- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Marlain Veal, Sr., SE Louisiana
Coach of the Year: Heath Schroyer, McNeese State
Newcomer of the Year: Malik Hines, R Sr., McNeese State
Freshman of the Year: Khaleem Bennett, Central Arkansas
1. Stephen F. Austin
Key Returners: Shannon Bogues, Kevon Harris, TJ Holyfield, Aaron Augustin, John Comeaux, Samuli Nieminen
Key Losses: Leon Gilmore, Ivan Canete, Ty Charles
Key Newcomers: Davonte Fitzgerald (Minnesota), Jock Hughes, Mitchell Seraille, Oddyst Walker
Outlook: Make no mistake about it, the Southland is Stephen F. Austin’s conference. The Lumberjacks were a perennial contender under current Texas State head coach Danny Kaspar, a dominating force under Brad Underwood, and now are establishing dominance under Kyle Keller. Despite finishing 3rd in the conference standings last season, SFA finished 63 spots higher than the next Southland squad in KenPom’s final 2017-18 rankings and notched the auto-bid in March. In the non-conference portion of the year, SFA played three Power 6 opponents on the road (all from the SEC), losing by 5 to Mississippi State and by 1 to Missouri, and beating LSU. With the return of three of the best players in the Southland and the addition of a Power 6 down transfer, SFA should be the unanimous conference favorite and a squad that can hang with high-major competition.
SFA boasted the league’s best offense and defense last season, per KenPom, dominating both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Jacks look to score on the run, ranking 49th in tempo last season and 24th in points per possession in transition. Like other Southland squads, SFA is more of a slashing / running / glass attack oriented on offense, but the Jacks did rank 57th in the nation in 3P% in 2017-18. SFA’s one weakness on the offensive end is ball security, ranking 10th in turnover rate in the Southland last season. Keller has more than enough talented guards at his disposal, so hopefully another year of experience can help reverse these TO struggles.
Defensively, SFA led the country in steals per game and turnovers forced (1st in TO rate as well), pressuring opponents relentlessly in the half-court. Keller extended this pressure 90 feet about 10% of the time, but mostly his squad focused on playing physical, in-your-face defense behind the timeline. It follows that SFA had two of the conference’s All-Defensive Team members last season in TJ Holyfield and Aaron Augustin, both of whom return this year. SFA’s physicality is one of the primary reasons it was able to compete with the Power 6 schools in 2017-18 and the reason it will continue to be an upset-alert this season (looking at you Miami, Baylor, and Alabama).
Two 2nd Team All-Conference members return from last season to run the show for the Jacks. Shannon Bogues was not a regular starter last season but the 6’3” guard led the team in scoring and was one of the most efficient players in the league. Last year, Bogues ranked 2nd in the Southland in O-rating despite taking the 4th most percentage of his team’s shots, and scorched the net from deep at a 47.3% conference clip (2nd best in the SL). Bogues is a flat-out scorer and excels in transition with his ability to change direction on a dime. He’ll give opposing Southland guards headaches this season.
Kevon Harris is SFA’s other returning All-Conference player. Harris is a do-everything wing that can drive to the cup and shoot the three. Last season, Harris was 10th in the Southland in offensive rebounding percentage to go along with a 42.1% three-point clip and, like Bogues, he is dangerous on the run.
Junior guards Aaron Augustin and John Comeaux will round out the primary rotation in the backcourt alongside Bogues and Harris. Augustin is highly valuable for his defense (6th in the Southland in steal rate; top 60 nationally), but struggled protecting the rock and producing much on offense in 2017-18. Comeaux is an athletic point guard that is at his best when he’s attacking in transition and slashing to the hoop.
Up front, SFA will have arguably the best Southland one-two forward punch in senior TJ Holyfield and Minnesota grad transfer Davonte Fitzgerald. Holyfield is tremendous everywhere defensively, able to guard out on the perimeter or bottle up post players on the block. Offensively, Holyfield is effective scoring in the post or shooting the three, where he converted 42.6% of his 61 tries last season. Fitzgerald played for Keller at Texas A&M when Keller was an assistant. The 6’8” forward is a physically imposing player that should be able to dominate Southland frontcourts with his strength and versatility. Fitzgerald’s ability to shoot and drive from the perimeter makes him a matchup nightmare at the 4-spot.
Junior Samuli Nieminen, senior Jovan Grujic, and junior Nathan Bain are the returning frontcourt rotation pieces. Nieminen is a stretch big and provides value on offense, while Bain and Grujic provide more on the defensive side of the ball.
Three freshmen will compete for playing time on a deep roster. Jock Hughes is a high-scoring combo guard out of Houston that should provide scoring punch off the pine and leadership over the next few years. Mitchell Seraille is a 4-star forward prospect from the same HS as Hughes and is one of the highest rated recruits in SFA history. Seraille should add shot-blocking in his first year with his length and athleticsm. Oddyst Walker likely doesn’t make quite the impact the other two do in 2018-19, but he’s a versatile guard that averaged nearly 20ppg in high school.
Bottom Line: No other team is touching SFA this season in the Southland. With arguably the best backcourt and frontcourt in the league, Keller’s squad should once again be able to dominate both the offensive and defensive side of the ball and punch its ticket to the school’s 6th NCAA Tournament.
2. Southeastern Louisiana
Key Returners: Marlain Veal, Moses Greenwood, Keith Charleston
Key Losses: Jordan Capps, Eddy Polanco, James Currington, Joshua Filmore, Jabbar Singleton
Key Newcomers: Von Julien (Tulane), Maxwell Starwood (Texas State), Jeremiah Saunders, Pape Diop (JUCO), Tyron Brewer, Parker Edwards, Willie LaPoole
Outlook: SE Louisiana comes off a successful 2017-18 campaign in which it tied for the Southland conference title, its first since 2004-05 when Billy Kennedy roamed the sidelines. The Lions fell to eventual auto-bid rep Stephen F. Austin in the conference tourney, but did earn a spot in the NIT (where they were promptly pounded by Saint Mary’s by 44 points – but that’s not important here). Coach Jay Ladner has done well rebuilding the SLU program after it toiled in mediocrity under Jim Yarbrough. Five key pieces depart from last year’s squad, including 2nd Team All-Conference member Jordan Capps, but SLU’s returning core and newcomer class should have the Lions right in the thick of conference title contention.
The best thing Ladner has done in his college coaching career is sign Marlain Veal. The 5’9” point guard enters his senior year already one of the best players ever to come through SE Louisiana. Veal runs the Lions’ offensive attack, a slower brand of basketball that focuses on shooting and putting the ball in the hands of its best scorers. Last season, Ladner’s offense primarily ran through basket cuts / posts to Capps, isolation sets with Veal, or catch-and-shoot off screens to Veal, Joshua FiImore, and Eddy Polanco.
Veal was a 1st Team All-Southland performer last season and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. He ranked 1st in the conference in assists per game (2nd in rate) and 2nd in steal rate. Veal only averaged 12.8ppg last year, but that doesn’t do justice to his actual ability to put the ball through the hoop. Make no mistake about it – Veal can get any shot on the floor where and when he wants, whether it be via attacking the rim or spotting up from deep. His shot creation both for himself and his teammates is nearly unmatched in the Southland. Without Veal on the floor last season, the Lions managed a measly 0.99ppp.
