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Stephen F. Austin Basketball

Breaking down the entire SLC Tournament field as festivities begin in Katy

March 7, 2018

The crown jewel event of the Southland Conference calendar year has arrived and sixteen teams — eight men's and eight women's — will collide over the next five days. Two will represent the league at the NCAA Tournaments.

In other words, as flawed as the system is, the culmination of months of regular season games (for those who cracked the top eight) is a reset, where anyone could theoretically escape with a title. To the credit of the Southland Conference, they have made the best of a nationwide issue of leagues failing to put their best foot forward, and the double-bye given to the top seeds has been highly effective in tilting the results in favor of the deserving.

But not always. Few are likely to forget the madness in the 2013 women's bracket, where two teams advanced to the title game without any bye at all — No. 6 seeded Northwestern State and No. 7 seeded Houston Baptist.

On the men's side, results have been more conventional. Since the double-bye bracket made its debut in the 2013 Southland Tournament (where No. 2 Northwestern State topped No. 1 Stephen F. Austin), no team has advanced to the NCAA Tournament without the automatic berth in the semifinals.

According to KenPom numbers, 2018 may be the first as, despite the task of playing an additional game, SFA is considered the favorite (albeit by a slim margin):

Without question, though, the race is wide open.

The biggest storylines of the week -

The already shorthanded No. 1 Southeastern Louisiana is down its leading scorer as the tournament begins. The Lions made some headlines entering the final week of the regular season when a pair of players were involved in an altercation involving non-students that left Jabbar Singleton in custody and James Currington with a gunshot wound. Without the two of them, who together started 51 games this season, SLU won a pair of big games against New Orleans and Nicholls State (more on them in a minute) to clinch the top seed.

But it got worse for the Lions as the week went on. Leading scorer Jordan Capps left the win over the Privateers with an abductor strain. He did not play against the Colonels and his status is in question for SLU's games in Katy. In that season finale, which the Lions managed a comfortable win over co-champion Nicholls, head coach Jay Ladner played just seven players. Absent was nearly 30 points of production from their conference opening win versus SFA.

Nicholls has their own injury problems and it's possible theirs is worse. The Colonels are significantly deeper than the Lions, but their conference title run was largely built on the back of Tevon Saddler. He's their second leading scorer with just shy of 16 points per game, best rebounder and opposing coaches have called him their best player. His season ended against Northwestern State with a major knee injury. 

In that game, Nicholls barely survived the one-win Demons, before falling to shorthanded Southeastern Louisiana to end the season. To say Nicholls backed into the postseason would be accurate and momentum is a big deal this time of year. They have the most talented roster, but they'll need to make plenty of adjustments to find the magic, again, that got them here without Saddler. There are non-basketball related reasons to think that may not happen.

New Orleans is also down a star player — the star of their team. I really thought for much of the year that New Orleans was absolutely as good as they were during their conference title run a year ago. They were missing some experience but they made up for it with improved athletic ability. Travin Thibodoux was the key to it all and he was the Privateers' best at almost everything — scoring with 16.3 (the only double-figures scorer on the team), assists (even as a forward, the offense essentially ran through him), and rebounds.

Rumors are aplenty but facts are not in this case and we'll be responsible by not pretending to know first-hand why Thibodeaux has been suspended. His status for the SLC Tournament is not clear — nothing about this entire situation is, in fact — but he missed the last three games of the season (all losses) and set up a very difficult path for New Orleans to repeat their NCAA Tournament run where they'll need to win four games in four days without a bye to get it done.

SFA needs Kevon Harris to return to form if they're going to match potential. The team in the title conversation with the least adversity was the one who finished third. The Lumberjacks got hot down the stretch and are mostly healthy as the tournament starts while also boasting the deepest rotation. Unfortunately, injuries got them too at different points, and their leading scorer for most of the season hasn't quite been the same since.

Sophomore Kevon Harris, who flew onto the scene as a mismatch guard-forward combo, who had a lethal three-point shot and prolific driving abilities, suffered a nerve injury in his leg that cost him some games in late January and early February. He's been back for awhile now, but his shot just hasn't fallen in that time. He's still averaging better than 15 points per game, but most of that came from production in the early part of the season and not lately. Shooters can find it again quickly, but SFA is running out of time if they want to be at their absolute best this week.

This is the best Southland Conference Tournament field in a long time. No, the Southland will never be a top-tier mid-major league in the RPI ranks. The teams who fund their operations with brutal non-conference schedules are a lead weight on the league's status and, in 2017-18, the bottom tier of the conference was really, really bad.

But up in the middle and top, this was the deepest group in a long time. Without the bottom-of-the-bottom teams in the field, this tournament boasts a pretty impressive average in the KenPom (by SLC standards, at least). Five teams in the top 200 on the last day of the regular season (Stephen F. Austin, Nicholls, Southeastern Louisiana, Lamar, Central Arkansas) and nearly a sixth (Sam Houston State at 213) eclipsed the previous high since 2009 when the league had a very different makeup. 

The top teams may not be as good as certain top teams of the last few years, but the tournament field is more consistently good, top-to-bottom, than at any point in the past decade.

