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Southland Conference Preseason Rankings: Guess who’s back on top

Stephen F. Austin looks poised to run away with it, but isn’t that what we thought a year ago?

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

It may come as no surprise which team headlines our Southland preseason rankings. It’s Stephen F. Austin, of course, one of the 21st century’s mid-major darlings.

Yet flash back to last year and Lumberjacks looked poised to run away with the conference after some resounding non-conference work. That didn’t happen, with teams the Southland coaches picked third and 10th ultimately splitting the regular season title.

Will more madness ensue this season? Here’s how we see the pecking order before meaningful basketball begins.

1. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, 28-7 (14-4), NCAA Tournament (First Round)

Any doubts about the Lumberjacks’ staying power under Kyle Keller have likely been put to bed. SFA can now realistically expect to build on its 28-win season with an impressive array of returning talent. That includes a pair of league POY contenders in athletic senior shooting guard Shannon Bogues (15.4 PPG) and junior wing Kevon Harris (14.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 42.6 3P%), who made a big leap last season.

The Lumberjacks will need to weather some loss of experience with Ivan Canete, Leon Gilmore and Ty Charles — all of whom averaged at least 23 minutes per game — out of eligibility. Keller may especially miss Canete, as he seemed to rely on him in late game situations. If there’s an area to watch, it might be point guard. Junior Aaron Augustin — a superb defender — got plenty of run as SFA’s lead guard last season, but his turnover issues (29.9 TO%) were representative of the team’s main weakness.

Still, SFA has the tools to approximate the country’s most disruptive defense, particularly with Augustin and senior forward T.J. Holyfield on the roster. Junior guard John Comeaux should be an asset in an expanded role, as should Minnesota grad transfer forward Davonte Fitzgerald. With that depth supporting a pair of top-flight scorers, SFA is the clear favorite in the Southland.

2. Southeastern Louisiana Lions, 22-12 (15-3), NIT (First Round)

The Lions were the Southland’s co-surprise last season, racking up their best league record since joining the conference in 1997. It resulted in a share of the regular season title and, ultimately, their first NIT appearance.

While nearly two-thirds of the minutes behind that run are gone, the star power is still there. Senior Marlain Veal was showered with hardware, winning the league DPOY and landing on the all-league first team. His well-rounded production (12.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.1 APG) belies his 5’7’’ size, and he should be capable of lifting the Lions back into contention. Senior center Moses Greenwood (10.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG) is a quality low post complement, but new faces will need to step up with four players that averaged at least 20 minutes per game out of eligibility.

Senior forward Keith Charleston (21.7 MPG) could be one of these, as could junior guard Von Julien, a Tulane transfer. Jay Ladner called his incoming class on paper the “best he’s ever had,” and if the newcomers can add depth, Veal and Greenwood could keep the Lions right where they were a season ago.

3. Abilene Christian Wildcats, 16-16 (8-10), CIT (First Round)

The Wildcats looked primed for a breakout last season with continuity on their side. Joe Golding had the past two league Freshman of the Year winners (Jalone Friday, Jaylen Franklin), as well as his leading scorer (Jaren Lewis) in the mix. It all looked good through the season’s first three months, before the 14-9 Wildcats ended the year on a 2-6 skid, mainly caused by a sagging offense.

The breakout may yet come. The primaries are all back, giving ACU a continuity advantage again. Friday, a junior center, is a versatile weapon in the frontcourt (13.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG) who is coming off an offseason overseas trip where he was coached by Larry Brown. He’ll be paired again with Lewis, a senior low-post presence coming off his most efficient season (13.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG). Franklin may be the most important of the three, as the senior will likely need to absorb more time as a lead guard with last season’s starter — Tevin Foster — out of eligibility.

Friday and Lewis give ACU big-time rebounding potential, and two consistent sources of offense — though Friday will need to improve on a tough year shooting from distance. Along with Franklin that’s a solid base line for the Wildcats, but they’ll need to improve on a dismal 31.5% team three-point percentage to roll out an offense capable of challenging for the Southland crown.