Veal’s primary cohorts in the backcourt this season will be Tulane transfer Von Julien and 6’8” wing Keith Charleston. Julien likely starts at the 2-spot this year and makes an immediate impact after serving his “transfer sentence” on the pine last season. The 6’1” guard was a regular starter at Tulane as a freshman but saw his playing time tank 2016-17. He’ll contribute as a secondary ball handler and assist as another shooter and penetration threat. SLU was one of the smallest teams in the country last season, and likely will be again, but Charleston is the exception to that rule. Charleston is an excellent rebounder from the wing, provides shooting from beyond the arc (39.1% in ’17-18), and will see time at both the 3 and 4.
SLU’s rotation backcourt pieces this season include redshirt sophomore Chris Mejia, senior D’Angelo West, redshirt senior Quinton Thomas, and freshman Jeremiah Saunders. Mejia missed all of last season but should be a shooting option off the bench in 2018-19. Saunders is a big, athletic guard that should see immediate minutes with his strength.
Inside, Moses Greenwood returns as SLU’s anchor in the paint. Greenwood ranked 4th in the Southland in offensive rebounding rate last season and finished at 64.4% near the rim. Defensively, Greenwood improved his shot-blocking game, ranking 8th in the league in block rate and did well stopping post-ups. He’ll be joined by Texas State transfer Maxwell Starwood, an athletic forward with sky-high potential as a shot blocker and rebounding presence. Wings Brandon Gonzalez and Tyron Brewer should also see plenty of time in the frontcourt. Gonzalez put up scorching efficiency rates last season in limited minutes, knocking down six of his seven three-point tries and going 5/7 from two-point range. Brewer is a well-regarded recruit that passed on bigger DI offers to come to SLU. He has big-time hops, is relatively skilled with the ball in the open floor, and is effective scoring from the mid-range area.
Newbies Pape Diop, Parker Edwards, and Willie LaPoole could also be factors in their first seasons. Diop is a long, athletic forward. Edwards is a high-scoring combo guard. LaPoole is a strong power forward.
The Lions ranked 3rd in the Southland in defense last season, led by Veal’s harassing on-ball pressure. SLU held opponents to the lowest eFG% in the conference despite its relative lack of size and should once again be a force on this end.
Bottom Line: SE Louisiana has arguably the best player in the conference this season and a talented supporting cast. While another 15-3 year may not be in the cards, a top three Southland finish with a very real shot at snagging the auto-bid in March is an attainable goal for Ladner and his crew this season.
3. Abilene Christian
Key Returners: Jalone Friday, Jaren Lewis, Jaylen Franklin, Payten Ricks, Hayden Farquhar, Hayden Howell, BJ Maxwell
Key Losses: Tevin Foster, Drake Green, Isiah Tripp
Key Newcomers: Joe Pleasant, Damien Daniels, Tobias Cameron (Redshirt), Clay Gayman
Outlook: Joe Golding has been steadily building Abilene Christian towards conference title contention. In each of his five DI seasons, the Wildcats improved from an advanced analytics standpoint and 2017-18 marked the program’s first Division I postseason appearance (CIT). This season is one in which ACU can finally compete for a top three spot in the Southland. The Cats will be one of the most experienced teams in the conference (and the country), starting five upperclassmen and relying on a few more off the pine. Minute continuity goes a long way when projecting team improvement year-over-year, and ACU has that in spades along with the talent to compete with the likes of SFA and SLU.
ACU does most of its damage offensively inside the arc, particularly the post where it used the 29th highest percentage of possessions via post-up in 2017-18. Big men Jalone Friday and Jaren Lewis are skilled scorers on the block and guards like Jaylen Franklin are experts at driving the lane. Of course like most Southland squads, the Cats were an awful three-point shooting team last season, ranking 325th in the country in 3P% and 12th in the Southland.
Golding’s squad is a better defensive one than it is on offense. Last year the Cats forced turnovers at the 21st highest rate in the country (5th in the Southland), driven by Franklin’s 1.8spg (4th best in the conference). ACU focuses on taking away the three-pointer, directing traffic inside towards the paint where Friday lurks to swat shots (3rd in the Southland in BPG in 2017-18).
Friday, Lewis, and Franklin (or “Triple J” as I will now call them) are the heart and soul of the team. Friday and Lewis were both Honorable Mention All-Conference members last season and Franklin earned a spot on the league’s All-Defense squad. Friday’s efficiency tanked last season after a brilliant freshman year:
Friday seemed to float around the perimeter more last season, as his three-point attempts increased and shots around the rim decreased. He’s vital to ACU’s cause for challenging near the top of the league, so Golding and the Cats need him to pick those percentages back up in 2018-19.
Lewis ranked 4th in the Southland in rebounds per game, using his strength and aggressiveness to haul in boards at a top seven rate on both ends of the floor. The 6’6” forward gets to the line at a high rate, can score in the post, and occasionally knocks down an outside shot.
Franklin is a minutes machine at the lead guard spot, ranking in the top five of the Southland in MPG each of the past two seasons. In 2017-18, he ranked 4th in the league in assists per game, setting the tone of the offensive attack with his facilitation and driving ability. Franklin’s offensive style is all penetration – 62% of his shots came near the rim last year versus just 19% from outside the arc (per Hoop-Math).
6’6” junior guard Payten Ricks should start at the 2-spot next to Franklin. Ricks is primarily an outside shooting threat, knocking down 37% of his three-ball tries last season. He’ll join junior BJ Maxwell and freshmen Joe Pleasant, Damien Daniels, Clay Gayman, and Tobias Cameron in the backcourt / wing rotation. Maxwell should see a major spike in his minutes after shining in a few games late in the season. He’s a great offensive rebounder and solid shot blocker from the 3-spot.
All of Golding’s freshmen could carve out playing time this year. Pleasant is a long, versatile wing with a good outside shot. Daniels is a fireball at the point guard position, able to use his blinding quickness to blow by slower defenders. Cameron is a redshirt frosh out of New Zealand, a big guard that can shoot and play defense. Gayman, a 6’6” wing out of Nevada, MO, is a high-level scorer and rebounder, averaging 21.9ppg and 11.5rpg in high school.
Backing up Friday and Lewis inside will be a couple of Haydens in seniors Hayden Howell and Hayden Farquhar. Howell is more of a post presence than Farquhar, a physical rebounder with a history of foul trouble. Farquhar is also a good rebounder but provides floor spacing offensively.
