In its final year before the “mass Tex-odus,” the Southland’s top teams have made it a swan song to remember. A quartet of teams — Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State and Nicholls — occupied the top four spots and blew away the rest of the conference from start to finish, losing only a combined 10 games (six of the remaining nine teams lost 10 games on their own, for reference). With a postseason ban keeping perennial powerhouse Stephen F. Austin from capping its final Southland season with a bid, that leaves the remaining three as the overwhelming favorites to head to Indianapolis this year.
All games at the Merrell Center, Katy, TX
Abilene Christian (13-2, 21-4): Joe Golding has steadily been molding the ACU Wildcats into one of the conference’s best teams over his 10 years, but this may just be his best work. The Wildcats have built an impressive resume at 13-2 in conference, and their two non-conference losses were competitive ones to now-ranked Texas Tech and Arkansas. Most of his wins this season have been convincing, and save for a loss to Central Arkansas, the Wildcats were potentially a decent win away from having a real case at an at large bid.
Currently at 97 in KenPom, they are nearly 80 spots higher than the next-highest Southland member (Sam Houston State). Their success starts on the defensive end; the Wildcats are ranked 37th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Golding preaches an aggressive defensive strategy and it shows in the statistics. They force the most turnovers in the conference (and 11th highest in the nation) at 20.6 per game, and rank fourth in the nation in steals. That results in fewer shot attempts, which explains them leading the conference in field goal attempts allowed, but they also allow the lowest field goal percentage in the conference as well. Having a 7-foot rim protector in Kolton Kohl doesn’t hurt, of course, and really makes opponents reconsider scoring in the paint. Offensively, they shoot the ball decently, but their offensive success lies in that they are always looking for the open shot, ranking sixth highest nationally in assists per game. They can score on the interior with Kohl and junior forward Joe Pleasant, but the offense goes through point guards and playmakers Reggie Miller and Damien Daniel. Put together and their average margin in conference games is about +16 points, easily the highest in the league.
The Dark Horses
Nicholls (14-2, 17-6): Despite the gaudy record, somehow the Colonels “came out of nowhere,” if that’s even possible, as for much of the beginning of the season, the focus was on the other three. By season’s end, they had collected their second regular season Southland crown in four seasons and will have the top seed heading into the conference tournament this weekend. Behind third-year coach Austin Claunch — at 31 years old, the youngest in all of Division I — the Colonels have quite literally sprinted their way to 15 of 16 wins with their up-tempo style of play. Naturally, they don’t often play with a lot of size, but they bring veteran guards that can spread the floor and score efficiently. In fact, four of their five leading scorers are senior guards that all average over 9.5 points per game — Ty Gordon (14.9), Andre Jones (11.3), Kevin Johnson (10.8) and Jaylen Fornes (9.6). They do add a bit of size with 6’11 Ryghe Lyons, the tallest member of the rotation by far, and their other leading scorer, junior forward Najee Garvin (13.6), who also leads the team with over seven rebounds a game. One thing of note despite all of their wins: They did not face ACU during the year, and dropped two to Sam Houston State, another team that plays with high tempo.
Sam Houston State (13-3, 19-8): Since taking over for Bob Marlin, Jason Hooten has been a beacon of consistency in Huntsville, Texas, racking up double-digit wins eight seasons in a row. He is still in search of his first tournament appearance at the helm of SHSU, though, and this could be the team to get him there. The Bearkats play a similar brand of basketball to Nicholls — high pace, and with even less size . Their backcourt is a bit younger, featuring senior Demarkus Lampley (14.9 ppg), 5’11 freshman Bryce Monroe (10.2 ppg), and perhaps most importantly, Southland player of the year Zach Nutall (18.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg), and no player 6’8 or above averages more than 12 minutes per game. Unsurprisingly, in their three conference losses, the Bearkats were out-rebounded by over eight rebounds on average. Their defensive numbers, however, are stronger: they allow the second fewest points per game in conference despite their pace of play, defend the perimeter well and allow the lowest three-point shooting percentage, and do not get foul.
The Long Shots
Northwestern State (10-17, 9-7): The Demons take over the fourth position in SFA’s absence and have won nine of their last 10 over teams not named Nicholls or SFA. They should be relatively fresh, as they frequently give minutes to 10 or more players.
New Orleans (9-14, 8-7): The Privateers have also found a stride, winning five of their last six games and pushing Nicholls to the limit in a 105-101 shootout. As the 5 seed, if they can get through Northwestern State, they can try to avenge the close defeat in the semifinal.
Lamar (8-17, 6-10): The season couldn’t have started off much worse for the Cardinals, who looked likely to miss the conference tournament altogether after a 2-10 start. But they rattled off four consecutive wins to close out the year, including an overtime win over SFA. They have the longest winning streak and may have figured something out.
Players to Watch:
NICH: Ty Gordon, Sr., 14.9 Pts, 3.6 Reb, 3.7 Ast
NICH: Najee Garvin, Jr., 13.6 Pts, 7.1 Reb, 0.6 Ast
NICH: Kevin Johnson, Sr. 10.8 Pts, 2.3 Reb, 3.3 Ast
NICH: Andre Jones, Sr., 11.3 Pts, 5.1 Reb, 3.3 Ast
NICH: Ryghe Lyons, Sr., 7.7 Pts, 5.9 Reb, 0.7 Ast
ACU: Kolton Kohl, Sr., 12.2 Pts, 4.7 Reb, 1.4 Ast
ACU: Joe Pleasant, Jr., 10.7 Pts, 5.4 Reb, 1.2 Ast
ACU: Coryon Mason, So., 10.8 Pts, 2.0 Reb, 2.2 Ast
ACU: Reggie Miller, Sr., 6.2 Pts, 4.1 Reb, 4.4 Ast
SHSU: Zach Nutall, Jr., 18.9 Pts, 5.6 Reb, 1.7 Ast
SHSU: Demarcus Lampley, Sr., 14.9 Pts, 3.8 Reb, 1.1 Ast
SHSU: Bryce Monroe, Fr., 10.2 Pts, 1.4 Reb, 2.9 Ast
NWST: Trenton Massner, Jr., 13.0 Pts, 4.7 Reb, 2.4 Ast
NWST: Jamaure Gregg, Sr., 10.0 Pts, 5.0 Reb, 0.6 Ast
NO: Troy Green, Sr., 15.8 Pts, 5.5 Reb, 2.6 Ast
NO: Damion Rosser, Jr., 15.2 Pts, 7.7 Reb, 3.2 Ast
NO: Derek St. Hillaire, Sr., 12.0 Pts, 2.5 Reb, 2.7 Ast
LAM: Davion Buster, Jr., 15.1 Pts, 2.2 Reb, 1.5 Ast
LAM: Kasen Harrison, Fr., 12.8 Pts, 2.5 Reb, 4.1 Ast
LAM: Avery Sullivan, Sr., 10.4 Pts, 7.7 Reb, 0.9 Ast
SELA: Keon Clergeot, Sr., 15.6 Pts, 3.2 Reb, 2.2 Ast
SELA: Gus Okafor, So., 12.7 Pts, 6.6 Reb, 1.0 Ast
HBU: Pedro Castro, So., 14.5 Pts, 7.3 Reb, 1.8 Ast
Abilene Christian wins a close rubber match with Sam Houston State in the semifinal and contains Nicholls’ tempo in the final to go to the tournament for the second time in three years.