- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Colton Weisbrod, Sr., Lamar
Coach of the Year: Richie Riley, Nicholls State
Newcomer of the Year: Roddy Peters, R Sr., Nicholls State
Freshman of the Year: David Caraher, Fr., Houston Baptist
1. Stephen F. Austin
Key Returners: Leon Gilmore III, TJ Holyfield, Ivan Canete, Ty Charles, Kevon Harris
Key Losses: Dallas Cameron
Key Newcomers: Cameron Mack, Shannon Bogues, Stefon Fisher, John Comeaux
Postseason Projection: 14-15 Seed
Outlook: Kyle Keller had an up-and-down season in his first year at the helm of the Jacks. Keller, an experienced assistant coach that has served under Eddie Sutton, Bill Self, and Billy Kennedy, took over SFA from the wildly successful Brad Underwood. With the coaching change came a slight shift in style, and expected growing pains prevented the Lumberjacks from punching their 4th straight ticket to the Big Dance. Now with nearly everyone returning from last season’s 18-15 (12-6) squad plus a sparkling new recruiting class, Keller looks to bring SFA back to glory in 2017-18.
Offensively, the Jacks brought a new look to the floor without do-everything point-forward Thomas Walkup. Keller’s offense was chock full of ball screens and reversing actions with an added emphasis on getting paint touches. SFA was a terrible outside shooting team last season, so it relied on penetration from the perimeter, offensive rebounding, and trips to the foul line to score. Ball handling was also a major issue for the Jacks – every single significant rotation player had a turnover rate over 20%, leading to SFA being ranked 350th in turnover rate (second to last in the country).
The keys to SFA’s offense are a pair of forwards in TJ Holyfield and Leon Gilmore III. Both bigs serve as roll-men in the PnR, can score in the post at a highly effective rate, and hit the offensive glass with a passion. The tandem is a tough matchup for other Southland forwards – both Jacks are more than capable of stepping out from behind the arc and love driving by slower defenders. Holyfield and Gilmore also impact the defensive side of the ball – Holyfield in particular is a top ten conference defensive rebounder and shot blocker. Per Hoop Lens, when the pair shared the floor last season, SFA was a net 0.14ppp (points per possession) better than when one or both of them sat. No other Southland squad will be able to match SFA’s frontcourt production.
Keller’s backcourt should be nearly as dominate with the return of Ty Charles, Ivan Canete, and Kevon Harris. Charles has been waiting for a breakout after turning in one of the most efficient seasons in the country as a freshman back in 2014-15. The 6’5” wing is a dynamic scorer off the dribble and versatile defender on the other end. Weirdly, Charles’s shooting percentages have steadily declined over his past three seasons:
Injuries held Charles back a little last season, so hopefully he’ll be fully healthy and able to regain his shooting touch in his senior year. Canete is going to spend a lot more time on the ball this season with Dallas Cameron gone. The 6’4” senior is a big guard that is equally deadly from behind and inside the three-point line. He’s the best shooter on the roster, so Keller may be inclined to keep him off the ball and start freshman Cameron Mack at PG. On defense, Canete ranked 2nd in the Southland in steal % and 22nd in block %. Harris will look to improve upon a solid freshman season in which he showed an impressive ability to get to the rim via penetration. His free throw rate was off the charts last season and he also helped the offensive rebounding cause from the wing spot.
SFA has a bench full of talent and potential. Returning forwards Nathan Bain and Samuli Nieminen will provide depth in the frontcourt, while 7-foot junior Jovan Grujic looks to carve out more time at the center spot. Aaron Augustin returns to reprise his backup point guard role. Highly touted freshman Cameron Mack and JUCO import John Comeaux will also compete for time at the lead guard position. Mack will be a perfect table setter for SFA; he’s a shifty guard with excellent passing ability and will fit in nicely with Keller’s high pressure defense. Comeaux is more of a scorer, so he’ll look to play the 2-spot along with JUCO transfer Shannon Bogues, the 30th ranked JUCO recruit in the country and an Honorable Mention All-American. Up front, freshman Stefon Fisher will bolster the depth at the 4 and 5 positions.
Bottom Line: Teams in the Southland are going to have trouble competing with SFA this year. The Jacks’ offense should be improved with the incoming talent and maturation of returning rotation players and the defense should once again be one of the best in the league. SFA ranked 10th in the nation in forcing turnovers last season – expect more of the same with its endless lineup of athletic guards and forwards.
Key Returners: Colton Weisbrod, Joey Frenchwood, Josh Nzeakor, Nick Garth, Zjori Bosha, Torey Neal
Key Losses: Marcus Owens
Key Newcomers: James Harrison, Avery Sullivan, Jordan Foster
Postseason Projection: NIT / CBI / CIT
Outlook: Lamar enjoyed its best season under Tic Price last season, rattling off a 19-15 (10-8) record and a trip to the prestigious CIT. The Cardinals also had the unique privilege of being the first to let the world know just how bad Oregon State was last season, knocking off the Beavers in the first contest of the year. Price has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal this season, returning all five starters and adding a couple key newcomers. All signs point to Lamar being a legitimate Southland contender in 2017-18.
As you’ll read about it the other team previews, Southland squads tend to play with a distinct offensive style that favors transition and rim attacks. Lamar is a bit more balanced than your average squad, however, choosing to slow the pace down somewhat and work the ball evenly inside and out. Colton Weisbrod is the key to the whole shebang, a 6’5” power forward with a knack for scoring in the post and rebounding the basketball. Despite being a bit undersized, Weisbord is a bulldog in the paint, scoring 1.021ppp on post-ups (an excellent mark per Synergy) and getting to the foul line at the highest rate in the conference. Weisbrod ranked third in the league in rebounding, but offered little resistance at the rim on defense, an area where the Cardinals were often exposed.
Joining Weisbrod up front is Josh Nzeakor, a 6’8” junior formerly of the JUCO ranks. Nzeakor is a good finisher around the bucket but his greatest strength is his rebounding, particularly on the offensive end where he ranked 3rd in the league in offensive rebounding percentage. A couple of freshmen, Avery Sullivan and Jordan Foster, will provide support in the frontcourt behind Weisbrod and Nzeakor. Sullivan is more of a physical presence that bangs in the paint, while Foster is lengthier and the better shot blocker.