Bottom Line: Finishing outside of the top five in the Southland would be a disappointment for Abilene Christian in 2018-19. Golding has all of the pieces and experience he needs to make a run towards the top of the standings and vie for his program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Key Returners: Nick Garth, Josh Nzeakor, TJ Atwood
Key Losses: Colton Weisbrod, James Harrison, Joey Frenchwood, Torey Noel, Zjori Bosha
Key Newcomers: Jordan Hunter (New Mexico), Laquarious Paige (Indiana State), Michael Kolawole (UIC), VJ Holmes (James Madison), Edwin Jeudy (JUCO), Christian Barrett (JUCO), Grehlon Easter, Davion Buster
Outlook: 2017-18 was an overall successful year for the Lamar Cardinals, winning 19 games, going 11-7 in the Southland, and punching a ticket to the CIT. Lamar lost four games by five points or less (and one game in 2OT) in conference play and took down Tulsa on the road in the first game of the season, suggesting this squad was better than its record indicated. Head coach Tic Price had the 6th most experienced squad in the country last season but faces significant turnover in 2018-19, losing four starters including 1st Team All-Conference member Colton Weisbrod. Price has built Lamar into a perennial conference contender in his short time at the helm and reloads his roster this year with four DI transfers and two top 100 JUCO recruits.
Lamar owned the best turnover rate in the league offensively thanks to an overall steady cast of ball handlers and point guard play from Joey Frenchwood and Torey Noel. With those two gone via graduation, Price will turn to New Mexico transfer Jordan Hunter to run the offense. Hunter started several games for New Mexico back in 2016-17 and is a career 42.9% three-point shooter. This latter stat fits well into Lamar’s style of play, as the Cardinals led the Southland last year in 3P attempt rate. Lamar plays a slower tempo than most of its conference foes, but crashes the glass and works through the paint nearly as much.
Defensively, look for Lamar to continue its aggressive, pressure attack. Last season, the Cardinals ranked 16th nationally in forcing turnovers and Price often went to a full-court press to disrupt opposing ball handlers. With a slew of incoming athletes headlined by Indiana State transfer Laquarious Paige, UIC transfer Michael Kolawole, and James Madison transfer VJ Holmes, Lamar’s pressure defense should be effective in 2018-19.
Paige was a regular starter at ISU before opting to transfer two years ago. As a sophomore, the 6’3” guard posted a shooting slash of .527/.364/.875 (2P/3P/FT) and should add significant offensive firepower to the Cardinal attack in addition to his potential defensive impact. Kolawole is more of a slasher on offense while Holmes can play the 1-3.
Sticking in the backcourt, Price will rely on senior Nick Garth for leadership and scoring this season. Garth, an Honorable Mention All-Conference member last season, shot 40% in Southland play (7th) in 2017-18 and should see his usage increase without Weisbord on the floor. Wing TJ Atwood adds versatility at the 3-spot, able to rebound, defend, and score at a high level. Freshman guards Grehlon Easter and Davion Buster will each have opportunities to earn playing time in their first season. Easter is a well-regarded recruit out of Arkansas, a quick, lengthy guard that can bother perimeter ball handlers. The 5’10” Buster averaged 31.5ppg in high school, possesses sticky handles, and scores in creative ways.
Inside, Lamar returns Honorable Mention All-Conference forward Josh Nzeakor, rotation sophomores Avery Sullivan and Jordan Foster, and two top 100 JUCO transfers in Edwin Jeudy and Christian Barrett. Nzeakor is a glass eater on offense, ranking in the top five in the Southland all three of his playing seasons in offensive rebounding percentage. His aggressive style of play in the post led to notching the second best FT rate in the league and Lamar was +0.10ppp offensively when the big man was on the floor last season.
Jeudy and Barrett will compete for a starting forward spot next to Nzeakor and take on the unenviable task of replacing Weisbrod’s production. Jeudy is a long, athletic shot blocker with three-point range and averaged a double-double (13ppg / 10rpg) in JUCO last year. Barrett was an Honorable Mention NJCAA All-American in 2017-18, notching 10ppg / 9rpg and shooting 80% from the FT line.
Bottom Line: Lamar loses a considerable amount of talent from last season, but brings in arguably the most talent out of anyone in the Southland. Four “down transfers” plus two coveted JUCO recruits should have Tic Price’s squad near the top of the Southland standings for the third consecutive year.
5. New Orleans
Key Returners: Bryson Robinson, Troy Green, Ezekiel Charles, Damion Rosser, Lamont Berzat, Scott Plaisance, Jorge Rosa
Key Losses: Travin Thibodeaux, Makur Puou, Michael Zeno, Diontae Champion
Key Newcomers: Gerrale Gates, Jahmel Myers, Amari Haynes, Pierre Johnson (JUCO)
Outlook: New Orleans exceeded expectations last year (at least this publication’s), finishing t-5th in the Southland at 11-7 after being picked nearly unanimously to finish in the bottom half of the standings. Mark Slessinger proved his worth as a coach, finding success and a CBI berth despite losing four key pieces from a 2016-17 NCAA Tournament squad. This season, the Privateers lose four more key players, including three starters, but the cupboard feels slightly more full than in 2017-18.
The main challenge Slessinger will need to address this season is UNO’s relative lack of size. The Privateers have been a paint-oriented and big team the past two years and have tailored their style of play to fit that personnel. With the loss of Travin Thibodeaux and Makur Puou, its most effective big men, New Orleans suddenly shifts to a guard-dominant team. Last year, only two squads attempted less three-pointers than UNO, a testament to Slessinger’s focus on rim attack and playing through the post, but we likely see a much more “bombs away” style in 2018-19.
UNO’s guard play was far from solid last season, as the Privateers ranked 340th in the country in turnover rate, but Slessinger’s preference to play a deep bench (4th most bench minutes in the country) allowed a plethora of backcourt players to earn valuable experience. Lamont Berzat, a 5’6” blur, likely starts at the point guard spot this year after turning in a so-so freshman season in which he struggled with turnovers. Berzat’s quickness and UNO’s overall guard-heavy roster may warrant a shift back to Slessinger’s old uptempo style of basketball instead of the slow paced brand we’ve seen the past two years in New Orleans (slowest team in the Southland last season).
Alongside Berzat, Slessinger has four legitimate backcourt scoring threats, all of which showed they were able to lead the team offensively. Bryson Robinson is probably the most obvious breakout candidate of the bunch and likely becomes the primary focal point on offense. Robinson was one of the best shooters in the Southland last season and also assists in ball handling duties. Troy Green is a strong, physical wing that scored in double figures numerous times in 2017-18. Ezekiel Chrles is another scorer that came on very strong at the end of last season; he shot a scorching 43.1% from deep last year and has the size to play the 4 when Slessinger wants to go small (as he probably should). Yet another scoring threat, Jorge Rosa, returns after playing just two games in 2017-18 before succumbing to injury. Rosa shot 38% from three in 2016-17. 6’4” sophomore wing Damion Rosser is not at all a scorer but his tenacity on defense makes him potentially one of the better on-ball stoppers in the league. JUCO transfer Pierre Johnson will compete for the starting PG gig with Berzat.
Up front, Slessinger will need a breakthrough from one of his returning bigs in Scott Plaisance, Bol Riek, and Tyren Harrison. Plaisance will see a lot of time at the 5 this season after starting the final four games last year after coming over from UL Lafayette. The 6’9” forward is a strong rebounder and has a hard-nosed style of play on both ends. Riek, a former 3-star prospect, is still pretty raw but also still 7’3”. Harrison was a well-regarded JUCO transfer and should finally get a chance to prove his worth. Three freshmen, Gerrale Gates, Jahmel Myers, and Amari Haynes will provide depth at the forward spot. All project as physical rebounders and have upside on the defensive end.
