Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conference Calling 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 Southland Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9. 


For once, a move in The Great College Sports Realignment Apocalypse made some sense. Oral Roberts bailed on the Summit League, forsaking all those wonderfully scenic trips to Fargo, ND and Fort Wayne, Ind., for the Southland, full of schools in the Tulsa-based university's recruiting wheelhouse of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana.

After routinely being a heavy in the Summit, a move to the slightly lower-level Southland makes ORU a quick favorite to get to its first NCAA tournament since 2008. There are a few schools with something to say about that, however, including one of the nation's top defensive teams and a coach with a famous name and a now-famous rant (pictured).

For more on TBI's No. 26 conference, read on after the jump.

1. Oral Roberts
--ORU would have been at least a co-favorite in the Summit, so it makes sense to expect they'll prevail in the Southland. The rest of the new conference has to hope that there are no Golden Eagles ready to assume the scoring load left by 20-PPG man Dominique Morrison. The problem is that there may be several.

Coach Scott Sutton only used a six-man rotation, so the loss of three players will sting. The returnees are guard Warren Niles, forward Steven Roundtree and center Damen Bell-Holter, all of whom are capable of playing at an all-conference level.

Roundtree was a starter as a freshman in 2010-11, but was a brutal defensive player, fouling out of 11 games. With less playing time last season, his efficiencies actually improved, even dropping from 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes to 4.4. Still, he's expected to return to the starting lineup and stay on the court this time. If he can't, then all the projections that have him as Southland POY are going to look silly.

Niles is a strong scorer (.553 eFG% and .588 TS%) who takes good care of the ball. His 63 3-point baskets led the team last season, and he should be one of the Southland's most dangerous shooters this year.

Bell-Holter's numbers took a dive last season, but two years ago, he was a steady 13-and-8 player. If he thrives in the new league, he could walk right in and win POY hardware.

The Golden Eagles' biggest issue will be finding a point guard. Redshirt freshmen D.J. Jackson and Korey Bilbury will battle for the job, with the 5'11" Jackson perhaps more of a true playmaker. Utah transfer Shawn Glover (6'7", 195) could serve as a utility player, able to compete on the glass or fire from the outside. That jump shot was a little erratic during his first two years at Utah, though, and needs some tightening up.

Seven-foot freshman Jorden Kaufman may need to contribute quickly, since he's the only true big man on the roster behind Roundtree and Bell-Holter. Fellow freshmen Corbin Byford, a four-year double-double man in high school, and Brandon Conley, who blocked five shots per game as a senior, will contribute frontcourt depth as well.

2. Stephen F. Austin
--The Lumberjacks aren't about to roll over and die with the addition of Oral Roberts. Last season, this was not a team that rolled over for anyone, ranking third in America in scoring defense at a mere 54.4 PPG. Considering they were also fourth from the bottom in tempo, perhaps the Jacks lulled their opponents to sleep?

SFA returns only two starters and key reserve Taylor Smith. Discussion of the team's prospects can easily begin with Smith, who could be a favorite breakout candidate this year. The 6'6" forward shot a ludicrous 70 percent from the floor last season. A dominant rebounder and shot-blocker in only 19 MPG, Smith can become an all-league candidate if he gets starter's minutes.

Guards Desmond Haymon and Antonio Bostic are both solid scorers and good rebounders for their size (6'3" and 6'2" respectively), but neither is a true point guard. Coach Danny Kasper is seeking a floor general to replace the departed Darius Gardner. Senior Hal Bateman is a strong playmaker and aggressive defender. If he takes care of the ball as well as Gardner did, the offense should be in good hands.

Juco transfer Ice Asortse was a double-double machine at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC and could start for the Jacks from day one. At 6'7" and 220, he's the biggest body on the roster and will be needed to provide interior presence on both ends of the court. Serbian wing Nikola Gajic could be counted on for shooting, since there aren't many other candidates. Gajic was a 34% bomber in junior college.

If the team can find shooters to spread the floor, Haymon, Bostic and Smith could all have all-conference potential. If not, SFA can always slow the game down a little more. Not a single opponent broke 70 on the Lumberjacks last season, and that includes power-conference foes Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oregon.

