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Southland Tournament preview: Stephen F. Austin is the conference’s death star

The Lumberjacks went 19-1 in conference play and won most of those games comfortably.

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The story of the Southland Conference this season is Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are the best team in the league, having put together a ridiculous 19-1 record in conference play. SFA’s last loss was on Jan. 8. The run has been so great, and the early season win against Duke so surprising, that Kyle Keller’s team has become a topic of discussion for an at-large bid. But even though the resume is quite good, there’s no way that the Lumberjacks want to chance fate in that way. Instead, thanks to the Southland’s staggered bracket, they’ll only need to win two games to earn the automatic bid and head to the Big Dance.

It won’t be easy. Both Abilene Christian and Nicholls State went 15-5 in conference play this season and represent potential challenges. Only the top eight teams were invited to Katy, TX, with Central Arkansas, Incarnate Word, New Orleans, Southeastern Louisiana and Houston Baptist are already done for the season.

Bracket

Schedule

First Round (Wed., March 11):
All on ESPN+

Game 1: No. 5 Northwestern State vs. No. 8 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Game 2: No. 6 Lamar vs. No. 7 McNeese

Second Round (Thurs., March 12):
All on ESPN+

Game 3: No. 4 Sam Houston State vs. Game 1 Winner
Game 4: No. 3 Nicholls vs. Game 2 Winner

Semifinals (Fri., March 13):
All on ESPN+

Game 5: No. 1 Stephen F. Austin vs. Game 3 Winner
Game 6: No. 2 Abilene Christian vs. Game 4 Winner

Finals (Sat., March 14):
On ESPN2

Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner

The Favorites

Stephen F. Austin (28-3, 19-1): SFA has been the Death Star of the Southland Conference this season. The Lumberjacks’ lone conference loss was by a single point and only one of their 19 wins was by fewer than five points. They had the best offense and defense in the league on a per possession basis. SFA’s statistical weaknesses are a tendency to turn the ball over on offense and an inability to hit free throws. Maybe the second one could be an issue in a close game, but a Southland team would have to force the issue first.

Abilene Christian (20-11, 15-5): Last season, ACU went to its first-ever NCAA Tournament as a Division I program after winning the Southland Conference tournament. This season the Wildcats are still quite dangerous, but have a slightly different cast of characters. The Wildcats are led by senior guard Payten Ricks (14.3 PPG) who went from the third option on the championship team to the lead role this season. Ricks also ranks 30th nationally in steal percentage. The big concern going into the tournament is the health of sophomore forward Joe Pleasant. He missed the final two games of the regular season, including a home loss to Stephen F. Austin, due to a knee injury.

Nicholls St. (21-10, 15-5): The Colonels won at Pittsburgh and fell by just five points at Rhode Island during non-conference play, and then went 15-5 in league play, so they’re a legitimate bunch. Unfortunately, due to tiebreakers, Nicholls St. fell behind Abilene Christian in the conference standings and will have to win an extra game to take home the title. Warith Alatishe is a player to watch. He’s an athletic 6-foot-7 sophomore forward who was in the top 10 in two-point percentage, block percentage, steal percentage, and offensive and defensive rebounding percentage during Southland play.

The Dark Horse

Texas A&M Corpus Christi (14-17, 10-10): It’s highly unlikely that Texas A&M CC will be able to make a run from the first day of the tournament all the way to the championship, but shout out to the only Southland Conference team to beat Stephen F. Austin this season. The Islanders are the exception in a conference that loves to run up-and-down the court, ranking 301st in the country nationally in tempo according to KenPom. Texas A&M CC has beaten every team that it could potentially play on its way to the finals, including SFA, so it has definitely shown the ability to pull a major upset.

Players to Watch

  • Kevon Harris, Stephen F. Austin
  • Warith Alatishe, Nicholls St.
  • Kai Mitchell, Sam Houston St.
  • Sha’markus Kennedy, McNeese St.
  • Gavin Kensmil, Stephen F. Austin
  • T.J. Atwood, Lamar
  • Rylan Bergersen, Abilene Christian
  • Dru Kuxhausen, McNeese St.

Prediction

Stephen F. Austin takes home the title and becomes one insanely dangerous 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament.