Thursday, October 5, 2006

Southland Conference Preview


The Southland Conference was dominated from beginning to end by Northwestern State, who won the league by four games. However, the success of NW State gave the conference its highest RPI in more than six years. Sam Houston State finished in second, while Southeastern Louisiana was one game behind them. Three teams also finished at 9-7. Overall, it was a good season for the Southland, considering they pulled off wins over Mississippi State (twice), Oregon State, Oklahoma State, Missouri, and several Conference-USA teams, among others. NW State easily won the conference tournament as well, winning their three games by an average of over 15 points. Moreover, the Demons pulled off the biggest upset in the first round of the NCAA Tourament, defeating #3 seed Iowa with a last-second three by Jermaine Wallace. They fell in the second round to West Virginia. However, with a plethora of personnel losses by NW State, a new team will likely win the conference. There are several clubs poised to take the league from the depleted Demons.

Favorite: Sam Houston State seems like the leading candidate to get the automatic bid this season. They finished second in the conference last season and won 22 games--a number that could be tough to exceed even if they win the league. The Bearkats return the Preseason Player of the Year JeJuan Plair. The 6-1 point guard is a fantastic passer and is one of the best all-around players in the mid-major ranks. Fellow all-conference candidate Ryan Bright also returns. He is a very good scorer and an outstanding rebounder in the frontcourt. The third returning starter is guard Shamir McDaniel, a solid role player. Forward John Gardiner tore his ACL in the offseason, and it is unclear whether he will play this season. Aaron Wade played a big role off the bench last season, and will likely get a start spot this year. Guard Jeremy Thomas will also see an expanded role in 2006-2007.

Contenders: In its first season in the Southland, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi could turn the conference upside down. The Islanders were an Independent last season, and became the first Independent to win at least 20 games two seasons in a row since Notre Dame. Don't be surprised if they do it again. 7-foot Chris Daniels is one of the best returning big men in the league. He is difficult to stop down low, and is also a good rebounder and shot blocker. Cedric Smith also returns up front. He was second in the nation in field-goal percentage last season. He could have a big year. Josh Washington and Josh Ervin return as starters in the backcourt. Taurean Mitchell is a solid all-around player on the perimeter, while Mike Williams and Kevin Menifee contribute in the frontcourt. Stephen F. Austin finished strongly last season and look to carry that momentum into this season. The Lumberjacks return one of the best inside-outside duos in the conference in all-conference guard Josh Alexander and forward Antuane Miller. Alexander, the SLC Freshman of the Year, is an outstanding shooter, while Miller is tough on the interior. Keith Hardaway is a nice complement to Alexander in the backcourt. Matt Kingsley and Gerald Fonzie could battle for starting spots this season after coming off the bench a year ago. McNeese State had an interesting summer, as coach Tic Price was surprisingly fired in July. However, the Cowboys have enough talent to make noise in the Southland this season. Dwight Boatner leads the way. The all-conference candidate is a very good all-around player who is a solid scorer and an excellent defender. Troy Aaron also returns as a starter in the backcourt. Furthermore, reserve guards John Ford and Ryan Price provide outstanding scoring and defense off the bench. Up front, Quentin Gonzales is a solid scorer and rebounder down low. Jarvis Bradley and Aldryan Wardell will fight for playing time next to Gonzales.

Sleepers: Nicholls State had a very disappointing season last year, going 9-18 overall, but it was an improvement over their five-win campaign of two years ago. Expect a tremendous improvement this season with the return of four starters, including all-conference wing Stefan Blaszczynski. He is an excellent scorer and a very good rebounder. Joining him on the wing is 6-4 Adonis Gray, another all-conference candidate. He could see a big improvement in his numbers this season. East Tennessee State transfer Aaron Scott is another wing to watch for the Colonels. Michael Czepil, Kevin Goffney, and Ran Bathie also return on the perimeter, while Chris Paige will likely start again down low. Lamar will likely take a step down from last season. First of all, coach Billy Tubbs stepped down to become the athletic director, and secondly, the school's leading single-season scorer Alan Daniels used up his eligibility. However, guards Matthew Barrow, one of the top all-around players in the SLC, and Brandon Chappell return in the backcourt. Blake Whittle will likely move from the bench to the starting lineup, and newcomer James Davis will anchor the post. Southeastern Louisana loses the Conference Player of the Year in Ricky Woods, but could crack the upper division if they find a suitable replacement. Several newcomers are likely to compete for that job, but the returnees are the key for the Lions. Terry Bryant and Daryl Cohen are solid guards, while all-conference candidate Quennell Green and Joshph Polite are the leading men up front. Watch out for JC transfer Kevyn Green. Last year's conference champion, Northwestern State, is going to be hard-pressed to have a repeat performance of 2005-2006, but the Demons won't completely fall off the map. They lose four starters, but Jermaine Spencer will be a solid go-to-guy for NW State. With an expanded role, guard Luke Rogers should develop into an outstanding player. Returning guards Keenan Green and Colby Bargeman will form a solid backcourt with more minutes this year.

Rounding Out the Pack: Texas-Arlington, like four other teams in the Southland, will start this season with a new coach. Scott Cross won't have a bare cupboard in his first season, though. Larry Posey and Jermaine Griffin form a very good forward combo, while Anthony Vereen is another solid frontcourt player. Rodrick Epps returns as a starter in the backcourt, and will likely be joined by Brandon Long. Texas State had an atrocious season last year, going 3-24 overall and finishing last in the conference at 1-15. The Bobcats should see an improvement this season, however. Forward Charles Dotson is a potential all-conference forward, while Trevor Cook and C.J. Webster are solid defenders and rebounders down low. On the perimeter, Brandon Bush and all-around player JuShay Rockett lead the way. Antwoine Blanchard is another decent guard. Texas-San Antonio loses their all-conference stud in Andre Owens, who lead the team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. They will have a tough time replacing him, but JC All-American Travis Gabbidon should help. He originally signed with Mississippi State, but did not make it academically. He should combine with Abe Donlon to form a very good forward duo. Aldric Reynolds and Kurt Attaway return to anchor the backcourt, while Nkem Ojougboh will start at center. This will be Central Arkansas' first season in Division-I and they will get a nice taste of it with their first game against Connecticut. Forward LeMar Phillips leads the way for the Bears, while guard Joey Cortez could become one of the better all-around perimeter players in the Southland. Frederick Campbell and Fernando Johnson return as starters, as well.

Prediction: Without a team like Northwestern State to dominate the conference, the Southland does not have a clear-cut favorite to win the league. Sam Houston State has the early edge, though, with JeJuan Plair and Ryan Bright forming an outstanding duo. They should win the league as a result of their depth and experience. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi could be a tough test for them, though, simply due to the fact that 7-footer Chris Daniels is a very tough match-up. It should be an excellent season in the SLC, with a very competitive title race until the last week of the season.

Player of the Year: JeJuan Plair, PG, Sam Houston State

All-Conference Team:
G- JeJuan Plair, Sam Houston State
G- Josh Alexander, Stephen F. Austin
F- Stefan Blaszczynski, Nicholls State
F- Ryan Bright, Sam Houston State
C- Chris Daniels, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Second Team:
G- Matthew Barrow, Lamar
G- Dwight Boatner, McNeese State
F- Cedric Smith, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
F- Antuane Miller, Stephen F. Austin
F- Charles Dotson, Texas State

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