1. Sam Houston St.
2. Stephen F. Austin
3. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
4. Houston Baptist
5. McNeese St.
6. Northwestern St.
7. Central Arkansas
8. Abilene Christian
9. Southeastern Louisiana
10. New Orleans
11. Nicholls St.
12. Incarnate Word
All Conference Awards
POY: Jalan West, R Sr., Northwestern St. (Honorary)
Actual POY: Rashawn Thomas, Sr., Texas A&M-CC
Coach of the Year: Jason Hooten, Sam Houston St.
Newcomer of the Year: Colton Weisbrod, Jr., Lamar
Freshman of the Year: York Benjamin, Texas A&M-CC
1. Sam Houston St.
Key Returners: Jamal Williams, Dakarai Henderson, Jovante‘ Spivey, Albert Almanza, Aurimas Majauskas, Torry Butler, Paul Baxter, Ameer Jackson, Josh Delaney
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Cam Delaney, Philip Jones
Postseason Projection: 15 seed
Everyone thinks of Sam Houston for his role in bringing Texas into the United States, but DID YOU KNOW that he was also the 7th governor of Tennessee? That’s right, he’s the only American ever to be elected governor of two different states. Impressive versatility right there, folks.
How does that tie into this year’s hoops squad? It doesn’t! But the Bearkats (yes, with a “k”) bring back a ton of talent from last year’s 12-6 Southland finisher, including all five starters and two key role players. Additionally, Paul Baxter is back from injury, and the team adds two transfers who should help provide great depth. Coupled with all of the departures at SFA, this looks like the year for Sammy Houston to wrestle away Southland supremacy.
Contrary to many of its backcourt-centric opponents, SHSU’s offense centers around big man Aurimas Majauskas, an excellent interior scorer whose combination of size and craftiness earns him a plethora of free throws. The only thing that holds him back is his own foul trouble - if he can stay on the court more this year (only played 23.8 minutes per game last year), he’ll be a major problem for opponents.
Around Majauskas, the Bearkats have a very fluid motion offense, which led to the second-best offensive efficiency in the league last year. Coach Jason Hooten’s system always allows for great ball movement, and with the return of Baxter at point guard as well as big guard Jamal Williams (who played PG last year in Baxter’s stead), SHSU will constantly have two great distributors on the floor. Jovante’ Spivey is an excellent driver who should shift to a sixth man role this year, giving Hooten yet another solid passing option to weave into the offense. Finally, brothers Josh and Cam Delaney (Cam just transferred from Denver) are both good passers as well, with Josh bringing value as a three-point shooter and Cam being more of an athletic rebounder/driver.
Hooten teams play more slowly than the standard SLC breakneck pace, instead choosing to eschew the offensive glass to have stout transition defense (really a novel concept in this league). They play a very solid man-to-man in the half-court, completely locking down the defensive glass (top 5 rate in the entire country), although the emphasis on the interior allows teams to light them up from the perimeter at times. That’s not a bad strategy in a league that lacks shooting, though. Williams is a good rebounder for a guard, Majauskas takes care of business, and four-men Torry Butler and Albert Almanza really push the ‘Kats over the edge on the defensive glass. Almanza also showed last year that he’ll be an effective stretch four going forward, which is huge to provide Majauskas more space to work inside.
The Bearkats might actually have the most talent in the league this year, and with a coach who consistently has them in the top 3 of the league, this could be the year Hooten breaks through and earns his first NCAA Tournament bid.
2. Stephen F. Austin
Key Returners: Dallas Cameron, Ty Charles, TJ Holyfield
Key Losses: Thomas Walkup, Demetrious Floyd, Clide Geffrard, Jared Johnson, Trey Pinkney
Key Newcomers: Leon Gilmore, Ivan Canete, Aaron Augustin
Postseason Projection: NIT
Few teams in the country have to deal with as much change as the Lumberjacks of SFA this year. Without Thomas Walkup and coach Brad Underwood (among several other significant player departures), new coach Kyle Keller will need to re-tool the attack around the couple returning studs and a large class of newcomers.