The backcourt is in good hands with four competent returners and a shiny new transfer. Joey Frenchwood returns to run the point, a quick 6’1” guard that ranked 6th in the conference in assist rate and 8th in steal rate a year ago. Frenchwood is best when he’s pushing the tempo out in the open floor; he’s not the most accurate shooter, but he’s a capable distributor in the Cardinal offense. Torey Neal is Frenchwood’s backup and occasionally plays alongside him in a dual PG look. Like Frenchwood, Neal is an asset passing the ball and ripping steals on defense.
Nick Garth is the best shooter on the roster, a 6’0” junior that connected on an impressive .538./.414/.734 of his shots last season. He’ll likely average double digits once again this season with his ability to stroke from deep. Zjori Bosha adds some shooting but is most valuable as a defender where he’s capable of marking three positions on the perimeter. UTSA transfer James Harrison will also be a key part of the Lamar defense and will add even more shooting from the wing.
Lamar should have a top five defense in the Southland once again this season with its ability to steal the ball and take away the three. Like most conference foes, the Cardinals are vulnerable inside, but their high pressure defense negates some of that vulnerability.
Bottom Line: With six of its top seven 2016-17 guys returning including the potential Conference Player of the Year in Weisbrod, Lamar is expected to finish in the top three of the Southland and compete to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. Tic Price seems eager to end the drought in Beaumont; the Cardinals last made the Big Dance in 2012 under famed head coach Pat Knight.
3. Southeastern Louisiana
Key Returners: Marlain Veal, Moses Greenwood, Jabbar Singleton, James Curington, Eddy Polanco, Jordan Capps, Joshua Filmore, Keith Charleston
Key Losses: Davon Hayes, Dimi Cook, Dominic Nelson
Key Newcomers: Quinton Thomas, D’Angelo West, Matt Strange
Postseason Projection: CBI / CIT
Outlook: It’s been a while since the SE Louisiana Lions were relevant in the Southland. Coach Jay Ladner enters his fourth season in Hammond with optimism that this may be the year the Lions get back to the NCAA Tournament. Ladner has steadily improved his team’s record over his short tenure and now appears to have a fully healthy and deep roster with which to compete. SLU last made the Big Dance back in 2005 under Billy Kennedy; with a chasm of talent in 2017-18, the Lions have as good as shot as anyone in the conference at that elusive Tourney bid.
You’ll notice I listed eight key returners up there at the top. All eight of those guys have played significant minutes and held starting roles during their stints at Southeastern, and now they’re finally all healthy at the same time. Ladner’s 2016-17 squad faced some tough luck when all three of Jordan Capps, Joshua Filmore, and Keith Charleston went down early in the season with injury. Capps, a former Samford Bulldog, was coming off a productive junior season when he was struck with an ankle injury in just the second regular season contest. In those two games, Capps averaged 22.0 points and 7.5 boards and looked to be on pace for a major breakout in his senior campaign. He has the ability to score from all three levels of the floor, making him a tough assignment in the Southland, and could be an All-Conference performer this year.
Filmore and Charleston run in the offense as wings alongside the dual PG look. Filmore can light it up from deep, connecting on 36.7% of his three-point tries back in 2015-16, and Charleston uses his size on the perimeter to attack the cup off the bounce. The pair should see plenty of time in the backcourt along with returning guards Eddy Polanco and Chris Mejia. Polanco serves as instant offense off the bench; he knocked down 37.4% of his 115 deep ball attempts as a junior last season. Nicholls State transfer Quinton Thomas and JUCO transfer D’Angelo West should also get a shot at cracking Ladner’s deep guard rotation.
Of course, the center of the guard rotation is dynamic point guard Marlain Veal, a 5’9” 145 lb. bolt of lightning. Veal is one of the craftiest scorers in the conference, an excellent table setter for his teammates, and can rise up above the rim in transition. Last year, Veal posted a shooting slash of .515/.396/.752 and forced his way to the foul line at a high rate. Defensively, Veal is SLU’s best on-ball defender with his quick hands and low center of gravity – last season, Veal ranked 4th in the conference in steal rate (and the Lions as a team ranked 24th in the country in steal rate). Veal runs the point along with senior Jabbar Singleton, a 5’11” guard that started every game last season yet failed to produce on an efficient level. Clearly Ladner likes Singleton for his leadership qualities, but his 28.4% TO Rate fed into SE Louisiana’s ghastly 344th national ball protection ranking.
The Lions are deep up front as well. Aside from Capps, Ladner two other upperclassmen capable of putting up points and snagging down boards. James Curington and Moses Greenwood will each play significant minutes in the frontcourt this year. Greenwood usually comes off the bench, but he’ll often play more minutes than the starting 4 and was 3rd on the team in scoring last year. Neither Greenwood nor Curington is the rim protector Dominic Nelson was, but both are excellent on the offensive glass, spurring SLU’s 27th national OR% rank. Look for both big men to get plenty of run and to be scoring threats in the post.
Bottom Line: SE Louisiana is one of the deepest teams in the Southland this season. The Lions struggled on offense last season, but Veal can pretty much get whatever he wants on any given possession and the return of Capps/Charleston/Filmore should help this aspect. Defensively, SLU is one of the better squads in the conference. Ladner abandoned his sagging defensive style last year in favor of one that ran opponents off the line more, which translated into an overall more efficient defense. If SLU can find offense at a consistent rate (i.e. finish inside the arc), watch out for the Lions to steal the auto-bid in March.
4. Nicholls State
Key Returners: Jahvaughn Powell, Stevie Repichowski, Lafayette Rutledge
Key Losses: Ja’Dante’ Frye, Johnathan Bell, Liam Thomas
Key Newcomers: Tevon Saddler, Roddy Peters, Jeremy Verhagen, Legend Robertin, Zaquavian Smith, Daniel Regis, Kimani Jackson, Maurice O’Field
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Holy transfers, Batman! Richie Riley enters his second year at the helm of Nicholls State with a gaggle of new faces from other Division I programs. With the loss of three integral parts of his 2016-17 roster, Riley will rely on his new blood plus his returning backcourt to bring the Colonels to conference title contention and back to the Dance for the first time since 1998.
