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Southland Conference preseason power rankings: This is Lamar’s year

The Cardinals are the team to beat, but the Southland has two teams postseason-eligible for the first time.

NCAA Basketball: Lamar at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016-17, Mark Slessinger and his New Orleans Privateers grabbed the Stephen F. Austin-dominated Southland Conference snow globe and shook it up.

SFA exited the conference tournament early, leaving New Orleans and Texas A&M Corpus Christi to duke it out in the finals. The Privateers made their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996, while the Islanders made a run to the CIT title game.

Some fan favorites are gone, but familiar faces like Jordan Howard, Colton Weisbrod, Ehab Amin, and even Jalan West — who is back for his seventh (7th!) season of eligibility — should make it a fun season in a wide-open Southland Conference.

Southland Preseason Power Rankings:

1. Lamar Cardinals

Tic Price is bringing all five starters back from a team that won 19 games, made the CIT, and led the Southland in scoring margin. Weisbrod, who averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per game a year ago, looks like a Player of the Year candidate. Nick Garth also returns after nailing 42 percent of his outside shots a year ago. 6’5 forward James Harrison is also now eligible after transferring in from UT Martin.

2. Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders

Despite losing Rashawn Thomas, the school’s career leader in scoring, rebounding, and blocks, the Islanders are primed to make another postseason run. They return 11 players — three starters — and that includes Amin, who led the nation in steals last season. Joseph Kilgore, who led the Islanders in assists, and veteran Kareem South, are also back.

3. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

The Lumberjacks are loaded again and will likely finish near the top of the Southland. They bring back four starters, including SFA’s leading scorer and rebounder in T.J. Holyfield, and seniors Leon Gilmore and Ty Charles. SFA bolstered its depth with JuCo transfer Shannon Bogues and freshman Cameron Mack, who picked SFA over schools in Conference USA and the Mountain West. Both could compete for big minutes in a talented rotation.

4. Abilene Christian Wildcats

Like Lamar, the Wildcats bring back all five starters from a year ago, including the past two Southland freshmen of the year in Jalone Friday and Jaylen Franklin. Toss in Isaiah Tripp, Jaren Lewis, and Drake Green, and you have the core of the team that was in the top three of the Southland in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Coach Joe Golding also added Division II transfer Tevin Foster and New Zealand national teamer Tobias Cameron. The Wildcats are ready to make a postseason run at the right time, as they’ve completed their transition to Division I and are eligible for tournament play.

5. Northwestern State Demons

West hasn’t played for the Demons since 2015, but if he’s healthy, the 24 year-old will literally be a man among boys on the court at times, and could produce an MVP-type season. The Demons lost their two top scorers and return just two starters, but should get a boost from Ishmael Lane and JuCo transfer Brandon Hutton, who originally signed a letter of intent with Iowa. If West, Lane, and Hutton gel, the Demons could be a threat in March.

6. New Orleans Privateers

After shaking up the Southland, the Privateers return just two starters and lost their leading scorer. New Orleans narrowly lost to Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four, and to get back there, it will need big performances from JuCo transfers Diontae Champion and Ezekial Charles. Freshman guard Lamont Berzat might see big minutes too.

7. Central Arkansas Bears

The Bears were last in the Southland in scoring defense and turnover margin a season ago, but hope that a pair of incoming 7-foot freshmen will boost the defense. Hayden Koval and S.K. Shittu — a Nigerian with an 86-inch wingspan who had offers from LSU, Houston and Tulsa — should give the Bears better rim protection. On offense, Howard returns. He is the league’s top returning scorer and connected on 44 percent of his shots from behind the arc last season.

8. Incarnate Word Cardinals

The Cardinals had one of the league’s best offenses last year and return four starters from it, including Jalin Hart, who notched 15.9 points per game. Incarnate Word gave up 80 points per game last season, but led the Southland in three-point shooting. The Cardinals’ rotation might get a bump from a pair of three-star recruits, Jeremiah Allen and Keaton Harvey.

9. Houston Baptist Huskies

After leading the league in scoring offense with 78 points per game, the Huskies bring back a team that graduated five players and lost two others to transfer. The two starters HBU returns are Josh Ibarra and Braxton Bonds, and it’ll need big performances from both if it wants to sniff a postseason tournament. Freshman David Caraher — a three-star recruit who chose the Huskies over Butler, Richmond, Appalachian State, and Charlotte — could have an impact, as could Tim Myles, a 6’6 transfer from Cal State Fullerton.

10. Southeastern Louisiana Lions

To build on their 9-9 conference record from last year, and perhaps to shock a team or two in the conference tournament, the Lions will lean on their veterans. Marlain Veal will lead the squad after averaging 14.5 points per game last year, while 6’7 senior Jordan Capps will return from an injury that sidelined him for all of but two game last season.

11. Sam Houston State Bearkats

The Bearkats lost five seniors from a season ago, but bring back steady hands in double-digit scorers Chris Galbreath Jr. and John Dewey III. Josh Delaney, who shot 37 percent from outside last year, is likely to step in at point guard. Josh Boutte might have an impact too after the 6’6 forward averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds at Dodge City Community College.

12. Nicholls Colonels

The Colonels lost seven seniors and three starters from their 2016-17 squad, and Richie Riley may turn to new faces for big plays this year. Tevon Saddler is now eligible for Nicholls. He averaged double-digits in scoring in each of his two seasons at UNC Greensboro, and led the team in assists. Jahvaughn Powell and Lafayette Rutledge are also back, and will try to improve the team that was second-to-last in the conference in field goal percentage.

13. McNeese State Cowboys

The Cowboys picked up a pair of JuCo players in Demarco Owens and Quattarius Wilson. They bring back three starters, including leading scorer Kaleb Ledoux, and have three redshirt freshmen who could provide some depth. This team was fifth in the Southland in blocked shots and field goal percentage defense, but ranked in the bottom half in every offensive category.