Defense has been a sticking point the past two seasons at New Orleans. The Privateers have ranked 1st and 4th in the Southland in defense per KenPom, a result of their physical style of play and aggressive half-court defense. UNO ranked 9th in the country in turnover rate last season on the defensive end and should once again be an intimidating squad to handle the ball against given its wealth of depth at the wing and guard spots. Interior defense has been a question mark in the past and likely continues to be this season without Thibodeaux and Puou.
Bottom Line: I won’t make the same mistake twice and sell the Privateers short this season. Slessinger has won me over and has me firmly in the camp that he is a good basketball coach. With the amount of experience, athleticism, and shooting UNO has this season; the Privateers should be able to contend for a top five spot in the Southland standings.
6. McNeese State
Key Returners: Jarren Greenwood, James Harvey
Key Losses: Kalob Ledoux, Quatarrius Wilson, Stephen Ugochukwu, Jacob Ledoux, LaBarrius Hill
Key Newcomers: Malik Hines (UMass), Trey Touchet (UTEP), Roydell Brown (JUCO), Will Robinson (JUCO), Shamarkus Kennedy (JUCO), Kevin Hunt (JUCO), Jeremy Harrell (JUCO), Trey Johnson
Outlook: There’s a new sheriff in town in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Heath Schroyer replaces long-time McNeese coach Dave Simmons, relieving the former coach of his duties after 12 years of lackluster performances. In those 12 seasons, McNeese notched just two winning records; the Cowboys haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2001-02. Schroyer has coached at Portland State, Wyoming, and UT Martin during his career and most recently served as an assistant at NC State and BYU. He inherits a McNeese squad that loses three starters including two All-Conference performers in Kalob Ledoux and Quatarrius Wilson. While the Cowboys finished in the thick of things in the Southland last year at 8-10, they didn’t win one non-conference game against a Division I opponent and five of their eight wins came against the bottom three Southland squads. Schroyer has his work cut out for him.
Offensively last year, McNeese scored in transition, in isolation, and via the offensive glass. The Cowboys also owned the conference’s best 3P%. Schroyer’s most recent squads at UT Martin had reputations of being ferocious on the boards (on both ends), so relying on offensive put-backs to score will likely continue to be a theme for McNeese. Those UT Martin squads played at a slower tempo, but Schroyer’s Wyoming squads consistently ranked in the top 50 nationally in pace. Schroyer has an athletic bunch this season at McNeese and talented guards with which to run, but he also has the size to bang inside and slow down the game.
Defensively, Schroyer implemented matchup zones at UT Martin and his goal was to protect the glass, putting a premium on defensive rebounding at the cost of sagging off the three-point line and allowing open looks. The Cowboys were one of the worst defensive teams in the country last season, so ay change Schroyer brings can’t make them much worse.
McNeese’s two returning starters are senior guards Jarren Greenwood and James Harvey. Greenwood is one of the better perimeter defenders on the squad and should be its leading scorer in 2018-19. The 6’2” lead guard handles the rock and runs the offense; his preferred method of scoring is driving the lane and earning trips to the foul line. Harvey will also be counted on to provide scoring; he’s more of a spot-up shooter, knocking down 38.9% of his threes in conference play, the 8th best mark in the Southland.
The senior backcourt pair will be backed up this season by UTEP transfer Trey Touchet and JUCO transfer Kevin Hunt. Touchet was mostly a shooter at UTEP and could bring a nice scoring punch off the pine. Hunt can run the point and be an effective on-ball defender; he should get plenty of run in his first DI season.
Top 100 JUCO recruits Roydell Brown and Will Robinson will both compete for starting spots on the wing and at the 4, respectively. Brown played for Louisiana back in 2016-17 but didn’t see a whole lot of court time. In JUCO, Brown poured in 16ppg and 9rpg and should be good for a highlight dunk or ten this season. Defensively, Brown could be a lockdown wing stopper with his athleticism. Robinson also brings a scoring punch (19.4ppg in JUCO) and athleticism to the roster.
Inside, Schroyer will turn to UMass grad transfer Malik Hines and JUCO imports Shamarkus Kennedy and Jeremy Harrell for production. Hines will almost certainly start at center after a successful stint in the A-10. In 2017-18 Hines notched the 3rd best O-Rating in conference play, leading the league in TS% and eFG% (70%). His nose for rebounding fits right into Schroyer’s past style of play. Kennedy could start alongside Hines at the 4 or provide reinforcements off the bench at the 5. He’ll contribute as a shot blocker and rebounder and compete with Robinson and returning forwards Adrian Brown and Richard Laku for PT. Harrell is a versatile forward that can shoot the three – he played with Brown last year at Southwest Mississippi CC.
Bottom Line: Heath Schroyer is a good hire for a team looking for a fresh start to its basketball program. Schroyer turned around UT Martin immediately in his two seasons there and built Portland State into a competitive Big Sky squad. The Cowboys should be able to outperform their 8-10 conference performance of 2017-18.
7. Sam Houston State
Key Returners: Marcus Harris, Josh Delaney, Albert Almanza, Cameron Delaney
Key Losses: Christopher Galbreath, John Dewey, Jamal Williams, Abrian Edwards, Josh Boutte
Key Newcomers: Zaqwaun Matthews (JUCO), Kai Mitchell (JUCO), RJ Smith (JUCO), Xavier Bryant, Zach Nutall, Chad Bowie (JUCO), Cyrus Johnson
Outlook: Sam Houston State outperformed expectations last season, going 21-15 and making the CIT semi-finals, but it’s pretty much what head coach Jason Hooten has been doing his whole tenure. 2017-18 was SHSU’s 5th straight double-digit win season in the Southland and 2nd straight 20+ win season. The Bearkats lose a ton of production from last year, including 1st Team All-Southland member Christopher Galbreath, but look to replenish the cupboards with a slew of JUCO imports.
SHSU was the Southland’s best offensive rebounding team by rate last season, which led to a large part of the Bearkats’ offense, one that scored via the free throw line and the glass. Hooten’s motion offense has gone away from the three-point line each of the past two seasons, instead opting for more of a bully-ball glass attack. On the other side of the ball, SHSU forces turnovers like every other Southland squad and looks to full-court press at a nationally top-50 rate.
The Bearkats were the 20th most “experienced” team last season and will likely start four seniors this year. With Galbreath and John Dewey gone, senior Marcus Harris becomes the guy on offense. Harris came over from San Diego last season (sat out in 2016-17) and quickly made an impact, ranking 4th in the league in FT rate. His inefficient FG% and shot selection will need to improve if he’s to lead this team in scoring. One guy who needs no improvements to his shooting is senior guard Josh Delaney, who led the conference in 3P% (47.8%) in 2017-18 and ranked 3rd in O-Rating. Delaney can handle the ball and play point, but is better off the ball where he can thrive off catch-and-shoot.