Last season saw the Jacks finish an astounding 130 places higher than the second-ranked Southland team on KenPom.com, as they had (by a large margin) the best offense AND defense in the league. Interestingly, their philosophies on each end contrasted each other. On O, they were very patient, working the ball around the perimeter and driving gaps with a “position-less” attack featuring a wealth of shooting and ball-handlers - they ranked 4th nationally in assist rate. However, on defense, they wanted to speed opponents up like crazy; they led the entire country in turnover rate forced (they out-pressed Press Virginia, for Pete’s sake). All of that efficiency on both ends would have to fall off drastically to see the pack catch up with them, but with the wholesale changes going on, it’s possible…
Coach Keller will bank on the stalwart returning trio of Ty Charles, TJ Holyfield, and Dallas Cameron to carry the standard for the winning tradition into SFA’s new era. Charles is a strong representation of Underwood’s style, a bigger guard that can shoot a little, handle the ball, trap, and be useful on the offensive glass. He likely becomes the team’s alpha this year without Walkup around. Holyfield was about as close to a conventional big man as Underwood played (CJ Williams was in and out of the rotation). He was the conference’s #3 shot-blocker by rate, but he could still shoot a bit (40% from three) and was very comfortable putting the ball down and attacking more sluggish opponents. He’ll likely blossom as a sophomore with increased playing time and usage. Cameron is the lone returnee to log any minutes at the 1 or 2 last year - he rarely shot the ball (mostly because he’s just not good at it), but he’ll be relied on as a ball-handler with so many of them moving on.
Keller is a longtime assistant, coaching under legends Eddie Sutton, Bill Self, and Billy Kennedy (ok, 2 of the 3 are legends) for years. While his past teams didn’t play with the same pressure on both ends as SFA has, Keller definitely values skill level at all positions, meaning Charles and Holyfield should fit in nicely.
The rest of the rotation will be made up of last year’s bit players and some talented newcomers. Nathan Bain and gigantic Jovan Grujic barely cracked the rotation last year, but Keller will need something out of them this season. Bain is very promising as a versatile Bahamian swing forward.
Freshman floor general Aaron Augustin isn’t much of a scorer, but he makes his teammates better and he should fit well alongside the other scoring options. Ivan Canete was a key piece of one of the better JUCO programs in the country last year as a perimeter gunner, while Leon Gilmore did him one better - he averaged 11 and 7 for the #1 overall seed in the NJCAA Tournament. Gilmore, who originally signed with Creighton, is an athletic forward who should fit well next to Holyfield up front.
After years with a devastating perimeter, it looks like the Jacks’ strength will be the frontcourt. It’s up to new guy Keller to figure out how best to make that talent work in the up-and-down Southland.
3. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Key Returners: Rashawn Thomas, Ehab Amin, Joe Kilgore
Key Losses: Bryce Douvier, Hameed Ali, Brandon Pye, Jelani Currie
Key Newcomers: Jamell Bradley, Kyle Brown, Kareem South, Elijah Schmidt
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
In a league dominated by quick guards and transition offenses, Rashawn Thomas is the outlaw cowboy who continues to dominate with his power, footwork, and interior play. Anchoring the last of what has become the conference’s “Big Three” (they’ve been the top three finishers all three years since the conference expanded in 2013-14), Thomas is the POY favorite and could flirt with a 20 points-10 rebounds-2.5 blocks season. The Islanders will need to find a running mate up front for Thomas to replace the departed Bryce Douvier in their system that favors versatile bigs, and I think they’ve found one in true freshman York Benjamin.
Benjamin is a super bouncy post whose length next to Thomas should make the Islanders’ interior defense a serious pain to score against. Having a ton of rim protection should allow steal king Ehab Amin to gamble like crazy on the perimeter, and bringing the ball up against that Egyptian ballhawk will be a nightmare. Coach Willis Wilson’s system thrives on turnovers defensively, and though Amin’s partner in crime Hameed Ali is gone, that won’t stop Corpus Christi from contending for the league lead in thefts, as redshirt freshman Kyle Brown is a menace in his own right. A common result for steals-oriented teams is to foul a ton, though, and Wilson’s crew is no different - fouls were Thomas’s biggest downfall, often limiting his minutes. Benjamin’s presence (along with fellow freshmen Perry Francois, Alex Holcombe, and Elijah Schmidt) should allow Thomas to avoid having to be the primary shot-blocker all the time, hopefully cutting down his fouls.
Offensively, the guards will need to take advantage of all the attention that Thomas will draw, and Amin’s 37% shooting from deep is a nice start for that. Joe Kilgore is more of a driver and will need to drive on closeouts, so the rest of the shooting will need to come from redshirt freshman Kareem South or little-used seniors Cole Martinez, Emmanuel Toney, or Jake Kocher (Martinez is the best bet). Overall, though, shooting will be a problem for this team.
Another area in which the glut of freshman bigs will help is giving Thomas the chance to step away from the basket at times. He’s skilled enough to put the ball on the floor against opposing bigs, and even if opponents try putting someone quicker on him at times, he has the footwork and strength to score on just about any Southland defender. I worry about turnovers there, though, as opposing guards who don’t have to worry about their man shooting will dig fearlessly when Thomas puts the ball on the floor (especially in the steal-crazed SLC).
Corpus Christi is still probably in a tier above the rest of the league, but I think they lag behind SHSU and SFA this year. Thomas could carry them to greater heights as a senior star, but the perimeter talent here outside of Amin and Kilgore isn’t quite enough to win a league title.
4. Houston Baptist
Key Returners: Colter Lasher, Josh Ibarra, Reveal Chukwujekwu, Asa Cantwell
Key Losses: Anthony Odunsi, Jourdan Stickler, Caleb Crayton
Key Newcomers: Atif Russell, Jalen Weber, Jalon Gates
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT/Vegas 16
It’s rare to find a player so perfectly emblematic of how his team played as Anthony Odunsi last year, a 6’4 power guard who was a one-man free throw parade but struggled at times defensively. Odunsi took a dumbfounding 291 free throw last year (nearly 10 per game!), and Houston Baptist’s offense revolved around his ability to penetrate and be a terror in transition.
Without Odunsi around, the roles will shift a lot among the other significant returnees. Expect Reveal Chukwujekwu to have a bit of a breakout as a senior, an athletic driver who shoots it well enough to be a threat. Unless the newcomers seize the lead guard role, Asa Cantwell probably will be forced to play some point guard at times despite being more of a wing gunner, and scoring forward Colter Lasher will see a continued boost in his usage with so many more shots available. Finally, Josh Ibarra becomes a crucial player, one that gives the Huskies a post presence that few SLC teams can match. He’s a strong finisher and a decent shot-blocker, and if he can stay on the floor (fouls and injuries), he’ll be a major weapon on the interior.
The most intriguing newcomer is Braxton Bonds, who has been all over the map in two years - he signed with Liberty, then enrolled and redshirted at Tennessee, then put up a highly impressive stat line in junior college last year. If Bonds buys into coach Ron Cottrell’s system, he might be the most talented player on the roster, and he could do wonders for solving their potential point guard problems. HouBap turned the ball over at an alarming rate last year (12th in the conference), and if Bonds can prove to be a trustworthy primary ball-handler, the offense has a lot of potential
Pepperdine grad transfer Atif Russell is yet another scoring option in the backcourt for the Huskies; he was effective if bashful for the waves, but expect him to pull the trigger with more frequency in his final season as he steps down in competition. Former Marquette guard William Gates, Sr., of Hoop Dreams fame was nice enough to supply this team with guard depth between his two sons, the older Will Gates, Jr., and freshman younger brother Jalon Gates.
Defensively, Cottrell actually favors a more conservative approach, foregoing the normally turnover-crazed strategy of the league for a foul-averse scheme that mixes in plenty of zone. The zone should help Ibarra stay out of foul trouble and own the paint (can’t be pulled away from the rim by quicker bigs), although the team’s defensive rebounding likely will continue to be poor out of the zone.
HBU played a very difficult SLC schedule last year, including playing all of the top three 2x each (went 1-5). That means they dominated the rest of the league (9-3), and with the talent on the roster again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them scratching at those three again this year.
5. McNeese St.
Key Returners: Jamaya Burr, Jarren Greenwood, James Harvey, Stephen Ugochukwu, Lance Potier
Key Losses: Craig McFerrin
Key Newcomers: Kalob Ledoux, Jacob Ledoux, Richard Laku, Fred Haywood
Postseason Projection: CIT/Vegas 16
Let me tell you something, folks - I’ve had the privilege of spending two weeks in lovely Lake Charles, LA, for actual work (I’ll happily go there if someone hires me as a writer!!), and it’s fairly bleak. They do have a pretty legitimate Golden Nugget Casino, but unfortunately I was banished to the lesser Isle of Capri instead. I drove through McNeese’s campus once (just because), and I could see the roots of a Southland POWERHOUSE taking hold - alright, perhaps not, but this team is pretty decent this year!
(Quietly) McNeese might have the best backcourt in the league… That’s right! Sam Houston and Central Arkansas are definitely contenders here too, but with the classic freshman-to-sophomore leap for James Harvey and Jarren Greenwood, Dave Simmons’s squad has a great pair of wings to go with ironman PG Jamaya Burr. Burr played 91.6% of the team’s minutes during league play last year (2nd in the conference), and his aggressive, attacking style of play got him plenty of free throws and points at the rim.
The biggest problem, in fact, is probably the team’s penchant for playing my-turn, your-turn iso ball on the perimeter between the three talented guards. The Cowboys had one of the lowest assist rates in the country last year despite Burr’s decent passing, and the ball movement will need to improve for McNeese to make the leap I think they can. Harvey and Greenwood in particular were prone to just firing contested threes when they got sick of playing offense, and that contributed to their identical blah 34% conversion rates from outside.
Inside, graduated centers Craig McFerrin and Austin Lewis kept this team afloat on the glass, meaning Stephen Ugochukwu (Ugochukwu!!) will both to step up in their absence. He’s a load on the offensive end, but his defensive rebounding needs to improve in bigger minutes. Big wing Lance Potier will log some minutes at the four, which may not be a great sign for the Cowboys’ glasswork and interior defense. JUCO transfer LaBarrius Hill, who almost went to Louisiana Tech this year instead, will be a key inside as well - he can block shots, run, and rebound, all of which are needed in Lake Charles. Hill’s burly JUCO teammate Howard Thomas will also need to help reinforce the rebounding.
The biggest additions from the high school ranks are twins Kalob Ledoux and Jacob Ledoux, scoring guards from nearby Port Barre, Louisiana. I like their talent, but they had to fill it up in Louisiana’s smallest high school division, and I worry about integrating them into the already-stagnant and shot-happy McNeese offense.
Playing a rare (in the SLC) conservative style defensively, McNeese was kind of a pushover on that end, and Hill + continuity will need to boost them on that end for a fourth-place finish to actually happen. I’m bullish on their chances, though they won’t touch the top 3.
6. Northwestern St.
Key Returners: Zeek Woodley, Sabri Thompson, Ishmael Lane, Devonte Hall
Key Losses: Ta’Jon Welcome, Matt Killian
Key Newcomers: Tanner Hamilton, Tyree Thompson
Postseason Projection: None
Writing about the Demons is a depressing endeavor. For two straight years, they’ve looked like a major small-conference power, featuring a mid-major mega-stud in Jalan West at point guard. But for two straight years, the college basketball gods have conspired to steal that joy from the world, seizing West’s ACL and ruthlessly tearing it (and tearing up my heart along with it). West deserved to play with this team - senior running mates Sabri Thompson, Zeek Woodley, and Tra’Von Joseph all thrive with the prolific West running the show, but alas, they’ll have to do it without him again this year.
The offense is still going to be very good - they bring back 4.5 starters (Joseph mostly counts) from the #6 unit in the league, with Devonte Hall having done an underrated job stepping into West’s role as maestro of Mike McConathy’s high-octane attack. The Demons played at the 7th-fastest pace in the country last year, and the point guard in this system plays a vital role in getting the team jetting up the court. Hall is a great passer (#8 assist rate nationally), gets to the line, and generally does a solid job with the ball in his hands, but West’s elite shooting (44% from 3 at a high volume, frequently off the dribble) is the biggest irreplaceable element.
Hall will have plenty of weapons to dish to, led by Woodley, one of college hoops’ best and most efficient scorers. Woodley has had an O-rating over 120 (read: excellent) all three years, fueled by his devastating transition scoring, and he’s improved from the three-point line every year so far. He never turns the ball over, gets free points at the line, and plays a ton of minutes. The guy simply breathes buckets. Thompson is like a Woodley Lite - he brings a similar offensive game, just not quite as otherworldly efficient. And Ishmael Lane, a 6’8, 250-lb. sophomore big who surprisingly fit in quite well to the up-and-down system, is an excellent finisher running paint-to-paint. The front line also offers promising options in redshirt freshman center Colby Koontz and long, thin redshirt sophomore wing Reginald Kissoonlal - I expect one of the two (or both) to make a real impact this year.
Unfortunately, Lane (and the rest of the Demons) don’t actually put up much of a fight on the defensive side of things. In their competitive 2014-15 campaign, they barely kept their heads above water on that end (10th in the SLC), but they sank into the abyss last year with a comfortable last place finish. What changed? You can’t blame it on Hall, as his quick hands keyed the only strong part of the defense (forcing turnovers). Instead, McConathy’s system is mostly to blame - NW State just doesn’t compete physically on the interior, as evidenced by their last-place finish in both defensive rebounding rate and 2-point defense. They’re constantly gambling and looking to leak out into the break, leaving the back end terrifyingly exposed to easy lay-ups and put-backs. A “strength” of the defense was not fouling, but if you’re not even going to compete in the lane, is that really a good thing?
The Demons should still be better this year - they know how to play without West, and the team’s plethora of scorers are going to fill it up. The defensive scheme just seems destined to hold them back, despite the best efforts of this impressive senior class. Get well soon, Jalan.
7. Central Arkansas
Key Returners: Jordan Howard, Derreck Brooks, Mathieu Kamba, Jeff Lowery
Key Losses: Justin Foreman, Jake Zuilhof
Key Newcomers: Darraja Parnell
Postseason Projection: None
Fun facts! UCA’s colors are purple and black (lots of purple bears out there in the wilderness), and the school is located in Conway, AR. I assume that’s somewhere...central? (Editor’s note: it is)
Central Arkansas is a team of burly post players who love to slow down and grind the game to a halt. Ha, just kidding! Like basically every other Southland team, the Bears play at a breakneck place, putting a plethora of ball-handlers on the floor and focusing on barreling towards the rim whenever humanly possible, whether it be via transition, drive, or offensive rebounds.
The biggest difference for coach Russ Pennell’s team is that they’re led by possibly the best guard in the league (now that Thomas Walkup is gone), a scoring machine in Jordan Howard. Howard almost single-handedly made Central Arky a prolific three-point shooting offense - Howard hit an absurd 95/222 (43%) from deep, while the rest of the team combined managed a paltry 90/275 (33%). That’s not all, though - Howard barely turned it over relative to his gigantic usage, and he shot a pristine 88% at the line while getting there an impressive 137 times. Basically, Howard is the platonic ideal of what this league wants in a player (aside from not having lightning hands defensively).
The offense around Howard isn’t too shabby, either - Derreck Brooks is a versatile wing who can get a rebound and go the length of the floor, and he was responsible for almost half of those previously mentioned 90 three-point makes. Mathieu Kamba is an athletic ‘tweener forward who will cause a lot of matchup problems as he plays more of an undersized four role at times this year. Jeff Lowery is an inefficient scorer, but he’s a good passer who gives Howard the chance to move off the ball and flex his considerable wing scoring talent, which makes Lowery’s presence valuable despite his non-existent shooting. Kamba, Brooks, and returning Swedish big man Albert Christensson keyed the Bears’ impressive offensive rebounding attack, though the departed Jake Zuilhof will be extremely difficult to replace for his thankless yeoman’s work in the paint on both ends of the floor. A last name to watch is redshirt sophomore Thatch Unruh, who sat out last year after a promising 2014-15. He should provide some badly needed floor-spacing, and his defense will be better after a year of bulking up.
Lowery and Brooks are also probably the team’s “best” returning defenders, which actually doesn’t say a ton for a team that finished 12th of 13 in the SLC in adjusted defensive efficiency. They played a more conservative style than many of the pressure-oriented SLC teams (not hunting for turnovers), but due to the aforementioned offensive rebounding and focus on the rim, they get annihilated in transition defense. They mixed in a lot of zone looks (nearly 50% of the time) to at least give opponents different looks, usually an amoeba-type matchup 3-2, but it just didn’t make much of a difference.
Howard could be the POY if UCA (not the cheerleading organization) moves up the standings some, but as it stands with no floor spacing around him and little defensive resistance, the Bears may still be fighting to qualify for the 8-team SLC post-season tournament.
8. Abilene Christian
Key Returners: Jaylen Franklin, Jaren Lewis, Jovan Crnic
Key Losses: Parker Wentz, Duran Porter, Austin Cooke, Jalen Little
Key Newcomers: Trey Lenox, Jalone Friday, BJ Maxwell
Postseason Projection: None (ineligible)
The first school in the NCAA alphabet!! For a team in its third year in D1 last year (still in transition this year), the Wildcats (pretty disappointing generic name) were extremely competitive. An 8-10 finish despite playing the conference’s #3 schedule (per KenPom) is definitely progress under coach Joe Golding, and with two highly promising sophomores back to lead the attack, more is expected this year.
Jaylen Franklin is the linchpin on both ends, leading the conference in percentage of shots taken despite being a freshman and spearheading the team’s extended, pressure defensive scheme. His passing and ability to draw fouls were highly encouraging, and he’ll likely make at least one or two first-team all conference teams during his time in Abilene. The next step for him is developing his shooting stroke - he only hit 6 threes and shot 62% from the free throw line. He’s complemented well up front by undersized four man Jaren Lewis, whose conference-best defensive rebounding rate led the Wildcats to a #2 conference finish in that stat. Like many other SLC teams, though, the Wildcats completely lack any interior defense, and Lewis will need help from another sophomore, Hayden Howell, to really challenge opponents at the rim.
Spacing offensively is also a MAJOR concern. No returning player made more than 30 threes (skilled big wing Jovan Crnic), and an increase in volume for Lewis (41%) and more playing time for shooter Isaiah Tripp look to be the biggest modes for improvement. There are options in freshmen guards Payten Ricks, Trey Lenox, and BJ Maxwell and JUCO newcomer Diamante Langston (who hails from powerhouse South Plains), though none are touted as lights-out shooters.
On the other hand, defensively, Abilene wants to run opponents off the three-point line. In a league without a ton of shooting, and for a team that has very little inside presence to speak of, I’m not sure that’s the wisest move, as it often led to Howell and Hayden Farquhar getting into foul trouble. Golding’s first two D1 Abilene teams didn’t focus so much on that strategy, but the decrease in long rebounds allowed his team to control the defensive glass, so perhaps it’s ultimately a smart move. He’ll also hope to improve the team’s transition defense, as that was another reason for ACU’s 12th-ranked 2-point defense.
While the Christian ‘Cats will be a very young team in 2016-17, the should hover in a similar area in the standings as last year. Finding out who the key long-term pieces are from the freshmen should be a primary goal as Golding builds the roster around Franklin and Lewis.