The Colonels will be a completely different looking team this season with six (maybe five?) D1 transfers and two more JUCO imports. Riley will likely maintain his fast-paced offense, though, and have his team shooting a barrage of three-pointers. Despite having a giant in the middle last season in Liam Thomas, Nicholls rarely worked the ball inside the paint, instead their backcourt members chuck from distance and drive to the cup.
Three key members of that backcourt return in 2017-18: point guard Jahvaughn Powell, off-guard Lafayette Rutledge, and wing Stevie Repichowski. Powell led the Southland in assist rate and minutes played last season, and knocked down shots at a respectable .449/.374/.840 slash. Powell is adept at attacking in transition, pulling from behind the arc whenever he feels, and getting to the rack off the bounce. Rutledge and Repichowski are all about the three-ball, each attempting over 130 last season and knocking them down at 35%+ rates.
Four newcomers will bolster the returning backcourt, giving Nicholls one of the best units in the Southland. South Florida transfer Roddy Peters and UNC Greensboro transfer Tevon Saddler will likely start to open the season. Peters was the 52nd ranked recruit coming out of high school back in 2013 and committed to Maryland before transferring to USF. At 6’4”, Peters is a good-sized point guard that will give Riley a dual-PG look on the floor alongside Powell. With his size and athleticism, Peters could be one of the best players in the Southland this year. Saddler, a SoCon All-Conference member in 2016, can play the 2-4 spots on both ends of the floor. He’ll provide scoring and reinforce the defense.
Maurice O’Field (Arizona State) and Zaquavian Smith (JUCO) round out the backcourt newcomers. O’Field has mounds of potential as a defensive wing stopper. Smith was a JUCO All-American that shot 44% from downtown last season. Both figure to play roles Riley’s deep rotation.
Up front, Riley needs his new guys to make up for the loss of Liam Thomas, the national shot-blocking leader last season. Thomas blocked over 4 shots per game last year, winning the Southland Defensive Player of the Year in the process. Clemson transfer Legend Robertin and Northern Colorado transfer Jeremy Verhagen (assuming he’s on the team – he’s not on Nicholls' website roster as of today) will be tasked with the job of replacing Thomas. Robertin won’t be much of a scorer, but he’ll be an asset on defense with his shot blocking ability. Verhagen is more versatile on offense, able to score in the post and step out a bit on the perimeter. Like Robertin, Verhagen will contribute to the rim protection effort.
Colorado State transfer Kimani Jackson and yet another JUCO transfer, Daniel Regis, will bolster the frontcourt.
Defensively, Nicholls State forced a number of turnovers last season, which should continue with Powell and the incoming talent. Thomas made the Colonels one of the best shot blocking teams In the country, but his effort to block shots resulted in NSU ranking dead last in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage – this should improve in 2017-18. Nicholls was also blitzed from outside the arc last season, ranking 350th in 3P% defense – this too should improve with the length of Peters, Saddler, and O’Field.
Bottom Line: Nicholls State is one of the toughest teams to place this season. The talent of the incoming class is undisputed, but it remains a question to see if 34-year old coach Richie Riley can make all the pieces gel. The Colonels’ ceiling is a Southland championship; their floor is somewhere around 8th to 10th.
5. Incarnate Word
Key Returners: Jalin Hart, Simi Socks, Shawn Johnson, Sam Burmeister, Jorden Kite
Key Losses: Tyler Singleton
Key Newcomers: Keaton Hervery, Augustine Ene, Charles Brown III, Konstantin Kulikov
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Incarnate Word enters the 2017-18 season freshly eligible for the NCAA Tournament after completing the 4-year (stupid?) transition period from Division II. The Cardinals have actually fared pretty well thus far in their short DI stint, notching a 56-29 (31-19) record prior to last season’s 12-17 (7-11) debacle. Coach Ken Burmeister returns an array of talented playmakers to go with a promising incoming class, making the Cardinals a sleeper to compete in the Southland.
UIW’s offense will be in good hands this year with the return of Jalin Hart, Simi Socks, and Shawn Johnson. Hart, the reigning Southland Newcomer of the Year, is one of the best table setters and playmakers in the conference. Last season, the 5’11” PG ranked 7th in the league in assist rate and shot a fiery .577/.421/.625 from the field in conference play. Hart’s game embodies what the Cardinals aim to do on offense – run in transition, shoot threes, and get to the foul line.
Socks and Johnson are two high-scoring wings that can drain the three-ball and get to the rack. Socks is the more offensive-minded wing, turning in a .488/.385/.836 shooting slash last season, while Johnson is the better rebounder and defender. Burmeister uses a lot of four-guard lineups, meaning Johnson often finds himself guarding opposing four-men (he ranked 7th in the Southland in block percentage).
Three key returning rotation players will reprise their roles supporting the aforementioned high-scoring trio. Sam Burmeister, the coach’s son, and Jorden Kite will provide support in the backup while former off-the-bench center Devin Wyatt looks to make a play for a starting gig. Burmeister and Kite’s main job is to shoot the basketball, converting 39.5% and 37.1% of their three-ball attempts last season, respectively. Wyatt proved to be an intimidating shot blocker in limited minutes last year. He’s skinny, so he will likely still struggle in the rebounding column, an area UIW struggled with as a whole in 2016-17.
Several newcomers look to make a splash on the lineup this season. JUCO transfers Konstantin Kulikov and Charles Brown III and freshman Keaton Hervey will bolster the frontcourt, while freshman Augustine Ene looks to provide backcourt support. Kulikov, a 7-footer, comes in after a successful JUCO stint with one of the best teams in the country and has experience with the Russian u-18 through U-20 FIBA squads. Brown will provide two-way production from either forward spot. Hervey is a 3-star recruit out of Cedar Park, Texas. If fully recovered from his senior year foot injury, Hervey could be yet another reliable source of scoring production. Ene can play either guard spot, but will likely stay buried for the current year. Redshirt freshman Christian Peevy is another player to watch coming back from a season-ending injury a year ago.