Josh’s brother Cam Delaney and fellow senior Albert Almanza will join the lineup as outside shooting threats. Almanza, who is coming off a knee injury he suffered in January, has turned in an efficient three seasons of collegiate ball on offense and Cam Delaney doubles as a good defender and slashing threat.
Hooten’s frontcourt is littered with question marks, which might hint at a change in style back to a three-point focused offense. Without a dominant big man presence to feed in the post and off pick-n-rolls, the Bearkats will be a very backcourt-oriented squad. Chidozie Ndu and Bubba Furlong are both frontcourt returners but neither saw the floor much as freshmen. In theory, Ndu should provide rim protection at 6’11” and Furlong turned in strong rebounding rates in limited minutes. JUCO transfer Kai Mitchell will likely see a fair amount of playing time as a rebounder and shot blocker, but he too isn’t a world-beater offensively. RJ Smith should also compete for time at the 4.
Newbies in the backcourt include JUCO transfers Zaqwuan Matthews and Chad Bowie, and freshmen Xavier Bryant, Zach Nutall, and Cyrus Johnson. Matthews will fight for a starting spot, bringing scoring and three-point shooting to the SHSU roster. Bryant is a floor general and a potential leader at the point down the road. Bowie is an athletic 2-guard that projects as a solid defender, while Johnson is another physical wing presence.
Bottom Line: I was too low on Sam Houston State last year, but I think I’m more accurate in my prediction in 2018-19. Hooten has proven to be a good coach, but the lack of proven scoring and interior presence has me hesitant to call this team a Southland contender. Prove me wrong, SHSU, prove me wrong.
8. Central Arkansas
Key Returners: Hayden Koval, Thatch Unruh, DeAndre Jones, Tanner Schmit, Matthew Mondesir, Darraja Parnell
Key Losses: Jordan Howard, Mathieu Kamba, Ethan Lee
Key Newcomers: Khaleem Bennett, Eddy Kayouloud, Jaxson Baker, Porter Anderson, SK Shittu (Redshirt)
Outlook: Russ Pennell, the former one-year Arizona coach, has garnered a lot of momentum in Conway over the past few years. 2017-18’s 18-17 (10-8) season marked a 10-win overall improvement from the prior year, the most wins in the school’s DI history, its first winning season in DI, and first winning season in the Southland (not to mention UCA took down Cal on the road by 27 – interpret that accomplishment how you will). Pennell and the Bears lose Jordan Howard, last year’s Southland Player of the Year, but return a solid group of players with which to compete in 2018-19.
Central Arkansas has consistently been one of the fastest teams in the country tempo-wise under Pennell. Last year, the Bears ranked 17th in the country in tempo (2nd in the Southland). The Bears had the Southland’s 3rd best offense last season, an attack that relied on transition, isolation sets, and the three to put points on the board. Of course, this attack was completely Howard-centric – the Player of the Year used 34.8% of UCA’s isolation possessions and 33.6% of its transition possessions, both extremely high shares for one player.
Howard’s absence opens up a lot of opportunity to UCA’s returning core, particularly sophomores DeAndre Jones and Hayden Koval, who should lead the squad in 2018-19. Jones ranked 3rd in the Southland in assist per game last season (5th in rate) and 7th in the league in steal rate. While he had the typical freshman turnover issues, Jones proved to be an effective facilitator opposite Howard and a very good outside shooter, knocking down 38.2% of his 3PA last season. Koval anchors the Bears frontcourt on either end of the floor. UCA doesn’t play through the post in general and neither does Koval, opting instead to do most of his damage from outside the arc. Defensively, Koval ranked 5th in the country in blocks per game (11th in rate) and earned a spot on the Southland’s All-Defense team. Both sophomores should see major upticks in usage this season.
Thatch Unruh, the only senior on the squad, is UCA’s floor leader, a “shooter” by reputation despite being only a career 31.9% three-point shooter. Despite is lack of outside shooting prowess thus far in his career, Unruh is an important part of UCA’s roster and has shown to be an able secondary ball handler and scorer from inside the arc.
Pennell’s other three primary returners are forward Tanner Schmit and guards Matthew Mondesir and Darraja Parnell. Schmit plays the 4 or 5 offensively but like his cohort Koval, rarely sits on the block. 82% of Schmit’s shots last season came from the mid-range area, which likely explains the fact he’s never shot over 43.1% from the field. His poor rebounding numbers are also a function of his tendency to float in the middle. Mondesir is a defensive asset with shooting and slashing potential on offense. Parnell is a high-usage guard that can shoot, drive, and handle the ball.
All five newcomers have opportunities to stake claim to playing time this season. In particular, keep eyes on Khaleem Bennett, a 3-star wing, and redshirt freshman SK Shittu. Bennett has a DI-ready body at 6’4” 200 lbs. and will add value as an athletic wing slasher. Shittu redshirted last season for medical reasons and, now fully cleared, should have a major impact this year as a shot blocker and rebounder. Eddy Kayouloud, an Oak Hill product, Jaxson Baker, a 3-star wing shooter, and Porter Anderson, a double-double post threat, will all push for minutes.
Defensively, the Bears went away from Pennell’s standard zone looks in 2017-18, though the results were largely the same: UCA’s defense was bad. The Bears will press teams and aggressively shade the three-point line, but they have been constantly eviscerated on the glass during Pennell’s tenure (despite Koval’s presence as a rim protector). Improved length, athleticism, and size across the board should help UCA improve on this side of the ball.
Bottom Line: The loss of Howard is significant but there is still plenty of talent on this roster. Pennell looks to be building the program into a conference contender and we should see the Bears somewhere in the middle of the pack once again in 2018-19.
9. Nicholls State
Key Returners: Kevin Johnson, Ryghe Lyons, Daniel Regis
Key Losses: Roddy Peters, Tevon Saddler, Jahvaughn Powell, Kimani Jackson, Lafayette Rutledge
Key Newcomers: Gavin Peppers (Central Michigan), Jeremiah Jefferson (Jackson State), Brandon Moore Jr. (JUCO), Jeremiah Buford (JUCO), Danny Garrick (JUCO), Elvis Harvey (JUCO), Abdul Alatishe
Outlook: Last season was Nicholls State’s best in the Southland since 1997-98, the last year it made the NCAA Tournament. Richie Riley breathed life back into the NSU program and cashed in on his success by accepting the head coaching spot at South Alabama this offseason. Riley’s assistant, Austin Claunch, takes over this year, making him the youngest head coach in the country at just 28 years old (he’s younger than Jim!). Claunch worked on Paul Hewitt’s staff at George Mason and served as a manager at Clemson under Brad Brownell before coming to Nicholls. One of the main reasons the Colonels were so successful last season was the high-level transfer talent Riley brought in, and now Claunch looks to replenish the coffers with a number of transfers of his own.