9. Southeastern Louisiana
Key Returners: Marlain Veal, Joshua Filmore, Dimi Cook, Jordan Capps, Keith Charleston, Mo Greenwood
Key Losses: Mike Hawkins, Zay Jackson,
Key Newcomers: Chris Mejia, Michael Corchiani
Postseason Projection: None
Southeastern Louisiana is located in Hammond, Louisiana. I have to take issue with that name, mainly because Hammond is an hour drive northwest from New Orleans...New Orleans is in Southeastern Louisiana. If you divided Louisiana into 4 parts, sure, Hammond would be in the southeast quadrant, when two D1 programs are more “southeast Louisiana” than you, your name is a misnomer!
Oh, you wanted to read about the actual team? Well, the Lions have the best front-court in the conference outside of the top 3, featuring two former Northwest Florida State JUCO transfers Jordan Capps and Keith Charleston along with sophomore Mo Greenwood and mammoth senior Dominic Nelson. Capps is the star - he started slow, not getting a ton of playing time early in the year, but he came on like a freight train late, averaging 13.9ppg and 10.2rpg over the season’s final 12 games in February and March. He’ll be one of the best rebounders in the league, and he’ll have plenty of help from the now-healthy Charleston (only managed 10 games last year before something called a necrotic hematoma caused him to miss the year). His return likely relegates Greenwood and Nelson to the bench, but Nelson’s size will be useful at times and Greenwood should enjoy one more year of being a complementary piece before being the team’s go-to post player in 2017-18.
I’m concerned about the Lions’ shooting - graduation loses Zay Jackson and Mike Hawkins were two key shooters, and although Joshua Filmore is still on campus, he’ll miss the year with a torn ACL suffered in the spring. That’s the team’s three best shooters all gone, so big leaps will be needed from Dimi Cook and Marlain Veal in that department, and JUCO guards Eddy Polanco and Davon Hayes will need to contribute right away. Polanco may also need to take over some ball-handling duties, as Ladner likes to have two point guard-esque players on the floor at a time. Look for Oral Roberts transfer Jab Singleton to push for minutes in that role too, as his powerful, compact frame should excel in transition and allow the team’s unproven shooters to try to find a rhythm from the wing.
Coach Jay Ladner will need Capps and his cohorts to help shore up the team’s leaky defensive rebounding from last season, but the Lions’ were hurt most in that area by guards mostly refusing to participate. Like many of its opponents, SELA is constantly looking to play a transition-based game, and defensive rebounding is often compromised by guards taking off towards the offensive end. Capps, Greenwood, and Nelson all showed flashes of being bothersome around the rim, but the Lions’ 2-point defense still was pretty poor, something Ladner hopes can be fixed through a year of development and better help defense.
There’s certainly a lot to like here in the frontcourt, but the backcourt’s lack of shooting and length is a serious concern. SELA played well down the stretch last year once most of its pieces were healthy and on the court, but I fear Capps & Co. will struggle more without any sort of spacing around them. Ladner’s squad will battle to equal the 9-9 record of last year’s team.
10. New Orleans
Key Returners: Nate Frye, Christavious Gill, Tevin Broyles, Erik Thomas, Travin Thibodeaux, Michael Zeno, Cameron Reed
Key Losses: Kevin Hill
Key Newcomers: Makur Puou, Reggie Jones
Postseason Projection: None
I think I’m just going to take this section to talk about how much love I have for the city of New Orleans. Now granted, I’ve only been there for two long-weekend bachelor parties, but the food and atmosphere is a never-fail good time. Plus, there’s a casino next door to Bourbon Street…
I digress. New Orleans, the basketball team, is basically the Southland Conference epitomized - small, guard-based (but little to no shooting), athletic; the offense revolves around the rim and the defense revolves around turnovers/pressure. Christavious Gill is the walking embodiment, a 5’8 combo guard who attacks the rim with abandon and is a complete menace defensively for opposing ball-handlers with his quick feet and hands. On most teams, Gill would be permanently considered the PG, but Nate Frye proved to be the better passer, as Gill was often much more focused on shooting the pumpkin.
Along with Gill and Frye drives, the Privateers got an awful lot of offense from assaulting the offensive glass, and that will continue with the returning frontline of Michael Zeno (a bouncy, high-usage athlete who is also a monster in the team’s pressure defense), Erik Thomas (the most skilled of the group), and Travin Thibodeaux (the biggest of the frontcourt at 6’8, 245, but also a very useful defender in his own right). They didn’t do it much, but with the versatility of Thomas and Zeno, I wouldn’t mind seeing them try to play all three guys at once and simply overwhelm SLC opponents on the offensive glass. As it stands, I expect Cameron Reed to start as a swingman due to his shooting and developing offensive game, while Tevin Broyles also offers plenty of experience on the wing as well.