4. Lamar Cardinals, 19-14 (11-7), CIT (First Round)

Replacing Colton Weisbrod — the Cardinals’ leading scorer and rebounder — won’t be easy, and neither will replacing four other seniors who played key roles last season. But Lamar has won 19 games and finished above .500 in Southland play each of the past two seasons, and should have enough ammo to be a factor yet again.

That starts with senior center Josh Nzeakor (12.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), one of the best rebounders in the Southland, and senior shooting guard Nick Garth (13.6 PPG, 50.8% eFG), who’s finished in the top-nine in effective field goal percentage in league play each of the past two seasons. They’ll have experienced reinforcements backing them up, as the Cardinals get four perimeter transfers from Div. I teams eligible: Laquarious Paige (Indiana State), Jordan Hunter (New Mexico), Mike Kolawole (UIC) and V.J. Holmes (James Madison).

Finding a reliable lead guard will be a key question, but Lamar should be able to field a stout defense. Nzeakor is a quality defender in the paint, Paige showed lockdown potential on the wing at Indiana State, while Kolawole and Holmes bring much-needed athleticism as well. Hunter, meanwhile, may be looked to to help maintain an offense that finished fourth in the Southland a year ago. The Cardinals were this site’s pick to win the league a year ago, and a three-game losing streak put that them in an early hole. All the personnel losses make it hard to place Lamar at the top again, but it seems likely the Cardinals will remain relevant.

5. Sam Houston State Bearkats, 21-15 (12-6), CIT (Semifinals)

The Bearkats have been just on the cusp of breaking out under Jason Hooten. But despite averaging 22 wins over the past five seasons, the NCAA Tournament has never made it into the picture.

SHSU will try to get over that final hump without its most productive player from last season — Christopher Galbreath Jr. — as well as it’s starting point guard (John Dewey III). The strength of the team, however, should be an experienced backcourt featuring seniors Marcus Harris (25.0 MPG, 9.4 PPG), Josh Delaney (8.1 PPG, 40.5% 3FG) and Cameron Delaney (15.5 MPG). Hooten supplemented that with four JuCo transfers, with forwards Kai Mitchell and R.J. Smith seemingly poised for big roles right away.

The key, as it so often is, may be the point guard position, where another of the JuCo transfers — Chad Bowie — and well-regarded Texas prep guard Xavier Bryant should compete for minutes.

6. New Orleans Privateers, 16-17 (11-7), CBI (Quarterfinals)

New Orleans didn’t finish last season with the roster it thought it would. The Privateers leading scorer — Travin Thibodeaux — was benched for “disciplinary issues” and missed the final segment of the year. Along with a late season injuries to guards Bryson Robinson and Ezekial Charles, UNO was short-handed, and as a result the Privateers dropped four of their last five regular season games.

But that created opportunity for younger players that provides reason for optimism heading into 2018-19. Sophomore guard Damion Rosser shined in tournament wins over Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Southland) and UT Rio Grande Valley (CBI), while fellow sophomore guards Lamont Berzat and Troy Green contributed down the stretch as well. Coupled with the return of senior guard Charles (7.5 PPG) and junior guard Robinson (9.5 PPG), UNO may have the deepest back court in the Southland, which should be well-suited to run Mark Slessinger’s deliberate-yet-disruptive defensive system.

Thubodeaux — who was a senior — is a big loss, and the front court only returns one player with significant experience (senior Scott Plaisance Jr.). Contributions will be needed from a trio of freshmen bigs, and gigantic, 7’3’’ sophomore center Bol Riek, who didn’t play basketball in high school. If enough productive minutes can be cobbled together from that group, it wouldn’t be surprising to see UNO’s guards having the Privateers in contention.