Bottom Line: It’s easy to fall in love with UIW’s vast offensive potential and pick the Cardinals to compete for the league title, but this one of the worst defenses in the country last season. Burmeister’s club was very good at taking away the three-pointer last season, mixing in zone looks and man-to-man, but his small lineups couldn’t stop anyone inside. Add in poor rebounding, and the Cardinals were often torched on that end last season. If the newcomers can provide stability on defense, UIW certainly has a shot at the Southland conference tournament.
6. Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Key Returners: Ehab Amin, Joseph Kilgore, Kareem South
Key Losses: Rashawn Thomas, Jake Kocher, Cole Martinez
Key Newcomers: Myles Smith, Tre Gray, Sean Rhea, Deion Rhea
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The Islanders came within a breath of the NCAA Tourney last season, falling to New Orleans in the Southland Championship by three points in overtime. Then, TAMUCC fell to Saint Peter’s by one point in the CIT championship, ending its season and the career of Rashawn Thomas, one of the all-time Islander greats. Willis Wilson has done an admirable job getting his program to this point, one of consistent competitiveness. Wilson won 6 games in each of his first two seasons, then proceeded to win 18, 20, 25, and 24 the following four. The Islanders lose Thomas, but they’ll still have the requisite pieces to compete at the top of the Southland in 2017-18.
We need to talk about the impact Rashawn Thomas had on this roster. Here are his on/off numbers per Hoop Lens:
The Islanders were an unfathomable +0.29ppp better when Thomas was on the floor, easily the highest differential I’ve come across in my preview research. Thomas was a monster on both ends of the floor and his versatility allowed Wilson to play four guards around him in the lineup. Replacing Thomas will be impossible, but Wilson may be able to shift the focus to other parts of his team to compensate.
TAMUCC is all about the rim attack on offense (a key attribute of a Willis Wilson team). The Islanders didn’t have much shooting last season, but they could get to the rack and run in transition thanks to their versatile and quick guard set. Of course, Thomas was essentially the best in the country at getting to the rack but stud senior guard Ehab Amin was nearly as effective. With Thomas gone, this will be Amin’s team. The 6’4” wing was excellent at finishing inside last season but couldn’t get his outside shot to fall after converting at a 37% clip during his sophomore year. TAMUCC’s offensive set of four players across the free throw extended allows wings like Amin to exploit unsuspecting defenders off back cuts and pick-n-roll.
On defense, nobody in the country can match Amin’s ability to steal the basketball. Amin led the nation in steals last season, averaging an insane 3.4 per game. His swiping prowess propelled the Islanders defense to the 4th best steal % mark in the country. TAMUCC uses heavy perimeter pressure on defense to force turnovers that lead to leak outs in transition. With wings like Amin and returners Kareem South and Joseph Kilgore, this trend will likely continue.
Kilgore and South split the point guard duties, though Wilson really doesn’t have a true “point guard” to his offense – Amin handles the ball as well. Kilgore is a lengthy guard at 6’5” and has a unique skillset in that he can post up smaller guards and blow by slower ones on the perimeter. South was very efficient during his redshirt freshman season, turning in a shooting slash of .453/.362/.773.
TAMUCC’s backcourt is set, and will be further fortified by redshirt freshman Jamell Bradley, senior Emmanuel Toney, and two true freshmen in Myles Smith and Tre Gray. But the frontcourt is where the questions lie. Thomas was a one-man wrecking crew inside last year, so Wilson needs to find production from his former reserves and incoming class.
The two likely starters in the frontcourt are a pair of 6’8” forwards in Elijah Schmidt and Perry Francois, each of who have starting experience. Schmidt is the more skilled of the two, able to face up and shoot and score with deft touch. Francois is probably the better rebounder and shot blocker – he has 30 pounds on his cohort and is more of a physical presence. Twin freshman forwards Sean Rhea and Deion Rhea and redshirt frosh York Benjamin will provide reinforcements off the pine. Benjamin has the most potential of the trio, a guy that can maybe replace some of the versatility left behind by Thomas at the top of the key.
Bottom Line: Texas A&M Corpus Christi will have one of the better backcourts in the Southland this season, but will be a different looking team without the presence of Rashawn Thomas. Ehab Amin will be back to lead a defense that should be one of the fiercest in the conference, but a slight regression should be expected in Wilson’s 7th year at the helm.
7. Abilene Christian
Key Returners: Jalone Friday, Jaren Lewis, Jaylen Franklin, Isaiah Tripp, Drake Green, Hayden Farquhar, Hayden Howell
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Tevin Foster, Tobias Cameron
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Abilene Christian “picked” a perfect time to become freshly eligible for the NCAA Tournament. After serving the arbitrary and stupid 4-year transition “ban” from the Big Dance, the Wildcats look ready to pounce under Head Coach Joe Golding. Golding has improved ACU’s record in each of his four Division I seasons at the helm, but the Cats have yet to truly compete for the Southland crown. With literally every significant player returning from a 13-16 (7-11) 2016-17 squad, ACU suddenly looks ready to hang with the top of the league.
Refreshingly, Golding and his Wildcats don’t adhere to the style of play utilized by most Southland squads. Unlike most conference foes, ACU can shoot the basketball, ranking 3rd in the league in 3P% and 4th eFG% last season. Despite this, the Cats finished with one of the worst ranked offenses in both the conference and the country. Turnovers were a huge problem, though not so much for the team’s primary ball handler, and rebounding was non-existent resulting in far too a possession being limited to one shot. Also unlike most other Southland squads, the Cats prefer to play at a slower, more controlled tempo rather than running reckless in transition. Ball movement and finding an efficient look from the perimeter out of their box set are emphasized in Golding’s offense.
Defensively, ACU follows the league trend of being able to force the opposing team to turn over the basketball. The Wildcats ranked 29th in the country last season in turnover rate and force teams to play longer possessions, somewhat as a result of their tendency to retreat on defense to prevent transition opportunities versus crashing the offensive glass. ACU’s major issue was rim protection, as the overall height-challenged Cats constantly were beaten at the bucket (299th in the country in FG% defense at the rim).