3. SE Louisiana
--Guard Brandon Fortenberry's return from an early-season injury could be the piece of good news that puts the Lions back in the SLC's upper echelon this season.

Fortenberry came out firing last year, with three 20-point games in the team's first seven before a foot injury derailed his, and the team's, momentum. SELU went 8-14 and averaged only 58.3 PPG without Fortenberry in the lineup. With him, they were 4-3 and scoring 65 PPG.

In his absence, 11 other players averaged 10 minutes per game, and six of those are back. Senior forward Roosevelt Johnson took the scoring load in Fortenberry's absence. He carded eight double-doubles last season and finished the year strong, averaging nearly 18 points and 12 rebounds over the last six games. If the two mesh well over a full season, both could be All-SLC first-teamers.

Juco transfer Dre Evans may have to step in and take the reins as the point guard. The ex-Providence Friar averaged 3.4 APG at Blinn JC last season, making 37 percent of his threes and 91 percent from the line. Three-point gunner Todd Nelson will provide depth.

Forwards Antonnio Benton and Jan Petrovcic may be called on to play major roles. Both are solid rebounders, but somewhat lost offensively. Additional frontcourt size will have to come from juco center Jaamal James (6'8", 250) and freshman Roger Woods (6'5", 230).

The silver lining in last year's effort was that Southeastern played solid defense in Fortenberry's absence. If he can juice up the offense again, the Lions will be predators in March.

4. McNeese State
--McNeese has to rally from the loss of SLC Player of the Year Patrick Richard and a pair of 6'9" frontcourt starters. By season's end, though, a solid freshman was taking starts away from both of those departed big men.

Desharick Guidry pulled down 5.4 RPG in only 21 minutes per night, which comes out to just over 10 boards per 40 minutes. A decent inside scorer with little inclination to fire foolish threes, Guidry should have a much bigger offensive role for the Cowboys this season.

Guards Jeremie Mitchell and Dontae Cannon started all but one game together last year. Cannon is the superior creator and Mitchell is a 35-percent shooter from distance, one of the SLC's better gunners. Sophomore Kevin Hardy can back up at either spot, and Oakland transfer Ledrick Eackles (son of longtime pro Ledell) is an aggressivesometimes overly sodefender.

Sophomore Craig McFerrin played limited minutes, but was a rebounding force when he did see action. Junior wing Adrian Fields may provide some shooting, but the rest of the frontcourt lacks experience. Three newcomers could see action, led by 6'7", 250-pound freshman Jordan Wells.

McNeese defended the perimeter well last season, but struggled to stop mid-range and inside scorers. There's a decent amount of length, but it's young length. How much of it sees league action could determine MSU's finish.

5. Nicholls State
--Six returning Colonels started games last season, and four of them comprise a deep backcourt that should be Nicholls State's strength. The biggest story, though, may be a player who's not available this season.

SLC Freshman of the Year Trevon Lewis is not listed on the team's roster after injuring his knee in the season finale against Texas-Arlington. An expected all-conference performer, Lewis's loss will seriously damage the Colonels' title hopes. Better health overall will be the hope, since only three players suited up for all 30 games last season.

The good injury news comes with the return of 6'5", 240-pound wingman Fred Hunter. Hunter took about 18 months to rehab a knee injury. Before the injury, he was a 15-and-6 man with serious All-SLC buzz. If Hunter rebounds to his previous form, he'll be a major driving force for NSU.

Those who are returning include guards Shane Rillieux, Jeremy Smith, Dantrell Thomas and Linden Smith-Hyde, who combined for 74 starts last season. Thomas had a stretch of four 20-point games in six outings in February, and the team won on each of his 20-point nights. A 46 percent shooter, Thomas can be trusted to make good decisions with his shots.

Smith, a 6'3" junior, is another high-efficiency scorer who recorded a .601 TS% last season. With the loss of Lewis, NSU will need Smith to become a double-digit scorer, and he should be fully up to the task. Rillieux is the returning assist leader and was the only player to start every game in 2011-12.