Only three players return from last year’s squad: forwards Ryghe Lyons and Daniel Regis and guard Kevin Johnson. To support his returning threesome, Claunch brings in four JUCO transfers, two DI transfers, and a freshman. Claunch has the personnel to play NSU’s uptempo style in 2018-19 (that is assuming he continues Riley’s preferred method of play). The Colonels ranked 12th in the country in tempo last season and 7th in percentage of possessions used in transition. Like most Southland squads, basket attack and getting to the foul line are also major scoring avenues.
Nicholls ranked 2nd in the Southland in adjusted defensive efficiency last year, per KenPom. The Colonels forced a high number of turnovers (34th in TO rate in the country; 5th in steal rate), pressured squads in the full-court at the 22nd highest rate (21%), and moved away from a primarily zone half-court defensive look. When NSU did press it allowed just 0.721ppp, which ranked in the 93rd percentile in the country. NSU loses a ton of athletes, but Claunch has plenty more on his roster to continue this high-level pressure.
Kevin Johnson is NSU’s rock in the backcourt. While not a high-usage player offensively, Johnson impacts the game in several significant ways. As a freshman, Johnson led the Colonels in minutes played and ranked 8th in the conference in steal rate. Per Hoop Lens, when Johnson was on the floor, NSU allowed just 0.95ppp versus 1.06ppp when he sat. Per every advanced metric measure, Johnson was a shutdown on-ball defender in 2017-18.
Ryghe Lyons started 22 games as a freshman and ranked 5th in the Southland in block rate. Like Johnson, he’s more of a defensive guy and his impact on the game was not obviously noticeable. Per Hoop Lens, NSU allowed just 0.90ppp when Lyons was on the floor versus 1.02ppp when he sat, and the freshman had a staggering +0.20ppp net impact when he played. Regis wasn’t quite as impactful as his frontcourt buddy, but he was a solid offensive rebounding presence off the pine.
The Colonels will rely on two Division I transfers, Gavin Peppers (Central Michigan) and Jeremiah Jefferson (Jackson State), to provide scoring this year. Peppers saw his playing time tank during the second half of last season with CMU (likely leading to his transfer) and didn’t shoot the ball as well as he’s capable of. With NSU, Peppers will be counted on to be one of the go-to offensive weapons and will be leaned on to provide ball handling as well. Jefferson was a regular starter for Jackson State in the SWAC last season, leading the conference in turnover rate and shooting 38.9% from downtown in league play. If Claunch decides to go with a smaller lineup, Jefferson could start alongside Peppers and Johnson. Peppers has enough strength to hold his own against most 3s in the Southland and NSU’s full-court pressure would negate some of the size concerns.
Each of the four JUCO imports could start for Nicholls in 2018-19. Wings Brandon Moore Jr. and Jeremiah Buford bring versatility on defense. Moore averaged 13.5ppg and 8.3rpg in JUCO last year and has three-point shooting ability. Buford is a good-sized wing at 6’5”, can shoot the three as well, and score via dribble drive. 6’6” wing Danny Garrick will compete with Moore and Buford for a starting spot after setting his previous school’s single season 3PM record and knocking down 40.9% of his long-ball tries.
Inside, JUCO transfer Elvis Harvey and freshman Abdul Alatishe both should have opportunities to make an impact. Harvey, originally an Illinois State commit out of HS, is a load inside at 6’9” 210 lbs. (looks bigger than that) and can step out and shoot a bit. He’s a hard-nosed rebounder that could pair well with Lyons up front. Alatishe is a super bouncy 4-man that has high potential as a shot blocker with his quick leaping ability.
Bottom Line: Nicholls could finish in a myriad of spots this season within the Southland. Claunch is unproven and young but he has plenty of talent with which to compete for a top five Southland Tourney seed. Next year, Claunch will add the services of three more highly regarded transfers in Nico Clareth (Siena), D’Angelo Hunter (West Virginia), and Dexter McClanahan (Savannah State), suggesting that NSU’s conference success should last beyond just one year.
10. Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Key Returners: Kareem South, Myles Smith, Elijah Schmidt, Emmanuel Toney, Tre Gray
Key Losses: Joseph Kilgore, Sean Rhea, Colin Hale, Deion Rhea
Key Newcomers: Jake Babic (Appalachian State), Irshaad Hunte (JUCO), Tony Lewis (JUCO), Jashawn Talton (JUCO), Jalon Clark, Javae Lampkins (JUCO)
Outlook: The Islanders took a significant step back last season with the loss of program greats Rashawn Thomas (graduation) and Ehab Amin (injury). 2017-18 was head coach Willis Wilson’s worst and first losing season at TAMU-CC since 2012-13. Youth was a factor in the Islanders’ conference slide and the injury to their best player certainly didn’t help any. This year, Wilson returns a key core of five players but loses his best overall player from last season (Joseph Kilgore) and three more key pieces to transfer. TAMU-CC will rely on a couple burgeoning backcourt players and a promising newcomer class to get back into Southland title contention.
Only four teams in the country turned the ball over at a higher rate than the Islanders last season, a consequence of a young backcourt and a lack of a “true” point guard. Wilson’s team eschewed the three last season (as Wilson teams tend to do), instead exercising his preferred dribble-drive and post attack. TAMU-CC ranked 10th in the country last year in percentage of plays ran in isolation (dribble drive) and top 100 in post-ups (post attack). While not overly uptempo, TAMU-CC does look to score in transition at a fairly high rate.
Defensively, the Islanders force turnovers, ranking 31st in the country in TO rate (though 10th in the Southland), and led the conference in defensive rebounding rate. However, lack of discipline on close-outs and gambles for steals led to way too open looks from outside the arc. Wilson has historically had solid defensive teams, so expect this side of the ball to improve in 2018-19.
Without Kilgore in the lineup this year, the scoring load will fall on junior Kareem South and sophomore Myles Smith. South is a talented combo guard who connected on 37.4% of his three-point attempts last season, one of the best rates on the squad. As returning leading scorer, South should assume duties of the go-to guy on offense and his usage should spike in 2018-19. Smith struggled playing the point during his freshman year, notching a 15.4% assist rate compared to a 26.0% TO rate. These issues are typical amongst first-year guards thrown into the fire, especially in a conference that ranked 4th in the country in steal rate. Shooting-wise, Smith was impressive, turning in a 2P/3P/FT slash of .506/.352/.804. Look for big things from the sophomore this season.
Joining South and Smith in the backcourt will be 6th-year senior Emmanuel Toney, App State transfer Jake Babic, sophomore Tre Gray, JUCO imports Jashawn Talton and Javae Lampkins, and freshman Jalon Clark. That’s a lot of players, so obviously a pecking order will have to emerge. Toney missed all of 2016-17 with injury and played only six games in 2017-18. He’s another option to handle the ball on offense and will be looked to as a leader this season. Gray is one of the better shooters on the squad but like most other Islanders struggled with turnovers last year. Babic will push for a starting gig after starting five games for the Mountaineers back in 2016-17. At 6’5”, Babic is a big guard that can run the point but has yet to have a good shooting season in college. Talton is probably the most intriguing newcomer given the fact that he is former Islander great Rashawn Thomas’s little brother (yes, that’s right, Rashawn and Jashawn). Talton was a NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American last season and has the ability to play multiple spots and score from multiple areas. Clark is a highly regarded recruit in the state of Texas and Lampkins shot 41.7% from deep in JUCO.
