(Compare to our preseason preview here):
Notable Storylines from the season:
1. Underwood’s Reign Has Ended – Oklahoma State hired away the Southland’s Undertaker (yes I made that joke in my Big 12 preview also), finally allowing light to shine on the rest of the league. It’s basically like the end of Frozen when the weather suddenly becomes gorgeous again. Okay, maybe that’s too strong, the rest of this league isn’t gorgeous, and it likely won’t win a tournament game again, like Underwood did twice at SFA, for a while. But it does make the tournament a lot more interesting, as SFA went 6-0 in the event over the last three years, winning games by 17, 19, 12, 13, 36, and 22. There was never any doubt who was going to the Big Dance, but now, it’s pretty up in the air.
2. NOLA, Raise Up – The Privateers took the league by surprise this year; the media pegged New Orleans to finish 10th like myself (the coaches had them 9th). Erik Thomas’s emergence from “good role player” to “Southland star” allowed everyone else to fall into place on the pecking order, and New Orleans rode a turnover-happy defense to an outright crown. Interesting note about their schedule, though: they haven’t played #2 TAMU-CC, #4 HBU, #5 SHSU, or #6 Lamar since January 19th, instead feasting on the lower half of the conference (they did split with #3 SFA over that span).
3. McNeese: McNot Good – I have been to Lake Charles, Louisiana (I got to audit the third-best casino there!!), and let me tell you, it is not pretty. No one saw the basketball team being THIS bad, though; they were middle of the pack in both the coaches’ and media’s preseason poll. They started 2-0 in the league, but tumbled to 2-14 the rest of the way as they played by far the league’s toughest schedule (they played 4 of the top 5 twice).
Hey MAAC and OVC – THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT (Montell Jordan voice). Give your best teams major advantages, like a double-bye to the semifinals! New Orleans and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi will both rest until Friday, waiting for 3-through-8 to battle it out. They don’t get any homecourt advantage, though – the tourney is in Katy, Texas, just outside of Houston, meaning Houston Baptist, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin should all have pretty decent fan contingents. Other programming notes: Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are ineligible for the tournament due to D1 transition; Nicholls State, Northwestern State lost a tiebreak with Southeastern Louisiana and Central Arkansas for the 7-8 seeds; the Southland told McNeese and their 4-14 league record to go away.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
With the advantage of being in the semis already and having won the league, New Orleans has a good shot, but I think the best team here is Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Big man Rashawn Thomas is an ox, and the Islanders came within a point in OT on the road in their only meeting with New Orleans back on New Year’s Eve. For those familiar with Tra-Deon Hollins of Omaha (or more notably, Briante Weber of VCU), Ehab Amin is cut from the same cloth. The Egyptian wing (I don’t know many Egyptian hoopers) is a terror defensively, ranking second nationally in steal rate (two spots ahead of Hollins, actually), and he and Thomas form a formidable duo. Everyone in this league is headed for a 16 seed barring under .500 teams winning a bunch of other league tournaments.
Of the 6 teams playing on the first two days, I think Sam Houston State is the biggest threat to the top 2; they’re experienced, versatile, and they get in your jock defensively (ew!). Unfortunately, they matchup horribly with Central Arkansas on day 1, so that Cinderella run may be over before it starts. Houston Baptist has been rolling lately with 9 straight wins (8 in the league and 1 over something called “Randall”), and with a decent home crowd, they could make a run. They rely too much on officials’ whistles and getting to the free throw line for my taste, though.
(8) Central Arkansas defeats (5) Sam Houston State
(6) Lamar defeats (7) Southeastern Louisiana
(4) Houston Baptist defeats (8) Central Arkansas
(3) Stephen F. Austin defeats (6) Lamar
(4) Houston Baptist defeats (1) New Orleans
(2) Texas A&M-Corpus Christi defeats (3) Stephen F. Austin
(2) Texas A&M-Corpus Christi defeats (4) Houston Baptist
For the first time since 2013, Stephen F. Austin loses a game in the conference tournament, opening up the berth for the Islanders. They are immediately shipped to Dayton for a date with another minnow, but they win that game and earn the right to play Nova or Kansas. I actually think they hang for a bit (“will a 16 beat a 1?!” will be heard in the first half), but get run out of the gym in the second half.