There is a feeling around the Southland that this year, the conference is more open than it has been in the past. Stephen F. Austin has won the Southland three years in a row, compiling an 89-13 overall record and losing just one conference game within that time. The main question surrounding the Lumberjacks is if new coach Kyle Keller can duplicate the success of his predecessor, Brad Underwood, who departed to take over at Oklahoma State.
Southland Preseason Power Rankings:
1. Stephen F. Austin
The great Ric Flair once explained “In order to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” Until somebody can show that it has the talent to beat the Lumberjacks, they’re still No. 1. They lost the two winningest players in school history, but still return a talented and experienced roster, led 6’5 junior guard Ty Charles and 6’8 sophomore forward T.J. Holyfield. Kyle Keller has also recruited well in his short time at Stephen F. Austin, something he mastered as an assistant at Kansas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Freshman guard Aaron Augustin turned down offers from multiple Power 5 schools to play for Keller at SFA and should have an immediate impact.
2. Sam Houston State
The Bearkats return their top five scorers from last year. They’ll be led by the tandem of 6’8 senior forward Aurimas Majauskas and 6’3 senior guard Dakarai Henderson, who both averaged 14.2 points per game last season. After coming close in each of the past three Southland Tournaments, could this be the year they finally get over the hump?
3. McNeese State
The Cowboys are a young but talented team and look to make a charge in the conference. They return their top three scorers from last season, including 6’0 senior guard Jamaya Burr, who led the team with 15.4 points per game as the only player to start all 29 of their games. The two 6’2 sophomore guards to watch are James Harvey, who was good for 10.7 points per game, and Jarren Greenwood, who averaged 10.8 points per game.
4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
The Islanders are looking to rebound after making it to the conference final last year, where SFA blew them out. They did lose a few key players from last year’s squad, but head coach Willis Wilson has brought in five new players and is hoping for a quick turnaround from his new recruits. The good news for Wilson is that he returns one of the best players in program history in 6’8 forward Rashawn Thomas. The senior was the conference Defensive Player of the Year as well as First Team All-Conference and was a finalist for the Lou Henson Mid-Major Player of the Year award.
5. Abilene Christian
The Wildcats enter 2016-17 with a young team, which could make them the wild card of the conference. Jovan Crnic is their only senior and even the Serbian is new to the squad, having transferred from the JuCo ranks. 6’2 sophomore guard Jaylen Franklin led the team with 16.2 points per game and will be counted on once again to be the primary offensive target.
6. New Orleans
The Privateers hope they can simply out-run their competition with their brand of small ball. They’ll be led by 5’8 senior guard Christavious Gill, who started all 30 games and averaged 14.8 points per game. New Orleans returns its top three scorers from last year and fourth-year head coach Mark Slessinger added five new players to the mix. Their heavy early-season schedule against Oklahoma State and USC should give the youngsters some experience ahead of the conference schedule.
7. Houston Baptist
The Huskies are one of the more experienced teams in the conference with eight upperclassmen on their 2016-17 roster. Head coach Ron Cottrell is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NCAA, entering his 25th season, and his team made a big leap last year, going 10-8 in conference play. 6’7 senior forward Colter Lasher is the team’s leading returning scorer with 10.5 points per game and graduate transfer Atif Russell will add even more depth to the Huskies. The 6’5 guard/forward played in 92 games for Pepperdine from 2013-16 and was granted a medical hardship last season which makes him immediately eligible for Houston Baptist.
8. Northwestern State
The Demons look to rebound after an injury-plagued eight-win 2015-16 campaign and will have to do so once again without star guard Jalan West, who will miss his second consecutive season with an ACL tear. All is not lost for 18th-year head coach Mike McConathy, who may have the best backcourt in the conference, led by Zeek Woodley, who, at 22.2 points per game, is the NCAA’s leading returning scorer. 6’3 senior guard Sabri Thompson will get heavy minutes this season with West out and he looks up to the task; he was the team’s best player on its successful 4-0 preseason tour of Canada.
9. Incarnate Word
The Cardinals went 11-6 in conference play last year but lose their top four scorers, including Jontrelle Walker, who transferred to Ball State. You have to think with that with so much departing talent, this may be a year of transition for Incarnate Word.
10. Nicholls State
At this time next year, expect Nicholls State to be a top-three team in the Southland. But first-year head coach Richie Riley has a big task ahead of him in turning around a program that has never won the conference and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Riley has built a reputation as an excellent recruiter as an assistant at Clemson, but he’ll need a year or two to get some more reinforcements into Thibodeaux. 6’4 senior guard Ja’Dante Fry will lead the offense while 7-foot senior center Liam Thomas will look to build on his impressive junior campaign that saw him lead the conference in blocks.
11. Southeastern Louisiana
The Lions had a decent season last year, going 9-9 in conference play, but they go into the 2016-17 campaign without their two leading scorers from last season. 6’0 senior guard Joshua Filmore was one of two Lions to start 30 games last season and will be counted on to be the on-court leader for SE Louisiana. 6’6 swingman Davon Hayes played his freshman year at Southern Miss and is one of the newcomers who can provide some much-needed experience to the rotation.
Head coach Tic Price is looking to bounce back from a difficult season that saw the Cardinals go just 3-15 in conference play. He felt his squad lacked maturity, so he went to the JuCo ranks and brought in three players with prior Division I experience in forward Christian Albright (Abilene Christian), guard Joey Frenchwood (Montana State) and forward Colton Weisbrod (New Orleans).
13. Central Arkansas
The Bears had a disastrous 2015-16 season, going just 7-21 overall, and were one of four schools in the NCAA given a postseason ban for low Academic Progress Rate scores. That’s never good for recruiting. The Bears return their two leading scorers in Jordan Howard (20.2 ppg) and Derreck Brooks (12.1 ppg). Brooks was also named conference Newcomer of the Year in the Southland.