TAMU-CC is weaker inside, at least on the offensive end. Defensively, Wilson’s group should be stout once again with the return of Elijah Schmidt and Perry Francois. Schmidt led the Southland in 2PFG% last season and ranked 2nd in DR%. Offensively, he does most of his damage inside but appears to be toying with developing an outside shot. Defensively, he’s an active post defender and boarder. Wilson brings in two JUCO prospects to bolster his frontline. Irshaad Hunte is the #95 JUCO recruit in the country per JUCOrecruiting.com and brings a wealth of athleticism and shot-blocking potential to the Islanders. Fellow JUCO newcomer Tony Lewis is a big boy at 6’10” 260 lbs. and should function as an immovable object down on the block.
Bottom Line: Willis Wilson’s track record in the Southland suggests he can turn TAMU-CC into a competitive squad this season, but the roster on paper lacks luster. This could be one of the better defensive units in the Southland this season, but it could also be one of the worst offensively.
11. Houston Baptist
Key Returners: Josh Ibarra, Braxton Bonds, Ian DuBose, Jalon Gates, Oliver Lynch-Daniels, Edward Hardt, Philip McKenzie
Key Losses: David Caraher, Will Gates, Tim Myles
Key Newcomers: Ty Dalton (JUCO), Jackson Stent (JUCO), Qon Murphy, Benjamin Uloko
Outlook: Houston Baptist hung tough in the early going of 2017-18 against superior competition, narrowly losing to Belmont and Saint Peter’s on the road and upending Texas State. Then big man Josh Ibarra went down with an injury in the 10th game of the season. Last year’s 6-25 (2-16) record was tied for the worst performance in HBU DI history. Head coach Ron Cottrell appeared to be building momentum in 2015-16 and 2016-17, but that all came to a screeching halt when Ibarra was sidelined. This season, that momentum could very well make a comeback. Despite the loss of Southland Freshman of the Year David Caraher, HBU should be a much-improved squad with Ibarra’s return and the return of six other major contributors.
The Huskies were the fastest team in the Southland last season, ranking 1st in the league in tempo and 14th nationally. Cottrell’s style is of the typical Southland ilk: crash the glass, play fast, get to the FT line. Despite Ibarra’s absence, HBU was still 29th in the country in offensive rebounding rate in 2017-18 and have been in the top 30 three of the past four years. Unlike many Southland teams, HBU can actually take care of the basketball, unfortunately the Huskies were piss poor at shooting said basketball last season.
Speaking of piss poor: HBU’s defense. The Huskies were consistently burned from the outside and offered little resistance near the cup, a bad combination no matter how you slice it. Cottrell implemented a zone defense look about a quarter of the time, but it did little to help his squad stop the opposing team from scoring.
Ibarra’s return is massive. In the nine games he saw playing time in 2017-18, Ibarra notched five double-doubles. The 6’11” senior is arguably the most dominant rebounder in the conference – he eats the glass for breakfast, lunch, and dinner just like a bagel bite. Offensively, Ibarra is extremely efficient scoring on the block. His presence alone should keep HBU out of the Southland basement in 2018-19.
Cottrell returns three more players that averaged in double figures. Braxton Bonds (Barry’s nephew) is a solid point guard that contributed heavily to HBU’s solid turnover rate. Last season, Bonds ranked 3rd in the Southland in assist rate and doubled as a pesky perimeter defender on the other end. Offensively, Bonds is almost all drive, attempting 67% of his total shots from near the rim in 2017-18. Ian DuBose, a 6’4” sophomore, made a large impact on the HBU roster in his inaugural college season, contributing on both ends via steals, shooting from the outside, and earning trips to the line. He’ll remain a key part of Cottrell’s game plan this year and likely plays about 75% of available minutes once again. Jalon Gates, who averaged 11.5ppg as a junior last year, is a three-point specialist on a team of mostly slashers.
HBU’s key returning reserves include guard Oliver Lynch-Daniels, and forwards Edward Hardt and Philip McKenzie. Oliver-Daniels turned in a pretty good freshman season in 2017-18, serving as a backup ball handler and stroking the net from downtown at a 41.7% conference clip (5th best in the Southland). Hardt started most of the Huskies’ games in Ibarra’s stead, was a solid finisher on the block and a capable rebounder. McKenzie started four games last season and likely competes for the 4-man spot this year; he crashes the glass effectively on offense but his shooting left much to be desired last year.
Four newcomers will look to carve out playing time this season: JUCO imports Ty Dalton and Jackson Stent and freshmen Qon Murphy and Benjamin Ukolo. Dalton is a versatile wing that can contribute in the realms of shooting, distributing, and rebounding. Stent is a long stretch-four that can provide shooting in the frontcourt. Murphy is a big point guard at 6’5” and has been tabbed as a future floor leader for the program. Ukolo is still raw but an imposing figure at 6’7” 250 lbs.
Bottom Line: The Huskies should be better than 2-16 in the Southland this season, but it’s hard to vault them much higher than the middle-of-the-pack in the preseason. Experience and minute continuity mean a lot in college basketball, and the fact that HBU scored 0.15 more point per possession when Ibarra was on the floor indicates a major improvement is imminent. However, the loss of David Caraher is a big blow to the Huskies’ contention hopes.
12. Incarnate Word
Key Returners: Charles Brown III, Keaton Hervey, Cody Graham, Christian Peevy, Augustine Ene, Jorden Kite
Key Losses: Shawn Johnson, Simi Socks, Sam Burmeister, Jalin Hart
Key Newcomers: Morgan Taylor, Dwight Murray Jr., Jordan Caruso, Romello Wilbert, Antoine Smith Jr., Des Balentine (JUCO), Corey Sato, Bryce Davis, Brandon Swaby
Outlook: Boy was I wrong about Incarnate Word last season. Despite being picked 12th in the Southland preseason poll, I thought the Cardinals had the requisite continuity and offensive talent to push for a top five conference finish. Point guard Jalin Hart went down with an injury early in the year, but even his absence isn’t enough to excuse a 7-21 (2-16) record with only three victories against DI opponents. Ken Burmeister was shown the door after last year’s collapse despite leading the Cardinals to four respectable years prior to 2017-18. In his stead steps Carson Cunningham, a former Oregon State, Purdue, and CBA basketball player, a PhD in history, and a former coach in the NAIA ranks. He inherits a squad that finished the year ranked 342nd per KenPom and a roster that features nine newcomers.