Forward Sam McBeath needs serious work on his shot selection. Nearly a 55-percent shooter inside the arc, he chose to take more than half of his shots outside of it, where he shot 30 percent. As a sophomore, McBeath will need to improve that and his defense. He fouled out of a league-high eight games, committing 3.2 fouls per game, which also led the Southland. He can be a decent rebounder if he stays on the court.

As a team, shot selection was a problem for the Colonels. They made 31 percent from deep, despite taking nearly 40 percent of their shots from outside. The lack of size is surely a factor, as 6'7", 210-pound shooting forward Lachlan Prest may be the closest thing to a big man. If the shots don't fall, however, NSU could struggle to win games in the league.

Defense will also need to be a priority, as the Colonels were second-worst in scoring and FG defense and worst in the league against the three-pointer.

6. Northwestern State
--The Demons lose two of their top three scorers, but return the main man, point guard Shamir Davis. The six-foot floor general knows how to attack the tin and doesn't kill his team with bad three-pointers. He'll need to be more consistent with his scoring after falling short of double digits in five of NSU's last 12 games.

Davis will need support from veteran forwards Gary Roberson (6'4", 240), James Hulbin (6'8", 235) and Patrick Robinson (6'6", 200). Roberson shot for the best three-point percentage on the team, while Hulbin was second on the team in threes with 29. Hulbin is the second-leading returning scorer on the team at 8.4 PPG, despite only starting four games and playing 18 minutes a night.

Juco transfer DeQuan Hicks, a 6'7" wing, is expected to play a major role quickly. Hicks averaged 11-and-7 with 59% shooting at New Mexico JC, ranking top-10 in his conference in scoring, rebounding, FG%, blocks and double-doubles.

Junior guards Gary Stewart and Tyler Washington are the rest of the backcourt experience. 6'10" senior O.J. Evans and 6'9" sophomore Marvin Frazier are the returning big men.

State's bigs were pummeled on the glass to the tune of 40 rebounds a night last season, second-most in the Southland. If some of the forwards can change that habit and win some battles, NSU has the talent to climb the league standings. Top half? Sure, why not?

7. Lamar
--Okay, first thing's first. Here's what made Lamar famous:

Pat Knight going HAM on his senior class has actually made Knight somewhat of a rock star, believe it or not. The group of players that Knight memorably termed "an infestation" is mostly gone, and now Knight will find out what kind of players he's managed to recruit in the aftermath of The Rant and Lamar's second tournament appearance since 1983.

Only 41 of 175 possible starts return, and more than half of those were made by 6'8" senior forward Stan Brown. Brown is a reliable rebounder and a good post defender, but it's doubtful he's capable of being the leading scorer on a championship-caliber team. Ditto with fellow forwards Osas Ebomwonyi and Nikko Acosta. Acosta's a great shot-blocker (third on the team in only 7.2 MPG) and Ebomwonyi can clean the glass just as well as Brown, but don't rely on these guys for big scoring.

Juco forward Amos Wilson (6'5", 200) may have to produce some wing scoring, since there aren't many other candidates. Wilson was a 16-PPG man who shot 51% from the floor and 36% from distance at Collin County CC.

Wilson's juco teammate Hondo Webb is the most likely candidate to take over at the point. Webb sported an A/T ratio of better than 2-1 for Collin County. Freshmen Keilan Blanks and Donnell Minton may mount their own challenges.

Returnee Donley Minor, a solid shooter two years ago, should push for the other guard spot, but he may be pushed by Australian import Matt Hancock and Oregon transfer Brennan Doty, who becomes eligible in January.

The besmirched seniors produced play that may have infuriated their coach, but Lamar won its division and the tournament for a reason. The new guys will have to mesh quickly with the few veterans, or else Coach Knight may have to resort to throwing a chair. We know he knows someone who can give him pointers on form.

