Southland spotlight: Stephen F. Austin again the team to beat

Stephen F. Austin won 29 games last season, a third consecutive regular-season championship and second tournament title in a row for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

But of all his team's accomplishments last season, the only one Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood mentioned recently was 17.5 assists per game.

That led the nation last season and for Underwood captures the essence of a team selected the conference preseason favorite with four returning starters and five seniors.

"We had 100-plus practices last season to play 30 games. So college basketball is work," Underwood said. "We take great pride in the fact that we led the country in assists last year. We play extremely unselfish. We try to bring it every single day ... everyday we work to get better."

Led by Thomas Walkup, the Southland's Player of the Year, SFA is going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive regular-season conference championship. This season, Underwood said the Lumberjacks will have more size with freshman Jovan Grujic, a 7-footer, and 6-8 T.J. Holyfield.

But the Lumberjacks are not just taller, they're also deeper.

"The one thing I feel very good about, it's not gonna be just one guy," Underwood said. "I really like the possibility of our depth."

With that, here are five things to watch this season in the Southland Conference:
Abilene Christian is transitioning from Division II to Division I and will not be eligible for postseason play the next two seasons. But the Wildcats have some game, shooting 38% from 3-point range. Parker Wentz, a 5-9 senior, averaged 11.7 points per game and shot 85.1% from the free-throw line. Austin Cooke returns as the top rebounder (5.7 rpg).

Mark Adams’ take: John Jordan and his over 1,500 points, 500+ rebounds and 500+ assists just walked out the door with a degree. Now what for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi? ... A nice addition for Nicholls is the return of point guard Schane Rillieux, who is coming back off of an injury induced redshirt season. He brings experience and depth at the point of attack.

Northwestern State coach Mike McCarthy returns for his 15th season and has led the Demons to seven conference tournament title games in the past 12 years. Third-year Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood has 61 wins in his first two seasons — the best two-season win total in NCAA history.

Mark Adams’ take: My pick is Stephen F. Austin led by Thomas Walkup but if anybody can unseat the current king it would be Northwestern State, one of the most exciting teams to watch in America!
No player in NCAA Division I men's basketball last season matched the statistical line of SFA's Thomas Walkup — 15.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while connecting on 56.7% of field goals. With two more points, Walkup (1,129 career points) will become one of the top 20 scorers in school history. The senior is also on the cusp of becoming SFA's all-time leaders in rebounds (521), assists (242), and presently ranks ninth all-time in career field goal percentage (.558).

Mark Adams’ take: One of my favorite players in college basketball is Walkup, the 6-4 senior who literally does everything. 
In addition to Walkup, the Lumberjacks feature seniors Demetrious Floyd, Clide Geffrard, Jared Johnson and Trey Pinkney. ... Led by the duo of Jalan West and Zeek Woodley, who averaged 20 points and 22 points per game last season, respectively, Northwestern State followed SFA in the conference's preseason polls. Only two sophonores scored more than Woodley's 1,142 last season — Murray State's Cameron Payne (1,279), a first-round pick of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, and Andrew Rowsey (1,244), who transferred from UNC Asheville to Marquette. Rashawn Thomas and Paul Baxter, the top returning scorers returning for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Sam Houston State, respectively, rounded out the preseason all-conference team with Walkup, West and Woodley.

Mark Adams’ take: Northwestern State is loaded and I would pay good money to see these guys play SFA this season. Invite me! ... Rashawn Thomas is a 6-7 junior worth building around as he has a mature inside game. He was a second-team all-conference selection last season with 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while compiling 10 double-doubles. ... Lamar's Dontavious Sears returns after a solid junior season (7.1 ppg and 45.8 FG%). ... Southeastern Louisiana's Leroy "Truck" Fludd is the name to remember. He was the NJCAA National Tournament MVP, averaging 18.6 ppg during Jones County's five-game run through the tournament.

The preseason favorites, Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State, meet Feb. 8 at SFA and March 3 at NSU in the penultimate regular-season game. ASN will televise 12 Southland Conference games, beginning Nov. 25 with Lamar at Rice. SFA will be featured fives times, including Dec. 29 at Conference USA preseason favorite UAB.

Mark Adams’ take: It’s basketball season!
Vote: Who is your choice to win the Southland Conference?
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Above: Stephen F. Austin players celebrate their second consecutive Southland Conference tournament title. (Courtesy Rick Yeatts/Southland Conference)

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