The Cardinals were bad on both ends of the floor, ranking 12th in the Southland in offensive efficiency and 13th in defensive efficiency (per KenPom). Offensively, UIW was heavily reliant on earning trips to the foul line, ranking 3rd in the country in percentage of points scored from the charity stripe and 22nd in FT rate. Like most Southland squads, UIW played uptempo and ran offense through the post and isolation sets. Defensively, UIW deployed a soft zone that did not force turnovers, allowed way too many open looks, and rebounded at the 4th worst rate in the country. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Of the key returners, Charles Brown III, Keaton Hervey, and Christian Peevy will be looked upon as leaders and tasked with the job of lifting the squad back to conference relevance. Brown was the best rebounder and scorer on the team last year after coming over from the JUCO ranks (he also played for Murray State) and will play the 4 and 5 for an overall undersized team. His ability to score in the paint, get to the foul line, and knock down outside shots is vital for a squad looking for offensive consistency. Hervey was a big recruit coming into the fold last year and now will look to breakout in 2018-19 as a sophomore. His preferred scoring method is via slashing drives, particularly in isolation, but he’ll need to improve upon woeful shooting percentages (41.9% from 2P, 28.1% from 3P). Peevy enjoyed a few scoring outbursts during his freshman season, scoring 24 against Central Arkansas on January 10th. Most of his offense comes near the rim, as he attempted 70.7% from that area last season. Aside from scoring, Peevy will be counted on for rebounding and defense at he 4-spot.
Cunningham’s three remaining returners are all in the backcourt: sophomores Cody Graham and Augustine Ene and junior Jorden Kite. Graham is a steady point guard that was forced into playing time when Hart went down; he ranked 6th in the Southland in assist rate last season. Ene is a long combo guard that adds more value on defense than offense. Kite is a career 37.9% three-point shooter.
The aforementioned trio will have stiff playing time competition from a slew of newcomers including JUCO transfer Des Balentine and freshmen Dwight Murray Jr., Romello Wilbert, and Jordan Caruso. Balentine is DJ Balentine’s (Evansville) little brother and should compete for a starting spot after enjoying a successful JUCO career. Like his bro, Balentine can shoot the ball and run the offense from the point. Murray and Caruso were both big-time scorers in high school and likely unseat Graham eventually for the starting PG spot. Wilbert is a versatile two-way player that can stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis. Other freshmen, Morgan Taylor and Brandon Swaby, will also compete for PT.
UIW is thin up front so freshmen Antoine Smith Jr., Bryce Davis, and Corey Sato may be called upon in their inaugural years for production. Davis is the one to watch of this group; he’s an athletic 4-man that can score driving from the wing or posting on the block.
Bottom Line: Expectations will be low for Cunningham in his first season due to his 1) inexperience in the DI coaching ranks, 2) his squad’s considerable youth (12 underclassmen), and 3) the loss of four seniors from prior year. UIW’s lack of size probably dictates the way Cunningham implements his game plan – we likely see some more zone from the Cardinals in 2018-19, maybe some full-court pressure, and perhaps a more transition-based offense. Whatever style Cunningham decides to deploy, his squad likely finishes in the bottom four of the league.
13. Northwestern State
Key Returners: Ishmael Lane, Larry Owens, CJ Jones, Malik Metoyer, Brandon Hutton, Darian Dixon, Vontay Ott
Key Losses: Iziahiah Sweeney, Czar Perry, Jalan West
Key Newcomers: LaTerrance Reed (JUCO), Brian White, Chudier Bile, Dalin Williams, Alex Comanita
Outlook: It’s hard to emphasize just how bad Northwestern State was last season. Head coach Mike McConathy suffered through by far his worst season at the helm of the Demons, posting an ugly 4-25 (1-17) record. 7th-year senior Jalan West left the team during Christmas break after playing in just eight games and nine overall since the 2015-16 season. Three of NSU’s four wins came with West on the floor, but two of those victories came against non-DI competition. Without West, NSU lost to Division III LeTourneau, was pounded by Texas and SMU by 46 points each, and in conference play suffered a 47-point loss to Stephen F. Austin on the road. McConathy does return a high percentage of production from last season, but there is little hope for Southland relevance in Natchitoches.
More bad stats time: Northwestern State ranked 349th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom last season, spurred by owning the worst turnover rate in the country, worst FT% in the country, and second worst 3P% in the country. The Demons’ offense was putrid and difficult to watch at times. Possessions often ended in isolation play-sets (27th in the country in percentage of possessions ended in iso) or offensive put-backs (7th in percentage of possessions ended in put-backs) and the Demons ranked 350th in assist rate (i.e. ball movement via the pass was LACKING). Additionally, no team in the country scored a higher percentage of its buckets from inside the arc and the Demons were 350th in percentage of points scored beyond the arc.
One area in which the Demons did excel on offense was scoring through the post. 2017-18 3rd Team All-Southland selection Ishmael Lane poured in 1.226ppp on post-ups, the 24th best mark in the country and best among players with over 50 post-up possessions. Lane was the lone bright spot on a team with little going for it; he was a top five Southland rebounder and ranked 2nd in block rate. This year, Lane should once again be a focal point of McConathy’s offense.
Lane and Old Man West were the only two players on the roster last season to notch an offensive rating over 100.0, so McConathy still has some glaring issues on offense. CJ Jones likely reassumes the starting point guard role after a terrible freshman season in which he posted just 39 assists to 48 turnovers. He can score the basketball, but Jones needs to be a better facilitator in year two – too much dribbling and poor shot selection helped derail the Demons’ offense in 2018-19.
Competing for starting spots in the backcourt next to Jones will be senior DeAndre Love, sophomore Vontay Ott, JUCO transfer LaTerrance Reed, and freshmen Brian White and Alex Comanita. Reed is the real intriguing player out of this group, a 6’1” guard that averaged nearly 18ppg last season in JUCO. His ability to score, shoot, and finish in traffic will be a much-needed boost for NSU. Love’s year was cut short after an ankle injury, but the 6’4” wing proved to be a reliable source of offense in limited action and he brought with him a reputation as a knockdown outside shooter when he came to NSU from JUCO. Comanita will provide more shooting, Ott will provide wing depth and hopefully post an O-rating higher than 65.0, and White is a potential floor leader down the road.
Joining Lane in the frontcourt will be a combination of senior Malik Metoyer, junior Brandon Hutton, sophomores Larry Owens and Darian Dixon, and freshman Dalin Williams. Metoyer is an all-around 3/4 tweener that can rebound, block shots, and shoot the three in a pinch. Hutton is an athletic presence on defense but doesn’t offer much offensively. Dixon and Owens are beasts on the offensive glass (Dixon is more offensively gifted than Owens) and should provide somewhat-sound interior resistance alongside Lane. Williams is a long forward that passed on several other DI offers to come to Natchitoches. JUCO transfer Chudier Bile will bolster the wing rotation after shooting 35.8% from beyond the arc on 81 attempts last season.
NSU’s defense wasn’t quite as pathetic as its offense in 2017-18, but it still wasn’t good. The Demons ranked 2nd in the Southland in block rate and should continue to be a fairly stout interior defensive team. McConathy mixes in zone in the half-court and his squad pressed at the 52nd highest rate in the country last year. The Demons will need to improve on a defensive rebounding rate that ranked 339th in the country in 2017-18.
Bottom Line: I gave NSU the benefit of the doubt last season with Jalan West returning and ranked them slightly higher than I probably should have. With no West and no signs of dramatic immediate improvement on either side of the ball, the Demons will likely continue to be a bottom feeder in the Southland in 2018-19.