8. Central Arkansas
--If anyone asks you, "What ever happened to Big Nasty?" you can come armed with the knowledge that Corliss Williamson is entering his third year as coach at Central Arkansas. The Bears are struggling to make headway, since it's also only their third year in D-I. CAU's games are entertaining, at least, as Williamson tries to push the tempo like his Arkansas Razorback teams did back in the day. The Bears were sixth in adjusted tempo, per Pomeroy, and ranked fifth in the SLC in scoring. The downside: giving up four more PPG than any other team in the league.

Central does return some solid pieces, though. Guard LaQuentin Miles may be a POY candidate after a season that saw him average nearly 15 points, five boards and two steals per game. At 6'5" and 190, he has the frame to attack the basket, and he does it relentlessly. If he had any semblance of an outside shot, he could average 20 a night easily.

Senior Robert Crawford should make a good complement to Miles. Crawford drained 37 threes last season, shooting at a 44 percent clip. His .592 eFG% was a good 10 points better than any other player on last year's team.

Sophomore Oliver Wells should get a crack at the point guard spot. He averaged two assists in 19 minutes per game last season. Freshmen Daouda Berete and Zach Padgett and juco transfer DeShone McClure are more slashing scorers than distributors.

Up front, senior Jarvis Garner and junior Jordan Harks are strong rebounders, and Garner can be relied upon for 10-12 points per game. Senior Anthony Borden (6'10", 215) was among the SLC's top 10 with 35 blocks last year.

Williamson may be assembling the horses to run Southland opponents out of the gym, but the team's not quite where it needs to be yet. We'll call this season "40 Minutes of Heck."

9. Sam Houston State
--The BearKats have a nickname that would make spelling purists cringe, but their shooting was enough to make basketball fans do the same. The team shot less than 42 percent from the floor last season and even outdid that mediocrity with outright atrocities from three-point range (29%) and the foul line (59%). Their defense was solid, but too many bricks doomed SHSU to a 7-9 league record.

Improvement will be difficult with three of the top four scorers gone, but guard DeMarcus Gatlin has the ability to threaten for all-conference honors. Capable of getting his own shots and creating for others, Gatlin finished second on the team in assists at the same time he was scoring 10.4 PPG himself. His shot was scattered (.458 TS%), but on this team, whose wasn't?

Point guard Darius Gatson may be the Southland's top playmaker, coming off a junior season in which he led the league with 143 assists. His 31 percent shooting, however, meant that he didn't return the favor very often to teammates who set him up. Gatson is the roster's only senior this season.

Sophomore Michael Holyfield (6'11", 255) could be an unstoppable inside force this season. He shot 56% from the floor last season and was among the league's most effective offensive rebounders.

Five junior college transfers and two freshmen join the roster, indicating that coach Jason Hooten is interested in shaking things up a bit. Not included in that count is Marquette transfer Erik Williams, who made 11 starts in two years in Milwaukee. Williams should be a strong rebounder for the BearKats.

240-pound forward Terrance Motley, point guard Jeremy McKay and sharpshooters Will Bond and Dakarai Henderson should see substantial minutes as well.

10. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
--This year's Islanders have no seniors. They'd hoped to have a grad student on the roster, but Terence Jones decided he'd rather head to UAB. Corpus will likely struggle as last season's complementary pieces become leading men.

The top returning scorer is point guard Johnathan Jordan, who averaged 6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds while setting a school record with 138 assists last season. He'll need to keep filling the sheet to that level and beyond. Jordan's the kind of point guard who won't beat his own team with silly mistakes, ranking fourth in the SLC with a 1.8-1 A/T ratio.

Backcourt mate Hameed Ali works on the perimeter, but he'll need to shoot much better than 29 percent from the floor if the Islanders are going anywhere.

Big man Nate Maxey (6'11", 215) is the only one of the bunch who could shoot straight, likely because he was getting putbacks and dunks. He made nearly 60 percent of his limited shots, but then butchered his free throws.

There's lots of other length on the roster, with two freshmen and a returning junior standing 6'9" or taller. Seven-foot junior Ted Wang has contributed little aside from some blocks during his career.

On the wings, freshman Jelani Currie and former walk-on Kennon Dvorak, who struck UT-Arlington for 15 points in January, may be called on to provide scoring.