Abilene Christian will go from one of the youngest teams in the conference (and country) to one of the most experienced. Point guard Jaylen Franklin paces the team on both ends of the floor. Franklin was an off-ball scorer as a freshman in 2015-16, taking the highest percentage of his team’s shots in the Southland, but Golding moved him to the PG spot last year with pleasing results. Franklin ranked 5th in the conference in assist rate and kept a lid on his turnovers. Defensively, Franklin is the best swiper on the team, wreaking havoc on helpless ball handlers. The guard could stand to improve his shooting percentage, but otherwise he’s as good a leader as any in the Southland.
Jaren Lewis returns on the wing, a 6’6” junior that Golding refers to as a leader for the Wildcats. Lewis is your prototypical slashing wing and can guard positions 1-4 on defense. He’s one of the better glue guys in the league and often goes under the radar with ACU’s other two studs.
One of those studs is Franklin – the other is 6’9” center Jalone Friday. Friday burst onto the scene as a freshman, claiming the Southland Freshman of the Year award and shooting an unconscious .541/.461/.826 from the floor. There isn’t another player like Friday in the Southland – a center that can score from anywhere on the floor at a high level and protect the rim on the defensive end. His proficiency is invaluable to the Cats, and Golding will need his big man to stay out of foul trouble in order to compete for the league title.
ACU’s supporting pieces are talented as well. In the backcourt, seniors Isaiah Tripp and Drake Green both return with starting experience, while Payten Ricks showed major promise as a freshman. Green and Tripp are two of the better shooters on the roster, while Ricks serves as a reliable backup point guard. Drury (Division II) transfer Tevin Foster will compete with Ricks for backup PG duties, and look for freshman New Zealander Tobias Cameron to compete for time on the wing.
Up front, a couple of Haydens, Hayden Howell and Hayden Farquhar, will compete for the starting 4-spot next to Friday. Howell is the better rebounder and is more of a banger in the post, while Farquhar is the superior shooter, knocking down 47% of his long-ball tries last season. Redshirt freshman Kolton Kohl will provide depth with his 7-foot frame.
Bottom Line: Abilene Christian should be one of the most improved teams in the Southland this season with the amount of roster retention Golding brings back. The Cats should boast one of the better offenses in the league and one of the best trio of players as well. Defense will have to improve for ACU to have a shot at the title, but the offense should be good enough for a top 8 finish.
8. Sam Houston State
Key Returners: Christopher Galbreath Jr., John Dewey III
Key Losses: Dakarai Henderson, Paul Baxter, Torry Butler, Aurimas Majauskas
Key Newcomers: Marcus Harris, Abrian Edwards, Devin Jackson
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Head Coach Jason Hooten has enjoyed success at the helm of Sam Houston State over his first seven years at the program. Hooten’s Bearkats have finished outside the Southland top five only once during his tenure, but this regular season success has yet to lead to a NCAA Tourney appearance. SHSU made two Dances under current UL Lafayette coach Bob Marlin and look to get back to the Promised Land in 2018 with a roster chock full of newcomers.
SHSU played a little out of character last season, at least on offense. Typical Hooten squads have run a controlled tempo on the offensive end and have focused on pinpoint ball movement in their motion set to break down opponents. The three-ball is also usually a staple of Hooten’s attack – his teams don’t always make the three, but they certainly take them. But last year, SHSU flipped the script on its “normal” attack. The Bearkats were an uptempo team, looking to score in transition (particularly off turnovers) every chance they got. Outside shooting was largely ignored due to the relative lack of shooters on the roster, and replaced by a rim / 2-point jumper attack. The motion offense and crisp ball movement was still existent, but less so than in years past.
It’s hard to say if this trend continues given SHSU loses four crucial parts of its rotation, including Dakarai Henderson, easily the most voluminous three-point chucker on the team. The Bearkats will have consistency, however, at two positions with the return of point guard John Dewey III and forward Christopher Galbreath, Jr.
Dewey burst onto the Southland scene last year after spending a season in the JUCO ranks. The dynamic PG ranked 3rd in the conference in assist rate (47th nationally) and shot the 6th best three-point percentage in conference-only contests (40.7%). Dewey thrives in transition with his ability to beat repelling defenders down the floor and finish through the trees in the paint. He scores effectively (not always efficiently) from all three levels of the floor, and is one of SHSU’s better shit disturbers on defense.
Galbreath, too, is a former JUCO product that spent his first season with Sam Houston State in 2016-17. He quickly proved to be one of the best rebounders in the Southland and was a beast blocking shots on the defensive end. Offensively, when Galbreath catches it in the lane he’s going up with it 99.9% of the time – the senior led the Bearkats in usage last season, but shot an underwhelming 49.2% from the floor. Look for him to improve his efficiency as he gains more confidence and takes more of a central role in the offense.
Aside from Dewey and Galbreath, Hooten brings back four members of his backcourt rotation: Josh Delaney, Cam Delaney, Jamal Williams, and Albert Almanza. Josh Delaney will serve as a backup point guard to Dewey and will provide an outside shooting threat when he’s on the floor. His brother Cam is more of a wing slasher that put up good per-minute defensive rebounding numbers as a sophomore.
Williams saw his role decline dramatically last season after starting every game as a sophomore and leading the team in minutes played. I’ll be honest – I have no idea what happened. Williams was pretty good as the de facto point guard in 2015-16 and shot 37% from downtown; he struggled last season in a limited off-ball role off the bench. Almanza should see his role increase back to his freshman year level. Like Williams, Almanza’s playing time significantly decreased last season despite putting up solid numbers his freshman year. The 6’6” wing should be a regular starter in 2017-18 and a floor spacer with his ability to hit the three.
There are a ton of newcomers in Huntsville this season. Chief among them will probably be San Diego transfer Marcus Harris and JUCO import Abrian Edwards. Harris could be one of the leading scorers for the Bearkats this season – he started nearly every game for the Toreros in 2015-16 and showed he could score from outside the arc and off the bounce. Edwards is a ridiculous athlete, a combo forward that can absolutely fly. He’ll provide rebounding and slashing from the perimeter and should be a gem in transition. JUCO transfer Devin Jackson will provide support in the backcourt – he knocked down the 4th most threes in the country last year in the JUCO ranks, something SHSU could sorely use.