7. Central Arkansas Bears, 18-17 (10-8), CBI (Quarterfinals)

The Bears return nearly 60 percent of the minutes from the program’s best Div. I season. That’s the good news, the bad news is that the other 40 percent packed a ton of punch. Jordan Howard — a Scottie Pippen-level program icon — is out of eligibility, taking 25.1 points per game and 113 made three’s with him. Senior wing Mathieu Kamba, the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, is also gone.

That does, however, leave a solid nucleus of role players from an 18-win team that will be given greater roles. Point guard DeAndre Jones was trusted with running the offense — mainly setting up Howard — as a freshman, and did a good job (28.1 MPG, 26.9% ARate). He’ll surely be looked at for more offense in 2018-19, as will seven-foot sophomore center Hayden Koval (8.7 PPG, 3.1 BPG, 33.0 3P%) and senior guard Thatch Unruh (8.7 PPG). Two players to watch are freshman wing Eddy Kayouloud — an Oak Hill product — and sophomore forward Jared Chatham, whose per 40 minute numbers suggest breakout potential.

Between Jones and Koval — a player made for modern basketball — Russ Pennell is not left as empty-handed as it would seem after losing so much top-end production. It could also lead to an improved UCA defense, and not as steep a drop off as would seem natural.

8. McNeese State Cowboys, 12-17 (8-10)

Dave Simmons was let go after 12 seasons, and former Portland State, Wyoming and UT Martin coach Heath Schroyer is now tasked with returning the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. He takes over an uneven team that lost its best scorer — Kaleb Ledoux — and double-double machine Quattarius Wilson to transfer.

But the backcourt does have point guard Jarren Greenwood (12.6 PPG, 3.2 APG) and off-guard James Harvey (10.4 PPG) back for their respective senior years. Schroyer’s teams have excelled with aggressive, free throw-hunting offenses in the past, which could be a great fit for Greenwood. Some of the production lost with Wilson should be replaced by UMass graduate transfer forward Malik Hines (9.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG), who led the A-10 in effective field goal percentage (70%) and was second in two-point field goal percentage (70%) all while playing significant minutes.

Schroyer is a proven commodity as a coach, and got high marks for his work with BYU’s defense as an assistant last year. Who knows how long the well-traveled coach will be in Lake Charles, but while he’s there, it’s a safe bet he’ll make an impact.

9. Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders, 11-18 (8-10)

After four straight seasons of winning league records, the Islanders took a dip in 2017-18. The offense was primarily the culprit, as the team struggled without standouts Rashawn Thomas and Ehab Amin.

Willis Wilson must yet again replace a top offensive option, as leading scorer Joe Kilgore ran out of eligibility. Promising sophomore rim protector Sean Rhea also transferred out of the program. That leaves a backbone of junior wing Kareem South (11.4 PPG), sophomore point guard Myles Smith — who got plenty of experience last year — and defense-first big man Elijah Schmidt (5.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Given Wilson’s track record of producing quality defenses, it’s reasonable to think the Islanders will be competitive on that end.

Smith’s second year running the offense should reduce the Southland’s second-worst turnover rate, but outside of that, the Islanders are likely banking on newcomers to add more scoring punch. Appalachian State graduate transfer Jake Babic could be an option, as could JuCo transfer Jashawn Talton, who will look to follow in the footsteps of his brother, the afforementioned Rashawn Thomas.

10. Nicholls State Colonels, 21-11 (15-3)

The Colonels became a victim of their own success. After a resurgent 21-win season that included a share of the Southland regular season title, second-year coach Richie Riley was plucked by South Alabama. To compound things, Nicholls’ top-six scorers are all gone, with five exhausting eligibility and one (Zaquavian Smith) transferring.

The program won’t, however, be totally disconnected from that great season. Assistant Austin Claunch was tapped as Riley’s replacement, and the 28-year old plans to keep the Colonels playing the up-tempo basketball that produced the Southland’s second-most efficient offense and defense last year. He also looked to fill the experience gap quickly, signing three graduate transfers — Dexter McClanahan (Savannah State), Gavin Peppers (Central Michigan) and Jeremiah Jefferson (Jackson State)— and four JuCo players.

