College Basketball Preview - Southland Conference
*** College Basketball Preview - Southland Conference ***
The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer
OUTLOOK: In a league that tends to be a bit on the small side in terms of the players' heights, the Southland Conference will once again fly under the college basketball radar in 2004-05. Most players in the SLC fall under 6-6, which means having a standout performer who can capture the attention of those outside the league is quite rare. Southeastern Louisiana, which figures to finish in the middle of the pack this year after tying for the best record in the conference last season at 11-5, 20-9 overall, may have the most marketable commodity in center Nate Lofton. A transfer from Arkansas-Fort Smith, Lofton is the only returning All-Southland Conference First Team member. This season it appears as though Sam Houston State has finally put all the pieces together to contend for the conference crown. With one of the best inside-outside combinations in the Southland with Jermaine Wallace and Clifton Lee, Northwestern State is ready to make its move to the top half of the standings as well. The rest of the league, including Texas-San Antonio, Stephen F. Austin and Lamar, will jockey for position behind those top two teams.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Sam Houston State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Sam Houston State; 2. Northwestern State; 3. Texas-San Antonio; 4. Stephen F. Austin; 5. Lamar; 6. Southeastern Louisiana; 7. McNeese State; 8. Texas- Arlington; 9. Louisiana-Monroe; 10. Texas State; 11. Nicholls State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
SAM HOUSTON STATE - The Bearkats are heading into the 2004-05 campaign with the notion that a mere seven points last year was all that separated them from the top spot in the league standings. With that in mind and 10 of the team's 11 lettermen returning for this season, there's no reason to think that Sam Houston State can't be the frontrunners in the Southland Conference this time around. The Bearkats return more than 88 percent of their scoring output from a year ago and close to 95 percent of their rebounding effort. Giving the unit respectability within the league were Joe Thompson (15.3 ppg) and Wilder Auguste (10.8 ppg) as they earned All-Conference honors a year ago. An unselfish group to say the least, while the Bearkats did not have an individual player lead the league in assists for the first time in six years, the team did lead not just the Southland but all of NCAA Division I with close to 19 dishes per outing last year. With players who are more than willing to give up the rock in favor of a teammate's better scoring opportunity, there's little that head coach Bob Marlin needs to teach his kids at this stage. During his six years with Sam Houston State, no team in the conference has won more games, and that's why the return of 6-11 Eddy Fobbs following a medical redshirt from last year, has the entire school making plans for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
NORTHWESTERN STATE - This might be the season that the Demons erase the fact that they have not yet won a Southland Conference title. Junior guard Jermaine Wallace, the top returning scorer in the league after putting up 15.5 ppg in 2003-04, has all the tools (and the help from teammates) to turn the trick. However, playing against no less than nine teams this year that made it to the NCAA Tournament last season, could be a major stumbling block and might erode the group's confidence before the conference schedule even gets into full swing. Wallace, who was named the SLC Freshman of the Year in 2003, will be joined by two other All-SLC preseason selections in Byron Allen and Clifton Lee. Head coach Mike McConathy, still 16 games under .500 as he enters his sixth season with Northwestern State, has a lot of faith that Allen will boost his 8.3 ppg scoring output from last season and can see Lee improving upon his team-best 7.5 rpg, which ranked him fourth in the conference. Also joining the fray for the Demons will be forward Jermaine Spencer who was forced to redshirt last season due to a knee injury. Junior guard Tyronn Mitchell was one of the league leaders at this position with better than four assists per contest and a shooting percentage of .524 from the floor.
TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO - With the all-time winningest coach in school history at the helm, along with four returning starters and eight lettermen in total, the Roadrunners expect the 2004-05 campaign to finish up at least, if not better than last year when San Antonio advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for UTSA the team was bounced by Stanford in the first round, but that doesn't keep head coach Tim Carter from being excited about his 10th season with the program. Sophomore guard Kurt Attaway, who was named the SLC Freshman of the Year last season when he started all 33 games and averaged 7.4 ppg, should have even more confidence in dishing the ball off to teammates, which means his team-high 105 assists should get a jolt. Joining him in the backcourt is David President, one of the best defenders that the Roadrunners can turn to in clutch situations, having recorded a team-best 55 steals in 2003-04. Because Carter insists on running with a three-guard approach, Justin Harbert will set himself up on the perimeter to improve upon his 10.5 ppg and the 63 three- point field goals that he knocked down. The team will miss last year's conference player of the year, LeRoy Hurd, but junior college transfer Ray Selvage could be the savior in the paint after he averaged 16 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks per outing at Pearl River. Although he is just 6-2, senior Rapheal Posey assumes the forward position, which means he will not be coming off the bench as much as he did last year when he averaged 11.4 ppg for Texas-San Antonio.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN - Trying to replace one of the league's top players from last season, all-conference forward Antonio Burks, Stephen F. Austin will have trouble duplicating its 21-9 record from a season ago. The team was one of four in the Southland to finish with double-figure league wins and was just a game out of first place when the smoke cleared. The Lumberjacks are directed by head coach Danny Kaspar, now entering his fifth season with the program, who has a wealth of potential at his disposal, but for the moment that's all it is, potential. Anthony Paez, Justin Thomas and Jerry Cheves are three junior college transfers on the roster this season and according to Kaspar, as of the first days of November, they still need to get into the rhythm and pace that SFA has set forth. The group has to replace five seniors from last year's team, so there's little time to sit back and wait for players to develop into roles. As a possible all-conference performer in his own right, point guard Marcus Clark will have to contribute much more than his 3.9 assists per contest from a year ago. Senior guard Leonard Brown provides plenty of experience in the backcourt for the 'Jacks, but with both he and Clark checking in at 5-10 and 5-7, respectively, opponents are going to take advantage of the duo in the paint whenever they can. The crew from Nacogdoches hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament since 1987 when the school was part of the Gulf Star Conference and chances are the school will go yet another year without the exposure.
LAMAR - Legendary head coach Billy Tubbs begins his second season (during his second tenure) with the Cardinals and judging by his level of excitement, this could be the year that Lamar makes a move towards the top of the Southland standings. Last year Tubbs, who had the Cardinals running with one of the top scoring offenses in the entire nation at nearly 80 ppg, recorded his 600th college victory, so there's no doubt that he has the ability to get the job done even at a small school like Lamar. This year the team brings back three starters from a season ago, guards Raymond Anthony and Teddy Davis, as well as center Jason Grant. Grant hasn't been a real scoring threat in the post, but with one of the top recruiting classes in the nation heading in, he knows that he could lose time in the paint if he doesn't get his offense on track. As for Anthony (15.5 ppg) and Davis (13.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), they comprise one of the top backcourts in the Southland Conference again, so now its just a matter of plugging in a could more starters. It looks like those spots might fall to a couple of junior college transfers in Jeremy Long and Thomas Fairly. Anthony and fellow guard Mike Levy are the only seniors on the squad, which probably means there's going to be some growing pains early on, but Tubbs sees that as a good thing.
SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA - Last year the Lions locked into a three-way tie for first place in the Southland Conference standings with a record of 11-5 (taking the regular season title after the tiebreakers were settled), and although they were left out of the NCAA Tournament, the team still had its best record since moving to the Division I level with 20 wins in 29 tries. Southeastern Louisiana, the only team to go without double-figure losses last year, slips down in the standings this year because it finds itself without four seniors from the 2003-04 campaign. However, the program still boasts of one of the top performers in the SLC in senior center Nate Lofton, the Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Arkansas- Fort Worth. He was the only player in the league, just one of only a handful of players in all of Division I, to average a double-double with 13.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game (the rebounding averaging coming in fourth in the country). Head coach Billy Kennedy, a 1986 graduate of SE Louisiana, enters his sixth season with the program still almost 30 games under .500 and could fall even deeper into the hole with only Jonathan Patton (6.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game) coming back as a starter from last year.
MCNEESE STATE - The Cowboys were the toast of the Southland Conference just a couple seasons ago, but the team returned to the rest of the pack last year as it finished just 7-9 in league play, 11-16 overall. Head coach Tic Price, now entering his fourth season with the program, doesn't have a single player returning who has earned a letter and just one starter in Edward Garriet. Garriet averaged 14 ppg last season and is the most viable scoring option as the season opens, although Tulane transfer Troy Aaron, who is not eligible to play until the second semester, could take away some of that burden. Joining Garriet in the backcourt will be Ryan Price (8.3 ppg), with the forward positions being filled by Ronald Dorsey (4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds per game) and junior college transfer Lance Hood. At 6-11 another junior college transfer, Darrius Manciel, will settle in at the center spot after averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds for Ft. Smith CC. Junior Kinley Sellers showed some scoring bursts as a member of Carl Albert CC last season with 26.9 ppg, but whether he can bring even a portion of that with him to the Cowboys remains to be seen.
