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Stephen F. Austin looks to reclaim spot as top dog

Head coach Kyle Keller struggled through his first season with the Lumberjacks but is beaming with confidence for 2017-18

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks had an astounding run of success under now-Illinois head coach Brad Underwood, going 89-14 over three seasons and reaching the NCAA Tournament in three consecutive years.

In stepped new head coach Kyle Keller last season, who had been an assistant at some of the biggest programs in Division I, including Kansas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State. However, the results from Keller’s first season were mixed, with the Lumberjacks struggling through an 18-15 season (12-6) and a semifinal exit from the Southland Tournament.

Keller admitted the experience of watching New Orleans take their place in the tournament was painful.

“I hurt for our players and our fans obviously,” he said. “We wanted to go, but if we couldn’t, I thought it was great for [New Orleans] and their city.”

After a string of good fortune in Nacogdoches, the Lumberjacks experienced a series of misfortunes last year, missing nearly 100 combined games due to injury, including a season-long absence from senior CJ Williams with a heart issue. Preseason All-Southland selection Ty Charles missed a good chunk of the first half of the season with an injury as well, and sophomore Nate Bain missed all but the first three games of the season with a back injury.

Fast-forward a few months to the start of the 2017-18 season, and Keller is confident that last season’s woes are behind them and that any deficiencies from last year’s squad have been addressed through a strong recruiting class.

The Lumberjacks have brought in five new players, which include three skilled, high-scoring guards.

John Comeaux is a 5’11 guard from Beaumont, TX who averaged 19.9 points per game last year in JuCo for Lamar State College, while incoming freshman Cameron Mack was rated as the fourth-best guard in Texas and spurned offers from Rhode Island and Boise State.

Keller had rave reviews for all of his incoming players, but spoke highly about junior guard Shannon Bogues. He said that Bogues has a lot of similarities to current NBA player Tony Allen, who he coached at Oklahoma State. Keller says that Bogues’ instinct, quickness and strength are comparable to Allen, who has made the NBA All-Defensive team six times.

Stephen F. Austin is the winningest college basketball program in Texas over the past decade and has the second-best home record of any program in the country over the past five years.

The Lumberjacks are a much deeper team this season with the influx of new talent as well as some key figures returning to the lineup.

Senior forward Leon Gilmore III tied for second on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game along with senior guard Ivan Canete, who started all 33 games for SFA last year.

Junior forward TJ Holyfield is a preseason second-team All-Southland selection and was the Jacks’ leading scorer last year with 11.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Keller says that Holyfield is the key to the team’s success and is expected to have a conference player of the year type of season.

Every successful college program eventually has a down year, but the really good ones have the ability to bounce right back and become the tops dogs once again. Despite a poor showing in 2016-17, Stephen F. Austin is once again rated as the preseason favorite to regain to the Southland title.

Keller dismissed any preseason rankings for his squad, but feels they should return to the form that Lumberjacks fans have been used to in recent years.

“If we can get all of our pieces on the floor, I think our team has a chance to be really special,” he said.