A symptom of their relentless driving and rebounding is that free throws are a giant part of the Privateer offense - coach Mark Slessinger’s teams have been in the top 31 in the country for 3 consecutive years (although last year, 31st nationally meant only 4th in the SLC because this league is kinda batshit crazy). With four players who took 87 or more free throws last year, expect that to continue.
Defensively, although they want to speed you up and force turnovers, their pressure doesn’t extend to full-court all that often (9.1% of the time, far less than the national leaders at 30+%). Instead, they play get-up-in-your-shorts man-to-man, seemingly content to get beat off the bounce if it means they get some extra steals every now and again. Gill, Frye, and Broyles can all cause issues, and as mentioned, their big guys are no slouches athletically either. If you can’t handle their ball pressure, you’re in trouble, because they’ll turn those steals into points off turnovers in a flash.
Differentiating between some of these transition/rim-attacking/pressure teams is tough at times, but I do like New Orleans in the middle of the pack due to the athleticism of their wings/front line - come on Coach Slessinger, unleash the three-headed rebound monster!
11. Nicholls State
Key Returners: Liam Thomas, Ja’Dante‘ Frye, Johnathan Bell, Luka Kamber
Key Losses: TJ Carpenter, Shane Rillieux
Key Newcomers: DeAndre Harris, Jahvaughn Powell, Dazhonetae Bennett, Kamall Richards, Lafayette Rutledge
Postseason Projection: None
Nicholls was just picked last in both the media and coaches preseason poll, and I’m having a hard time figuring out why. While the Colonels’ defense wasn’t “good” by any means, it was ranked 4th in the conference, using a harassing perimeter and backbone Liam Thomas to negate opponents inside. Thomas is a beast; a relatively agile 7-footer, he led the SLC in block % and took advantage of his size to be one of the best finishers in the conference as well.
Thomas is the heart of the Colonels defense - they extend out on the perimeter, pressuring opposing ball-handlers and running them off the three-point line with the knowledge that Thomas’s size and shot-blocking will cover for them on the back end. In spite of his presence, they’re horrendous on the defensive glass; Thomas himself is not good at all for his height, and the rest of the team’s penchant for leaking out on the break often leaves them exposed. Four man Adam Ward somehow blends the disappointing combo of no shooting + blah defensive rebounding, although he does help Nicholls attack the offensive glass. Luka Kamber, purely a stretch four (though he shot terribly last year), may nip Ward for minutes.
The team’s main scorers are on the perimeter (naturally), with wings Johnathan Bell, Ja’Dante’ Frye, and North Texas transfer DeAndre Harris providing a prolific combination of shooting and slashing. Frye is probably the best offensive player on the team, fitting perfectly into the team’s style of attacking the rim and assaulting the transition game. Harris was worryingly inefficient in the C-USA, but with the step down in competition and coach JP Piper’s style, he should thrive at Nicholls.
Four newcomers should have massive impacts this year: Stevie Repichowski from Tulsa (mostly a standstill shooter), JUCO transfer Jahvaughn Powell (potentially the team’s starting PG, though he doesn’t excel in that passing role), Tre O’Neal (mentored by Chauncey Billups), and Kamall Richards from JUCO (via Xavier). Richards in particular should slide perfectly into the Colonels’ rotation, and his high-level athleticism will put a lot of pressure on opponents on both ends.
The Colonels have gigantic impact transfers Roddy Peters and Tevon Saddler sitting the year out, so 2016-17 should be about finding who belongs in the team’s rotation long term. Both Peters and Saddler will be POY candidates next year, so Piper should be pretty comfortable in his job this season. I don’t expect a major jump up the standings, but I would definitely be surprised if the Colonels were the Southland’s worst team, like the preseason polls predict, especially because of Thomas and the defense.
12. Incarnate Word
Key Returners: Shawn Johnson, Sam Burmeister, Simi Socks
Key Losses: Kyle Hittle, Jontrell Walker, Derail Green, Mitchell Badillo
Key Newcomers: Jalin Hart, Christian Peevy, Rade Kukobat
Postseason Projection: None
Incarnate Word might be in some trouble this year. The Cardinals managed a 12-6 conference record last year, only losing twice to the non-top-3 (SFA, SHSU, TAM-CC), and this year looked relatively bright with Derail Green and Jontrell Walker back to anchor the squad. But then both of those stars up-transferred (Walker to Ball St. in the MAC, Green to North Texas in C-USA), and suddenly coach Ken Burmeister was left to scramble a bit to round this team into form.