Players who could take the whole thing over -

Any one of these players, regardless of their teammates and the adversity surrounding their seasons, are physically capable of willing their program to an NCAA Tournament. It's not to say they will, but they could all theoretically get hot enough to pull it off:

Marlain Veal (Southeastern Louisiana). For all Southeastern Louisiana has lost, the key to the whole thing remains. Veal is one of the best defensive guards in the mid-major ranks and he sees the court like few can. He'll play out of control from time to time, but when he's on, he'll elevate SLU well beyond what they should be as both a scorer and shot generator for his teammates.

Roddy Peters (Nicholls State). Off the court drama aside, Peters is the most physically talented player in the Southland Conference. He's Nicholls' leading scorer, despite coming off the bench frequently, and he can take over a game with a size and speed combination not often seen. His ability to make plays for teammates is underrated, but shouldn't be.

Shannon Bogues (Stephen F. Austin). He isn't a large figure, but his athleticism and speed is off the charts for Southland Conference basketball. He might be the fastest player to come through the league ranks in a long time, and lately, his jump shot has been fire too. After starting the season in a mega shooting slump, Bogues is averaging better than 50% from behind the arc over his last month. He comes off the bench but has recently passed Harris as the Lumberjacks' leading scorer. 

Jordan Howard (Central Arkansas). The Bears have a tough path to the conference final without a bye, but Howard is the definition of a player who can put an entire team on his shoulders. He's the best three-point shooter in league history, one of the best offensive players in all the mid-major ranks (maybe college basketball in general) and can elevate his team to beat just about anyone in the country on the right night. Unfortunately, he's it. Without Howard's A-game, Central Arkansas won't go far. But he could be the mastermind behind a legendary run in his final shot at Katy.

Every team ranked from best to worst chance of advancing to the NCAA Tournament -

1. Southeastern Louisiana. The Lions are the favorite but I may feel foolish for thinking that in a few days. They have a lot of adversity others do not, but they recently handled Nicholls and New Orleans and their slow place seems to be the kryptonite style of basketball for Stephen F. Austin. There is case to be made for SFA (I'll make it momentarily) but the old adage of "to be the best you have to beat the best" breaks the tie. There's a solid chance the tournament winner is decided on Friday, though.

2. Stephen F. Austin. The biggest obstacle for SFA, despite the relative health of their team compared to others at the top, is the extra game. They have to play the winner of Central Arkansas and Lamar, and both teams have beat the Lumberjacks during the regular season. It's the ultimate trap and it's far from a guarantee that SFA makes it to Friday. But if they do, the Lumberjacks win on paper, despite the lack of rest, just because of their depth. They're the league's best three-point shooting team and pair it with one of the better defenses. I firmly believe that if SFA escapes the quarterfinals, the championship will be decided in the semis.

3. Nicholls State. They're the co-champions, but they just didn't look it in their last two outings. Missing a star player will do that. Seconds after clinching a share of the title, pushing and shoving between the two teams (the first place team and the last place team — think about that for a minute) marred the event. A Northwestern State staffer was cussed out by an assistant coach, all while head coach Richie Riley yelled at officials. Again, this is the team who had, seconds before, won a title. There's just something off about this group. Together with their 0-3 record against SFA and SLU, I put their chances well below the two above.

4. Lamar. The Cardinals get the nod here because they play solid defense and that has proven in past years to be a winning formula in this tournament. After a successful non-conference season, Lamar had their hands full in the league slate and struggled against top teams (other than SFA, who they swept). Tic Price is one of the better coaches in the conference and Colton Weisbrod can be one of the best players on nights where his shot is falling. Lamar is the definition, despite having to play two extra games, of a team who can capitalize on the season reset that takes place in Katy.

5. Sam Houston State. Like Lamar, the Bearkats play defense. Unlike Lamar, they have a harder time scoring and showed their ceiling during the regular season while the Cardinals (I think) have more in the tank. Sam Houston State plays one less game in the tournament, but I just cannot be convinced they have much more to offer than what we've seen. They ended the season with two awful losses (at UCA and at home against SFA) and momentum does not favor them at this point.

6. Central Arkansas. Two words: Jordan Howard. With the league's player of the year, anything is possible. UCA doesn't play defense but they do offense better than anyone and Russ Pennell is an experience in-game manager who will maximize his team's potential in the postseason. They'll be overmatched from the get-go, but there's a measurable chance to get it done. If the Southland Conference men's tournament is going to go down like the women's did in the aforementioned 2013 edition, UCA would be my pick to run through the field.

7. New Orleans. They'd be way higher on this list with Thibodeaux. But there's no certainty he'll play for the Privateers again this season, and we're not counting on it here. UNO plays solid defense and one of the more advanced post-oriented offenses, but Travin is the key to both. There just isn't the firepower to keep up on this team without him.

8. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. One season after facing New Orleans in an overtime thriller for the title, the Islanders fell far without their best player Ehab Amin. The guard was expected to be one of the best players in the Southland but never appeared in a game after a preseason injury. Willis Wilson is one of the top coaches and they'll make sure New Orleans gets their best shot, but they aren't playing with confidence and are probably the first team to be bounced from the field.

Breaking down the entire SLC Tournament field as festivities begin in Katy

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Good stuff!
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Thanks for the breakdown Isaac!
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Awsome write Isaac..
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Great information, well written. Agree about Kevon. Watching his body language, I think most of what is going on is confidence in his outside shot. Often, he hangs his head when he misses. Bogues has gone through a bit of a slump also. If either of them come out Thursday and hit their first couple of shots, look out.
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