It’s a new era in the Southland. Only eight of the conference’s 13 teams qualify for the postseason tournament, which means that already some of the better-known programs have been eliminated. Last season, Stephen F. Austin took the Southland’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and Nicholls State was a co-champion. This season, both finished 7-11 and missed out on the action entirely.
Sam Houston State and Abilene Christian emerged at the top of the turmoil and will be the protected seeds to the semifinals.
All games in Katy, TX and all times Central
Wednesday, March 13 - Round 1 (ESPN+):
Game 1 (5 p.m.): No. 8 Houston Baptist vs. No. 5 Lamar
Game 2 (7:30 p.m.): No. 7 Central Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Thursday, March 14 - Quarterfinals (ESPN+):
Game 3 (5 p.m.): Winner Game 1 vs. No. 4 New Orleans
Game 4 (7:30 p.m.): Winner Game 2 vs. No. 3 Southeastern Louisiana
Friday, March 15 - Semifinals (ESPN+):
Game 5 (5 p.m.): Winner Game 3 vs. No. 1 Sam Houston State
Game 6 (7:30 p.m.): Winner Game 4 vs. No. 2 Abilene Christian
Saturday, March 16 - Finals (ESPN2):
Game 7 (8:30 p.m.): Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6
Abilene Christian (25-6, 14-4)
Despite nominally being the No. 2 seed in the tournament, the Wildcats are the favorite in the according to most projections. Three of ACU’s four conference losses came by three points or fewer, or in overtime. The other was a troubling nine-point home loss to potential semi-final opponent Southeastern Louisiana. Juniors Jalone Friday and B.J. Maxwell were dismissed from the team on Feb. 21, just two days before that game. ACU finished by winning four straight to close out the regular season, but the last two were against teams that failed to qualify for the postseason tournament. Still, Jaren Lewis is one of the league’s best players. The senior forward averaged 13.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game this season. ACU’s senior point guard, Jaylen Franklin, provides a steady hand in the backcourt with 4.9 assists per game to go along with his 10.0 ppg. This team still has more than enough talent and it will be Southland Coach of the Year Joe Golding’s job to guide them through to the NCAA Tournament.
Sam Houston St. (21-10, 16-2)
After going just 2-8 against a difficult slate of Division I competition in the non-conference, the Bearkats roared back in Southland play, going 16-2 and capturing the top seed. The Bearkats swept ACU during the regular season, winning by three points at home and in double-overtime on the road. That was the story of the season, as SHSU went 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer, or overtime in conference play. Jason Hooten’s squad takes a ton of threes. They sunk nearly 40 percent of them during Southland play in putting together the league’s best offense. But that reliance on the deep shots could become a liability if they can’t find the range for a game in Katy. Cameron Delaney was named the Southland’s Player of the Year after averaging 13.4 ppg and 5.5 rpg.
Lamar (19-12, 12-6)
The Cardinals fell to the 5 seed after losing a three-way tie-breaker. That’s unfortunate, because now they will have to win four games in four days to take home the title. Lamar was one of two teams to beat Sam Houston St. this season. Can Southland Conference first-teamer Nick Garth pull off a few upsets and make the four-game run?
Southeastern Louisiana (16-15, 12-6)
Moses Green and Marlain Veal give the Lions a dangerous one-two punch. Green was a physical force in the paint, while Veal shot 37 percent from three on 177 attempts. Greenwood scored 27 points in the win over ACU and Southeastern will need similar performances in the tournament to make a run for the automatic bid.
New Orleans (17-12, 12-6)
If you believe in defense, then the Privateers might be the long-shot pick. New Orleans had the second-best defense in the Southland, allowing 0.96 points per possession, just behind ACU. UNO forced turnovers on nearly a quarter of its possessions in conference play. If the Privateers can muck games up, there seems to be a shot.
SHSU was the best team in the conference this season. Will that dominance continue into the conference tournament? It’ll take us a few nights to find out, but the Bearkats still seem to be the team to watch out for.