13.9 ppg) Austin Cooke (7.8 ppg 5.7 rpg)

Key Newcomers: Jalen Little (Jr. 5-11 G) Duran Porter (Jr. 6-8 F)

ACU gets a huge boost this season with the return of Hawkins (eligibility) and Williams (injury.) Without it's two most talented players, the Wildcats were still a fiesty club led by sharp-shooting Parker Wentz. Having all three back on the floor together, along with talented post player Austin Cooke, should lead to a much more successful season for the Wildcats in year two of their transition into Division I.

3. Lamar Cardinals 4-26, 3-15

Head Coach: Tic Price: 168-126 (11 years), 1-4 at LU (1st full year as HC, interim at end of 13-14 season)

Key Losses: Nimrod Hilliard (14 ppg) Amos Wilson (11.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) Rhon Mitchell 10.1 ppg)

Key Returnees: Donovan Ross (10.9 ppg) Anthony Holliday (6.3 ppg)

Key Newcomers: Dontavious Sears (Jr. 6-5 F) Quan Jones (Jr. 6-3 G) LeMon Gregory (Jr. 6-10 C) Zjori Bosha (Fr. 6-5 G)

Tic Price, who has led New Orleans and McNeese State to the NCAA Tournament, returns to college coaching and has hit the ground running at Lamar. After taking over for a fired Pat Knight last February, Price earned the full time position after Lamar showed tremendous improvement down the stretch. The roster has seen a major overhaul as impact players Nimrod Hilliard and Rhon Mitchell transfered. Price has brought in a slew of newcomers to play this season while facing a postseason ban due to APR rates, and has really concentrated on recruiting. Early reports have Lamar landing some of the most impressive commitments in the Southland.

4. Houston Baptist Huskies 6-25, 2-16

Head Coach: Ron Cottrell: 426-317 (23 years), All at HBU

Key Losses: Rob Lewis (12.8 ppg) Cody Joyce (9.9 ppg)

Key Returnees: Marcel Smith (6 ppg, 3 apg) Caleb Crayton (7 ppg, 4 rpg) Tyler Russell (8.3 ppg)

Key Newcomers: Anthony Odunsi (Jr. 6-4 G) Jourdan Stickler (Jr. 6-4 G) Terry Harris (Fr. 6-6 G/F)

Despite losing a couple of good players in Lewis and Joyce, the overall talent level appears to be improved on this year's Huskies squad. Senior point guard Marcel Smith leads a group of talented, athletic perimeter players. Anthony Odunsi is a former Utah signee who appeared in five games early last season at Albany, and has received a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately at HBU this season.

5. Central Arkansas Bears 8-21. 5-13

Head Coach: Russ Pennell: 93-58 (5 years), 1st Season at UCA

Key Losses: Too many to name

Key Returnees: Ethan Lee (4.3 ppg)

Key Newcomers: Too many to name

In his first move as new Head Coach at Central Arkansas, former Bears point guard Russ Pennell released all but one player from the program. The complete rebuild makes it nearly impossible to handicap the Bears in 2014-15, but growing pains are sure to be felt by a roster so limited in Division I experience. Sophomore forward Ethan Lee, who started seven games for the Bears last season, is the lone returnee. Three players (Jr. C Jake Zuilhof, Jr. PG Jeff Lowery, and Jr. F Justin Foreman) have followed Russ Pennell to UCA from Grand Canyon University. Zuilhof performed well scoring 30 points on 18 field goal attempts in a pair of pre-season exhibition victories against non-DI competition.