An upper-half league finish seems unrealistic given the massive turnover. That’s especially the case with point guard Roddy Peters, who had a greater gravitational pull on his team that any other player in the Southland last year. But there is reason to think that experienced players like the trigger-happy McClanahan and Jefferson (38.9 3P% in SWAC play in 2017-18) can keep Nicholls respectable before some major talent (Nico Clareth, D’Angelo Hunter) becomes eligible next year.

11. Houston Baptist Huskies, 6-25 (2-16)

There is some reason for optimism for the Huskies, even if they won just three Div. I games and had one of the country’s most porous defenses last season. Offensive potential lives on the perimeter, with sophomore wing Ian Dubose (12.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and junior combo guard Jalon Gates (11.5 PPG) both returning. Starting point guard Braxton Bonds (10.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.1 APG) is also back for his senior year after a quality season.

Ron Cottrell has built productive offenses before, as he did when HBU finished with winning league records in 2015-16 and 2016-17. That may have been the best-case scenario this upcoming season, but the Huskies lost their headliner when reigning Freshman of the Year David Caraher (16.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG) transferred to St. John’s. That certainly hurt HBU’s trajectory, especially with Gate and Dubose having multiple years of eligibility left.

Redshirt senior Josh Ibarra, however, is back after a blazing start to last season (16.0 PPG, 10.0, 9 games) was cut short due to injury. It’ll take significant improvement defensively for the Huskies to rise up the standings, as they let opponents shoot nearly 40 percent from distance. But they do have a slew of proven scorers, and should, if nothing else, be entertaining as they play fast and put up a lot of shots.

12. Incarnate Word Cardinals, 7-21 (2-16)

The most intriguing coaching hire may have taken place in San Antonio, as Incarnate Word dipped into the NAIA ranks to find Dr. Carson Cunningham. Cunningham, a former Purdue point guard, had turned Montana’s Carroll College into a national power after six seasons as a high school coach. The first-year coach was also history professor not that long ago, and takes over a program with a brief, six-year history in Div. I.

The Cardinals rolled out the Southland’s least-efficient defense a year ago, and endured a 17-game losing streak. Despite that, Cunningham does have a trio of solid returnees on his roster in sophomores Keaton Hervey (8.0 PPG) and Christian Peevy (7.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and senior Charles Brown III (13.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG). They’ll be leading a team chock-full of youth, as Cunningham brings in six scholarship freshmen.

His teams at Carroll were known for efficient, hot-shooting offenses, and while there may be struggles in year one, he’s brought in extreme youth to attempt to lay a long-term foundation.

13. Northwestern State Demons, 4-25 (1-17)

The Demons lost a lot coming into 2017-18, including three key senior contributors and point guard prospect Josh Boyd, who transferred. That left plenty of inexperience, which was squeezed further as Northwestern State was hit with a rash of injuries throughout last season — most notably to senior guards Devonte Hall and Jalen West.

Due to this, Mike McConathy was forced to turn the offense over to a pair of freshman, Czar Perry and CJ Jones. While both showed promise, the youth also contributed to the highest team turnover rate in the country. The Demons could never get the offense on track, and opened league play on a 14-game losing streak.

Jones returns and could take a leap after having so much responsibility thrust on him right away. The Demons will also rely on JuCo transfer LaTerrance Reed and Canadian prep product Alex Comanita to bolster a team that shot just 28.3 percent from three last year. Further optimism could come from a solid front court. Center Ishmael Lane — the team’s leading scorer and rebounder — will look to build on a career year (13.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG), and sophomore bigs Larry Owens (6.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and Darian Dixon (4.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG) showed promise last season. McConathay’s best teams have generally been up-tempo and back court-oriented, but the focus may need to be in the paint if the Demons are to make a competitive leap this season.