Bottom Line: Sam Houston State lost a lot from its 21-13 (10-8) 2016-17 squad, but the Kats figure to be a factor in the league title race all year. Dewey is one of the best point guards in the Southland and the newcomers should be able to make up for most of the production lost. SHSU will still force turnovers at an elite national rate (16th last season) and will likely continue its running ways.
9. Central Arkansas
Key Returners: Jordan Howard, Mathieu Kamba, Tanner Schmidt, Ethan Lee, Darraja Parnell, Thatch Unruh
Key Losses: Derreck Brooks, Jeff Lowery
Key Newcomers: Matthew Mondesir, Hayden Koval, SK Shittu, DeAndre Jones
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Central Arkansas is another Southland team on the rise after toiling in insignificance. The Bears haven’t notched double digit wins since 2013, but coach Russ Pennell has his squad moving in the right direction (you may remember Pennell from his brief stint as the interim head coach of Arizona back in 2009). Pennell is something of a savant when it comes to coaching offense – with the majority of his 2016-17 squad returning, he’ll try to have his Bears outscore their way to conference relevance.
UCA was an exhibit of dichotomy last season, ranking 1st in the Southland in offense and dead last in defense. Let’s start with the good. The Bears boasted a deadly offensive attack that focused on running, ranking 9th in the country in percentage of initial field goals attempted in transition. To complement this breakneck pace, UCA knocked down the three-ball at the conference’s highest rate. Jordan Howard was the catalyst of this dual attack, a wizard in transition and the best three-point shooter in the conference. Howard knocked down 47.2% of his 127 Southland three-point attempts and ranked 2nd in FT%, taking advantage of his ability to get to the rack.
While Howard is more than capable of manning the point, Pennell may opt to shift the best scorer in the league off the ball in favor of freshman lead guard DeAndre Jones, a steady playmaker that should find success early in his Southland career. Jones excels in the pick-n-roll, as does Howard, and having the pair on the floor at the same time could be a potent combination for opposing defenses.
Mathieu Kamba, Thatch Unruh, and Darraja Parnell round out the Bears’ returning backcourt. Kamba, a 6’5” wing, is built like a horse and represents UCA’s best offensive rebounding presence on the floor. Kamba is a hard-nosed rim attacker and thrives in transition. Unruh is a spot-up shooter on the offensive end, though his 31.8% 3P% left a lot to be desired. Parnell serves as a secondary ball handler and is another penetration threat from the wing. Freshman Matthew Mondesir is a big time scorer and rebounder that can play three positions. Pennell will hope his presence can help improve UCA’s atrocious defense.
In the frontcourt, forwards Ethan Lee and Tanner Schmidt likely start the season in the opening lineup, while returning vets Otas Iyekekpolor and Aaron Weidenaar provide reinforcements. Neither Schmidt nor Lee finished well last season, but Schmidt is somewhat competent protecting the basket. Freshmen SK Shittu and Hayden Koval are the real players to watch up front this year. Shittu may be the most athletic player in the league, a lanky 6’9” forward that could potentially lift the profile of UCA’s defense and aid in its transition attack. Koval will probably start at center at some point during the year. He can score in the post, a trait not shared by the other big men on the roster, and step out behind the arc.
For the Bears to truly compete, they’ll have to get better on the defensive end. UCA ranked 344th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season due to its sagging, soft zone that gave up three-pointers at the 4th highest rate in the nation. The Bears also couldn’t protect the rim, even in their zone, and defensive rebounding and turnover forcing were non-factors. Combined, that equals futility on defense.
Bottom Line: This is lining up to be one of the more competitive races in recent memory in the Southland. Central Arkansas has the offense to contend for a league title, but I don’t trust the defense enough to slot the Bears in the top 8 of the conference. The ceiling is high for Pennell’s crew, but the floor is low.
10. Northwestern State
Key Returners: Jalan West, Devonte Hall, Ishmael Lane, Iziahiah Sweeney
Key Losses: Sabri Thompson, Tra’von Joseph, Josh Boyd, Zeek Woodley
Key Newcomers: Larry Owens, Vontay Ott, Darian Dixon, Brandon Hutton, DeAndre Love, Czar Perry, CJ Jones
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Natchitoches has seen brighter days. After an encouraging three-year span from 2012 – 2015, the Demons of Northwestern State have struggled to remain competitive over the past two seasons. Long-time coach Mike McConathy hasn’t changed his preferred style of play, but injuries derailed what could have been successful campaigns. There is light on the horizon, however, with the triumphant return of Jalan West, back for his 7th (!) season after tearing his ACL in two consecutive years. McConathy loses a lot of production from last season, but West’s return plus the influx of a strong recruiting class could make the Demons a dark horse in the 2017-18 Southland.
This preview should really just be 700 words on Jalan West, but I’ll try my best to give the rest of the squad its due. But first – let’s talk about Jalan West. West is the all-time program leader in assists and 3PM, 6th in scoring, and 3rd in steals. The super, super, super senior played back in 2013 when NSU last made the Big Dance as a 14-seed. The 2014-15 squad, led by West and the departed Zeek Woodley, boasted the 45th best offense in the country per KenPom (and West led the country in steals that year). In summary, Northwestern State is light years better when West is on the floor – if he’s fully healthy, NSU’s ceiling is high.
McConathy’s Demon squads are consistently one of the fastest teams in the country and ranked 13th last season in percentage of field goals attempted in transition. Like most Southland teams, the Demons get their buckets in transition, at the rim, and at the foul line. Also like most Southland teams, the Demons coughed the rock up last season at an entirely too high rate. West is going to change a lot of this. In West’s three full seasons, the Demons have ranked 20th, 78th, and 130th in TO rate – without West, NSU ranked 266th and 317th. He’s also a career 40% three-point shooter, which will give NSU a whole new element to its offensive attack.
