As of Thursday morning, there were just 28 teams with five losses or fewer in the country. Included in this group were teams like Michigan State, North Carolina, SMU, and Villanova. Wins and losses certainly don't tell the full story of any team by themselves, but once the calendar reaches late February, they do become noteworthy.
Interestingly, one team from the Southland conference falls into this group.
That team, of course, is the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, who currently sit with a 19-5 overall record. Along with that stellar overall record, the Lumberjacks also sit undefeated at 12-0 in Southland play and are currently projected by KenPom to finish the regular season at 24-6 overall with just one conference loss.
Unfortunately, despite this record, there are still some major questions about Stephen F. Austin. Most notably, can the Lumberjacks do anything against top competition? After all, the team has faced just three top 100 KenPom teams this season and lost all three games. Stephen F. Austin has done a nice job of taking care of business in the games it should win, but can it reach that next level?
Along with those questions, the Lumberjacks have also been relatively underwhelming on the boards and inside this season. This showed up particularly in Stephen F. Austin's opening night loss against Baylor when the Bears scored 54 points from two point range and had a 79.5 percent defensive rebounding rate. Now, Baylor is a really good team, but if Stephen F. Austin hopes to create chaos in March, it will need to perform better inside.
So, with these questions, how far can Stephen F. Austin go this season?
Obviously, the first challenge ahead for the Lumberjacks will be making the NCAA Tournament. Right now, Stephen F. Austin looks like the class of the Southland, but unfortunately, given the team's five losses in non-conference play and lack of significant wins, Stephen F. Austin just doesn't have the resume to be an NCAA Tournament at-large team. As such, it's going to need to win its conference tournament.
The good news is that Stephen F. Austin has been phenomenal against Southland teams under head coach Brad Underwood. In fact, the Lumberjacks have a 51-1 record against these teams since Underwood took over. Past seasons certainly don't guarantee wins, but if you're a Lumberjack fan, you have to feel pretty solid with that record.
After that is when things could get really interesting.
Now, assuming Stephen F. Austin can take care of business in conference play and the conference tournament - again, far from a guarantee - the Lumberjacks will likely enter as a No. 14 or No. 15 seed in the bracket. Granted, that will be a moving target over the next few weeks, but the team should likely fall somewhere around there.
So, can Stephen F. Austin break the bracket?
Obviously, this shouldn't require mentioning, but here it is anyway: Stephen F. Austin is going to be a major underdog in any game it plays in the NCAA Tournament. Again, this is generally understood for lower seeds, but before projecting Stephen F. Austin's potential to make a run, it needs to at least be mentioned.
Essentially, the odds, stats, and general knowledge suggest that no upset will happen. So, the challenge becomes projecting if a team can potentially go against those factors and get the job done.
With that out of the way, Stephen. F. Austin actually has some factors that imply it could be a bracket buster. To start, the Lumberjacks are well balanced. The team's offense is rated No. 102 and its defense is rated No. 75 by KenPom. Traditionally, offensive and defensive balance have been a key factor in assessing potential NCAA runs.
Along with this, the Lumberjacks have an extremely dangerous and experienced backcourt. Demetrious Floyd, Trey Pinkney, and Thomas Walkup are all senior leaders and all have been really solid this season. Floyd can shoot the rock really well from long range, Pinkney has been really solid at getting to the line, and Walkup has controlled the offense and taken care of the ball.
That's a backcourt that will keep opposing coaches up at night.
Of course, Stephen F. Austin does have some issues as well. As mentioned, the Lumberjacks aren't necessarily a great team inside and have struggled with things like rebounding. Size is also a major factor as the team is ranked just No. 342 nationally in average team height. As such, if Stephen F. Austin is going to make a run, avoiding a team like Baylor, California, Florida State, or Maryland early will be imperative.
Nonetheless, with Stephen F. Austin's team balance, its senior led backcourt, and the weakness among the nation's top group of teams this season, don't count out the Lumberjacks just yet. After all, the Baylor loss was round, but against some smaller teams like Arizona State and Northern Iowa, the team looked far more dangerous.
Projecting an upset is certainly never an easy thing to do, but with how Stephen F. Austin is sitting right now, if the Lumberjacks can draw the right matchup, this could certainly be a team to watch heading into March.
And considering how the season started, that tells a lot about head coach Brad Underwood.