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Southland stalemate: Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian locked in thrilling title race

But could a favorable schedule leave a fourth team holding the crown?

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

If the Southland in its current form has to go, it sure is going out with a bang.

The league facing a mass exodus — and sooner than some may have thought — is providing one of the country’s most captivating conference title races. With a healthy chunk of SLC play in the books, a trio of one-loss teams are locked in a game of musical chairs for the championship, with a fourth program hanging in with a potentially fortuitous leg up.

As the dust settled last weekend, three teams set to depart to the WAC sat atop the league. Sam Houston State (8-1), Abilene Christian (7-1) and Stephen F. Austin (7-1) have spent all season establishing themselves as the cream of the SLC crop, and showing, in part, why the WAC was excited to gobble up those programs to boost its men’s basketball profile.

The trio, however, have continued to pick each other off.

The Bearkats suffered their lone loss at the hands of their Piney Woods rival SFA last week, falling by ten points in a game the Jacks grabbed a hold of in the second half. But that setback in Nacogdoches came just 11 days after SHSU had saddled Abilene Christian — the lone SLC team in our Other Top 25 — with its only conference loss to this point.

And, of course, the circle wouldn’t be complete without the Wildcats having given the Jacks their sole league loss in a 20-point win on Jan. 27, where they held SFA to its worst offensive outing of the season, save a non-conference date with Baylor’s vise-grip defense.

Three teams, nary a leg up in sight, so what will give in the season’s final month?

Each brings their own strengths to the table. For ACU, it’s been about a defense that can be described as elite without dipping into hyperbole. The Wildcats are currently leading the SLC in defensive efficiency — and 34th nationally — with an attack that’s turned teams over at the highest rate in the country.

It’s led by a tremendous on-ball, perimeter defender in Reggie Miller and shot-stopping center in Kolton Kohl, and earned the praise of Chris Beard after ACU pushed Texas Tech in December.

“This type of game makes both teams better as the year goes on. (ACU) took us out of a lot of things we normally like to do. We need to learn how to combat and prevent that with secondary game plans. Our guys did a good job of that tonight. Tonight, we play against one of the best defenses in college basketball. They are a tough defense to score against, scrappy. There were all types of things to learn from; we got better tonight because of this game.”

That defense clamped down on SFA, which in and of itself as an accomplishment. Kyle Keller has revamped his star power yet again in Nacogdoches, with Cameron Johnson (18.2 PPG) and, to a lesser extent, Gavin Kensmil (13.9 PPG, 63.8 FG%) in bigger roles and leading the league’s top offense. As a team, their effective field goal percentage has hovered near a mind-boggling 60 percent in league play, as they’ve hit 83 or more points five times. That sort of consistent offense let them down against ACU, but could yet be enough to claim more silverware for the Jacks.

If they do get there, the win over rival SHSU on Jan. 31 will have been a key building block. But the Bearkats are very much in the race themselves, as Jason Hooten has yet again put together another balanced, dangerous team. SHSU shrugged off a tough start to the season against a grueling slate to rip off a pair of solid non-conference wins against Rice and UT Rio Grande Valley and cruise through league play.

Zach Nutall (19.8 PPG, 39.2 3P%, 5.8 RPG) has become one of the conference’s best players, while the Bearkats’ quality defense is underpinned by undersized, yet still-imposing center Tristan Ipke. That defense helped stifle Nicholls in a big game last weekend, forcing the Colonels into a string of 21 straight missed shots while ultimately overturning a 15-point deficit to win.

Nicholls, however, may have a hand in the race too.

The Colonels sit at 7-2, having their league season bookended by losses to the Bearkats, but with an impressive seven-game winning streak in between. Third-year coach Austin Claunch has approximated the breakneck pace the team used to great success in Richie Riley’s final year, and may have a scheduling kiss in his favor.

The three league leaders each all play one another again this season, putting two tough games on each of their respective schedules. Nicholls hasn’t — and won’t — play either ACU or SFA this year, facing a schedule rife with 300-plus KenPom teams the rest of way. The Colonels are having a great season behind junior point guard Ty Gordon, but the imbalanced schedule may just as compelling a point in their corner as they seek to make their first since 1998.

In any event, while the SLC in its current form is riding into the sunset, it sure is doing so in style.