Thursday, March 12, 2009

Southland Conference Tournament Preview

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The Southland Conference, despite not getting much publicity nationally, featured one of the best races in the entire country. East Division champ Stephen F. Austin ended up winning the title, going 13-3, while Nicholls State and West Division champion went 12-4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi finished 11-5. Five of the eight games between these four teams were decided by five points or fewer. Texas-Arlington was the only other team to finish above .500, going 9-7, while Texas-San Antonio finished 8-8.

Favorite: Stephen F. Austin won its last five games to end the season and clinch the regular-season title. The Lumberjacks are one of the best defensive teams in the country, forcing teams into contested shots all over the court. They are led by the dynamite frontcourt duo of center Matt Kingsley and forward Josh Alexander. Kingsley is a very good scorer and rebounder, while Alexander is a very good three-point shooter who can also rebound. Nick Shaw is solid on the glass.

Contenders: Sam Houston State, the champion in the other division, lost three of seven to finish February and fall out of the conference race. However, the Bearkats won their final two games by a combined 28 points; they might have their swagger back. Three of their four conference losses were by a total of five points. They have a fantastic backcourt in three-point gunner Corey Allmond and Ashton Mitchell, one of the nation’s best passers. Preston Brown is the go-to-guy down low. Nicholls State has won four in a row and 11 of its last 13 to finish the season. Furthermore, of those two losses, one was by one point and one was in overtime. The Colonels love to play at a slow tempo but at the same time force turnovers. They have a very solid trio, led by forward Ryan Bathie. He is complemented by wing shooter Anatoly Bose very well; Bose can also rebound well. Fred Hunter is another double-figure scorer.

Sleeper: Only eight of the league’s 12 teams make the conference tournament, so there are only a few candidates for potential sleepers. Of those, Texas-Arlington is clearly the best option. In fact, the Mavericks have a legit shot at surprising everyone and making a run. They have lost three of their last four, but they have four double-figure scorers and plenty of weapons. Forward Anthony Vereen is a very good scorer and rebounder, while former Boston College transfer Marquez Haynes can do a little of everything on the perimeter. Roge’r Guignard can shoot and distribute, while Brandon Long is a good scorer.

Prediction: In what has been a very tight season in the Southland, expect plenty of close outcomes in the conference tournament. The bottom four teams don’t make the cut for the conference tournament, which limits the Championship Week magic but improves the overall basketball. In the final, expect to see the division champs, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State. SFA won the lone meeting between the two, by two in the season opener. I think SHS will get revenge, as the Bearkats have an excellent backcourt and the balance up front to counter the Lumberjacks. SHS goes to the Big Dance.

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