Returning with West in the backcourt are seniors Devonte Hall and Iziahiah Sweeney. Hall has been NSU’s point guard over the past two seasons and has posted sky high assist rates, though the turnover bug bit him all too often. With West back, McConathy can run a dual PG look, which should be a deadly combo in transition and in halfcourt sets. On defense, Hall is one of the best pickpockets on the roster. Sweeney plays bigger than his 6’3” frame, able to guard larger wings on the perimeter. The former Portland State Viking really came on from the outside late in the conference schedule and should be a reliable three-point shooter for the Demons in his final season.
Ismael Lane is the other major returner. Lane is the post-up presence (often the only post-up presence) on the floor in the starting five. Last year, Lane scored effectively in the paint, kept possessions alive on the offensive glass, and got to the free throw line at the 4th highest rate in the league. Lane and the rest of the Demons will need to improve on defense, especially at the rim where they ranked 334th in shots allowed.
There are so many newbies on this roster, and McConathy claims a lot of them will play, pointing out he will be utilizing his preferred 5-in, 5-out “wave system”. Freshmen Larry Owens, Darian Dixon and Czar Perry will provide frontcourt depth. Owens is an enormous center and a 3-star rated prospect per ESPN. JUCO transfer Brandon Hutton, an Indian Hills CC product, will also be a source of production at the forward spot. McConathy may start one of these three alongside Lane and bring guard Malik Metoyer off the pine.
In the backcourt, freshmen Vontay Ott and CJ Jones, and JUCO transfer DeAndre Love have the best shot at being the major rotation pieces. Ott is supremely athletic and will be an absolute monster in NSU’s transition attack. Love is a big-time scorer who could help in the long-range shooting effort.
Bottom Line: Northwestern State will get a shot in the arm this year with the return of Jalan West alongside its upper-classmen heavy starting five. But, the bench is young and unproven and likely needs a year or two to contribute at a high level. West’s presence could vault NSU into the upper half of the standings, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty in Natchitoches.
11. New Orleans
Key Returners: Travin Thibodeaux, Makur Puou, Michael Zeno
Key Losses: Erik Thomas, Christavious Gill, Tevin Broyles, Nate Frye
Key Newcomers: Lamont Berzat, Bol Riek, Tyren Harrison, Ezekiel Charles, Diontae Champion, Damion Rosser, Troy Green, Scott Plaisance
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Mark Slessinger finally brought his Privateers to the top of the Southland last season, doubling 2015-16’s overall and conference win total and punching a ticket to the Big Dance. New Orleans was the 5th oldest team in the country last year, playing a lineup of almost exclusively seniors and juniors. This experience vaulted UNO to league power in the wake of SFA’s rebuilding season. Now with four seniors graduating, Slessinger will turn to four current-year seniors and a bountiful incoming class for production.
New Orleans let up on the gas last season, dropping all the way to 272nd in the country in tempo after being a staple inside the top 30 in the four previous years under Slessinger. While this aspect changed, nearly every other part of a typical Slessinger look stayed the same. The Privateers still relied on a relentless rim attack and pounding the offensive glass to score, while generally eschewing the three-ball. Only three teams in the country took more shots at the rim than UNO last season, and only one shot less three-pointers. On defense, the Privateers continued the chaotic, high pressure that forced the turnovers at the 13th highest rate in the country. UNO took away the three-ball effectively but was often torched near the bucket.
Travin Thibodeaux, one of the best forwards in the Southland, will be the key for the Privateers. Thibodeaux is good finisher in the paint off both post ups and offensive rebounding. On defense, the 6’8” senior ranked 11th in the Southland in steal rate and 24th in block rate. What really sets Thibodeaux apart from other forwards is his passing ability – he ranked 9th in the league in assist rate and led all frontcourt players in assists per game. He’ll line up next to fellow senior Makur Puou, a 6’9” defensive stopper that ranked 6th in the conference in block rate. When Puou and Thibodeaux shared the floor last season, UNO allowed 0.11 less points per possession versus when one or both of them sat.
The backcourt will look totally different this season without Thomas, Gill, Broyles, and Frye. Seniors Jorge Rosa and Michael Zeno will likely start. Rosa is a gunner from behind the arc, shooting 38.2% last season from downtown. Zeno is a big defensive wing that can play the four in a pinch. The pair will be joined by either senior Matthew Jiles or freshman Lamont Berzat. My money is on the 5’6” Berzat becoming the starting point guard this season – he’s lightning quick and a tough on-ball defender. The hope will be that Berzat can help improve on UNO’s piss poor ball handling – only two teams in the country turned the ball over more than the Privateers last season.
Other key newcomers include a trio of JUCO wings in Diontae Champion, Ezekiel Charles, and Tyren Harrison. Champion was a rated a top 100 JUCO prospect and is a phenomenal athlete on the perimeter. Charles is a deadeye shooter that will help make up for the Gill shooting void. Harrison was an Honorable Mention JUCO All-American back in 2015-16 with his ability to pound the glass and score off the bounce.
Up front, 7’3” freshman Bol Riek and 6’9” UL Lafayette transfer Scott Plaisance will add depth. Riek, a 3-star prospect, is enormous but may need time to hone his skills. Plaisance will be eligible starting second semester. In the backcourt, freshmen Troy Green and Damion Rosser both have potential to crack the rotation.
Bottom Line: New Orleans won’t be a favorite to repeat as Southland champion, but the Privateers will still be a competitive ball club. A senior-laden starting five combined with a slew of promising newcomers could be enough to vault UNO to the top half of the Southland standings.
12. McNeese State
Key Returners: Jarren Greenwood, Stephen Ugochukwu, Kalob Ledoux, James Harvey
Key Losses: Jamaya Burr, Lance Potier, LaBarrius Hill
Key Newcomers: Quatarrius Wilson, Myles Hutchinson, Demarco Owens
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: McNeese had its worst season to date under Dave Simmons last year, stumbling to a 7-22 (4-14) record and finishing last place in the Southland by three games. The Cowboys we’re simply anemic on offense, unable to put the orange in the basket from anywhere on the floor. The good news for Simmons, who enters his 12th year at the helm in Lake Charles, is the fact he returns nearly everyone from a very young 2016-17 squad. Four starters are back and six total returners have starting experience.