Incarnate Word, like many other teams in the SLC, is better offensively than it is defensively. Shawn Johnson is a very good returning shooter (plus the team’s best defensive rebounder by a wide margin), and coach’s son Sam Burmeister should bounce back this year after a hideous 2015-16 in which he was hindered by injuries (42% from deep in 2014-15, 21% in 2015-16). Recovering to his normal self would be huge for UIW’s floor spacing. Sophomore PG Tyler Singleton was decent as a freshman (despite poor shooting numbers), though his job is threatened by newcomers.
New Mexico Junior College may provide UIW with two starters this year - smooth-passing PG Jalin Hart and defensive force Devin Wyatt. Hart will facilitate the team’s patient offense (they were actually the slowest team, tempo-wise, in SLC play), and his quick first step should get him a couple lay-ups at the rim every game. Wyatt is basically a defensive specialist - he doesn’t have much of an offensive game, but he can rebound, block shots, and switch onto smaller players due to his athleticism, making him an invaluable piece in the Cardinals’ offense. A major intriguing option is freshman Christian Peevy, a smart and athletic combo forward from Chicago who should rotate in with Johnson and Burmeister on the wing. While he’s not a pure scorer, he’s too ready for the SLC to not contribute.
The Cardinals won’t even glance at the offensive glass - last in the league, 337th in the country - instead focusing on getting back in transition and forcing opponents to score in the half-court. In an incredibly transition-reliant league, I like this strategy a lot, as it forces other teams’ weak-shooting guards to bulldoze inside and face the rim protection of Jerred Kite and Wyatt. Kite is a 6’11 option who started his career at Texas A&M-CC (there’s a lot of Southland in-breeding), though he was by no means a standout option there, and Wyatt averaged an insane 3.2 blocks per game in only 17 minutes in JUCO. If the guards can properly funnel opponents to those two monsters, the Cardinals’ defense should pick up this year.
With no real go-to scorer returning, UIW could have a minor power struggle on its hands. Johnson is the best player, though he never created much for others, while Singleton did his best to get his teammates set up in good places. Coach Burmeister needs to make sure player Burmeister and company continue to share the ball like they did last year (3rd in the conference in assist rate) to try to remain competitive. Ultimately, I just think they lost too much with graduation and transfers to stay relevant this year.
Key Returners: Nick Garth, Marcus Owens, Preston Mattingly, Josh Nzeakor, Lincoln Davis, Dorian Chatman
Key Losses: Kevin Booze, Dontavious Sears, Quan Jones
Key Newcomers: Colton Weisbrod, Tyrin Atwood, Joseph Frenchwood IV
Postseason Projection: None
What better way to end the Southland than with a team that plays super fast, attacks the rim with the drive and on the offensive glass, and plays little defense if they can’t force a turnover! Lamar was the worst version of that team last year, though - they totaled 11 wins, but 4 of them were against non-D1 teams and the highest-ranked KenPom team they beat was #270, Idaho St., at home. They also lose one of the country’s best passers in Kevin Booze to transfer, making improvement an even taller task.
Hope for that improvement lies in the team’s promising sophomore class and in its newcomers, led by first team NJCAA All-American Colton Weisbrod. Weisbrod is a born scorer who started his career within the Southland at New Orleans before going the JUCO route. He walks onto the court as Lamar’s best player, and he will definitely factor into the Newcomer of the Year race. He’s a big guard/forward that likes to use his frame to bully smaller players inside, and he has a knack for finishing. The Southland is the right league for him due to its pace and lack of size.
Around him will be a supporting cast that generally disappointed last year. The aforementioned promising sophomore class features Nick Garth, who will be pressed into full-time PG duties with no Booze around (what a terrifying world that must be!). Garth was actually quite good for a freshman, though it helped that Booze took a significant amount of the ball-handling. He’ll be the primary/only shooter, as only complementary guard Marcus Owens resembles another returning threat from deep. Two other names to watch: JUCO transfer Joey Frenchwood IV, a shooting point guard with a 50-year old man’s hairline, and freshman wing Tyrin Atwood, a big, versatile guard who should fit in well to the team’s style of play.
Frontcourt threats Dorian Chatman and Josh Nzeakor are the other impressive sophs, and their games complement each other well. Chatman is more of a defensive force, an ineffective finisher but a great shot-blocker, and Nzeakor is already one of the best rebounders in the conference, plus a good finisher to boot. Both players lead the offensive rebounding onslaught, although senior leader Preston Mattingly may start at the four again. Only 6’2, Mattingly is a classic “glue guy” whose mobility helps Lamar execute its (not terribly useful) pressure schemes.
The Cardinals get gashed on the defensive end in ways you’d guess based on their offense and roster - in transition and on the interior. Despite Chatman’s efforts, teams racked up a 54% success rate on 2-pointers, showing just how soft the interior is. With no major reason to think the defense gets better (another year for the sophs?), I don’t think Lamar’s improved offense with Weisbrod will get them out of the league cellar.