TEXAS-ARLINGTON - Entering his 13th season as the head coach at Texas- Arlington, Eddie McCarter has his work cut out for him, trying to figure out how to replace four seniors without slipping too far down the Southland ladder. Last year the Mavericks claimed a share of the conference regular season title, matching the 11-5 records produced by both SE Louisiana and Texas-San Antonio. Junior forward Steven Thomas was selected to the Preseason All-Southland Conference Second Team in late October after he started 19 games for the Mavericks a season ago. He was the second-leading scorer for Arlington with 12.1 ppg and tied for third in rebounding with 146 boards altogether. Thomas certainly has the ability to increase those numbers this year with more playing time, but he'll need some of his lesser-known teammates to take the weight off his shoulders. Sophomore Stephen Floyd showed that he can be a threat out on the perimeter, hitting his three-pointers at 35 percent as a freshman, while junior guard Jarrett Howell (a transfer from Niagara) has a good eye from inside the arc. Senior forward Steven Ozier is a 6-8 product that defected from fellow Southland member Stephen F. Austin, so he's keen to what awaits the Mavericks in 2004-05.
LOUISIANA-MONROE - Last year this was one of four teams to finish even in league play with a record of 8-8, and that was quite an accomplishment considering there wasn't one double-digit scorer on the squad. The Indians posted a non-conference record of just 4-11, which is why head coach Mike Vining is not surprised to see that the rest of the Southland Conference doesn't fear his program all that much. Vining, who enters this season as the league's all-time winningest coach, has just two seniors returning in DeNadre Alexander and Aaron Branch and a total of five players from last year's unit altogether. Neither Branch nor Alexander are the type of leaders that Vining would like to go to battle with in 2004-05, but until someone else steps up to take on the responsibility, that's all the Indians have at the moment. One of the other major issues with Louisiana-Monroe is that the squad lacks significant height, with just two players checking in at 6-8 (Darien Bynum and Oliver Haranga). Junior transfer Cecil Hood could be a competitor this year but that remains to be seen. With opponents like Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Arkansas early on, this group could be easily discouraged by the time the New Year rolls around.
TEXAS STATE - As a collegiate head coach, Dennis Nutt has never known anything other than Texas State basketball. Now entering his fifth season with the Bobcats, Nutt consistently gets the most out of what is typically a small lineup, but this season he may be running out of luck. After posting an 8-8 record in league play a year ago, Texas State has a lot of work ahead of it just to break even overall in 2004-05. Senior guard Josh Naylor, who averaged 11.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game for the Bobcats in 2003-04, was named to the Preseason All-SLC Second Team. A transfer from Northern Oklahoma College, Naylor led the Southland in free-throw shooting a season ago, converting 93.3 percent of his chances and was also one of the top three- point threats at 41.6 percent beyond the arc. Unfortunately for the sharpshooter, the rest of the projected starting five doesn't have much experience in scoring, with senior forwards Zach Allison and Anthony Dill both focusing most of their energies on clearing the glass. Running with a predominantly three-guard offense, the Bobcats are expecting a lot out of juniors Andre Oupoh and Brad Brickens, a junior college transfer and a redshirt from last season, respectively. Aside from opening the season with the Texas Longhorns and then having to play SMU in early December, the Bobcats have plenty of winnable games on the schedule (St. Edwards, Utah Valley State, St. Gregory's and Rochester College) so perhaps they'll have some confidence built up when the rest of the SLC comes calling.
NICHOLLS STATE - Why will Nicholls State finish at the bottom of the conference once again? A good reason will be because head coach Ricky Blanton bailed out on the squad as the end of October approached because of personal reasons. The team wasted little time in finding a successor though, filling the void with J.P. Piper who is stepping in after spending two years as an assistant to Blanton. Unfortunately for the Colonels, Piper has no head coaching experience at the college level, spending eight years at the high school level in Louisiana instead. So what does Piper have to deal with as Nicholls State tries to erase the memories of a 6-21 season in 2003-04? Senior guard Willie Depron led the team in points (417), rebounds (155), assists (97) and steals (65) last year as he started in all 27 games for the group, but even his efforts were not enough to lift the Colonels from a 1-15 record in league play. Senior forward Jason Wilkins (11.1 ppg) showed that he could put points on the board for the Colonels, but they'll need the 6-6 wing to spend more time in the paint rather than trying to improve upon his 37.9 percent accuracy on the perimeter. As one of the last teams in the nation to post a conference win last season, finally beating Lamar in late February, there was not much to be excited about in Thibodaux. It won't get any easier this time around with a schedule that has the likes of Mississippi State, Auburn, Michigan and Loyola to start things off.