Like almost every other Southland team, McNeese likes to score on the run, ranking 85th last season in adjusted tempo. According to Simmons, we should expect to see an even more ramped up tempo this season. Along with the running comes a significant amount of gunning; the Cowboys are a more balanced offensive attack than most conference foes, choosing to mix in a healthy dose of three-point attempts with their transition attack versus an all-out rim onslaught.
The Cowboys will be a perimeter-oriented squad once again this season. Sophomore Kalob Ledoux looks poised for a second-year leap after leading the team in scoring as a freshman. Ledoux is a rangy 6’3” lefty that can score off the catch or in isolation. Last season, Ledoux knocked down 39.5% of his three-point tries; his behind-the-arc prowess will be especially important this year with the loss of Jamaya Burr. With Burr’s absence, Jarren Greenwood will see the primary minutes on the ball. Greenwood did well controlling his turnovers last season but struggled to find his shot from deep. His best asset is his ability to attack the rim and create kick-out opportunities for spot-up shooters. One of those shooters will be James Harvey, who had a down year after an impressive freshman season. Look for Harvey to get his shot back on track this season and be one the Cowboys’ best perimeter scorers.
Up front, Simmons brings back a couple of seniors in LaBarrius Hill and Stephen Ugochukwu. Hill is primarily a defensive presence, able to block shots a high rate and anchor the McNeese zone. Ugochukwu is a versatile 4-man that can play three positions on either end. He may be the most valuable Cowboy overall with his ability to affect both ends of the floor. Ugochukwu ranked 4th in the Southland in rebounding and 9th in blocked shots – also, McNeese was 0.10ppp better on defense when the 6’7” forward was in the lineup (per Hoop Lens). Simmons and Co. will rely on Ugochukwu to provide scoring on the block and lift the team’s overall poor rebounding numbers.
Newcomers Quatarrius Wilson and Demarco Owens will help with the rebounding issues (McNeese ranked 348th last year in defensive rebounding). Both 6’8” JUCO transfers provide toughness in the paint and their presence will allow Ugochukwu to shift down the ranks and play at a more natural position.
Returning role players Adrian Brown and Richard Laku will bolster the frontcourt while Kalob’s twin brother, Jacob Ledoux, will reprise his reserve role in the backcourt. Redshirt freshmen Kelvin Henry and Fred Haywood could also have an impact in their first official season under Simmons.
Bottom Line: McNeese promises to be an improved team with the amount of experience the roster returns. The Cowboys should have a better time scoring the ball offensively, which should be enough to vault them out of the basement. McNeese’s zone is an effective defense in the Southland, but its defensive rebounding must improve for the Cowboys to make the postseason conference tournament.
13. Houston Baptist
Key Returners: Josh Ibarra, Braxton Bonds
Key Losses: Atif Russell, Reveal Chukwujekwu, Colter Lasher, Alex Fountain, Asa Cantwell
Key Newcomers: David Caraher, Tim Myles, Reece Spencer, Phillip McKenzie, Oliver Lynch-Daniels, Edward Hardt, Chukuka Emili, Ian DuBose
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Ron Cottrell has been at Houston Baptist since 1990, the year yours truly was born. Cottrell has seen a lot in his 27 years at the helm, including the transition of the HBU program to Division I back in 2008-2009. After being tossed around the first few seasons in the big leagues, Houston Baptist finally turned a corner and became a Southland contender. Cottrell’s Huskies have enjoyed two straight winning conference seasons and notched their best overall year in Division I in 2016-17, but the loss of five seniors and a key contributor to the transfer wire may knock HBU back a few pegs this year.
Cottrell runs a typical Southland offense, one that centers on an all-out rim attack and relies on the offensive glass and foul line to score (and, yes, they get out in transition). Last season, HBU ranked 20th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and should be solid in that regard again this year despite the loss of Reveal Chukwujekwu. Josh Ibarra, a 6’10” senior center, will be the key to the Huskies’ season. Ibarra is arguably the best rebounder in the conference (and definitely the best offensive rebounder), ripping down offensive conference caroms at a 15.1% rate. Ibarra scored 1.328ppp on offensive put-backs last season and also proved to be deadly on the block, pouring in 1.042ppp on post-ups (both stats per Synergy). There’s very few big men in the Southland equipped to handle Ibarra on the glass and in the paint.
The other key returner for the Huskies is Braxton Bonds, the nephew of famed baseballer Barry Bonds. Bonds is HBU’s point guard, a steady hand at the front of the offense that turned in respectable assist and turnover numbers as a sophomore. The 6’2” lead guard also held the 3rd best free throw rate in the Southland and on defense, stole basketballs at the 3rd highest rate as well. Bonds and Ibarra form one of the stronger 1-2 punches in the Southland at the book-end positions.
Brothers Jalon Gates and William Gates Jr. will need to step up into more central roles this season. Jalon saw consistent floor time as a freshman and should be one of HBU’s better outside shooters in his second season (shooting is not a common asset on this roster). Redshirt junior Stephen O’Suji will also see a bump in playing time after missing all of last season.
Three transfers, Tim Myles (Cal State Fullerton), Edward Hardt (JUCO), and Chukuka Emili (JUCO) will fortify the inside alongside Ibarra. Myles is a good bet to start next to Ibarra, giving HBU an unstoppable rebounding tandem in the frontcourt. The CSUF transfer isn’t much of a scorer, but being able to play volleyball off the glass is important in Cottrell’s offense.
In the backcourt, freshmen David Caraher, Reece Spencer, and Owen Lynch-Daniels stand to make the largest impact. Caraher likely starts on the wing; he’s a 6’6” 3-star recruit from Chapel Hill that can score in the post and light it up from downtown. His scoring ability will give HBU an additional dynamic on offense. Spencer, too, promises to be a deadeye long-ball threat, while Lynch-Daniels will serve as a backup point guard.
Bottom Line: Expect Houston Baptist to take a major step backwards this season. The Huskies were the 2nd best offense in the Southland last year and finished within a game of the regular season title, but losing guys like Colter Lasher and Chukwujekwu are likely going to be too much to overcome. Despite ranking 7th in the conference in defense last season, Cottrell’s group doesn’t offer a lot of hope in that realm.