This was by far the Southland's worst-shooting team, and until everyone finds the range, it's going to be difficult for them to escape the cellar. With lots of size and a skilled point guard, though, it may be possible.

In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference matchup, weighed for visibility and possibility of a win.

Central Arkansas: Dec. 22 at Mississippi State
--Just about every minor-conference opponent on the Bulldogs' schedule has to be licking its chops at facing a team that's taken such an offseason beating.
Lamar: Dec. 29 vs. LIU-Brooklyn
--The Blackbirds travel a long way from home for their final game before three of their best players start a conference suspension.
McNeese State: Nov. 13 at LSU
--LSU's got some underrated talent, but so does McNeese.
Nicholls State: Nov. 10 at Vanderbilt
--The first look at a Vandy team in the post-Jenkins/Taylor/Ezeli era.
Northwestern State: Nov. 13 at Campbell
--Before the Devils worry about testing themselves against the likes of LSU and Oklahoma, they have to start with one of the best in the Big South.
Oral Roberts: Nov. 28 vs. Oklahoma
--ORU doesn't get the Sooners out to Tulsa very often. They may be equipped to make the visit competitive, at least.
Sam Houston State: Nov. 19 vs. Southern Miss
--One of the few games with a 2012 NCAA tournament team on a Southland court.
SE Louisiana: Dec. 16 at North Texas
--Normally, a Sun Belt game could be winnable for a Southland contender. This Sun Belt game, however, features a likely NBA lottery pick.
Stephen F. Austin: Dec. 5 at Texas A&M
--SFA has a pretty terrible non-league schedule overall, so a potential whipping in College Station may be as good as it gets. And with two slowdown teams on the court, it could be a snoozer.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: Nov. 25 vs. Houston
--Likely a pounding, but Houston has some talent that could be fun to watch.

Fortenberry breaking ankles.
C Damen Bell-Holter, Oral Roberts (6'9", 245, Sr.)
--Capable of scoring from nearly anywhere, just didn't prove it last season.
G Shamir Davis, Northwestern State (6'0", 187, Sr.)
--Five 20-point games last season. If the Demons are to live up to prediction, he'll need a few more.
G Brandon Fortenberry, SE Louisiana (6'3", 185, Sr.)
--Efficiency has steadily improved each season. If quantity finally catches up to quality, he'll be league POY.
F Roosevelt Johnson, SE Louisiana (6'6", 225, Sr.)
--Proved he can produce as the main option. Could dominate if defenses over-commit to Fortenberry.
G Warren Niles, Oral Roberts (6'5", 195, Sr.)
--Hit threes in all but seven of his 34 games last season.

G Antonio Bostic, Stephen F. Austin (6'2", 175, Sr.)
--Had a 12-game stretch of 13.5 PPG, two above his season average. Knows how to take over, but counting stats won't reflect it due to Lumberjacks' slow tempo.
F Fred Hunter, Nicholls State (6'5", 240, Sr.)
--Three straight double-figure scoring averages before the injury. Could join with Thomas and Smith to form one of the league's best trios.
G LaQuentin Miles, Central Arkansas (6'5", 190, Jr.)
--One of the league's top playmakers, even without a perimeter shot.
F Steven Roundtree, Oral Roberts (6'8", 190, Sr.)
--Could crack first team if he can keep fouls down to sophomore levels and still maintain his nasty streak on the glass. (The one time where nasty streaks on the glass are welcome.)
F/C Taylor Smith, Stephen F. Austin (6'6", 215, Sr.)
--That .701 FG% led the nation. Unlikely he does it again, but more minutes will show the league that he can be a dominant force.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: G Brandon Fortenberry, SE Louisiana
COACH OF THE YEAR: Scott Sutton, Oral Roberts
--Even if the Golden Eagles are expected to storm through the league, ORU did lose a lot. Forming another winner in a new conference should earn Sutton some hardware.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: F DeQuan Hicks, Northwestern State
--Frontcourt should be a strength for the Demons, but Hicks might be the best scoring option among the bunch.

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