The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the Southland Conference.
Last season, there were only 1.4 seconds between Stephen F. Austin and the Sweet Sixteen. The Lumberjacks, who had stunned No. 3 seed West Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, were leading No. 6 seed Notre Dame by one point in the final seconds of their second round matchup, but a tip-in with less than two ticks of the clock left gave the Fighting Irish the win and ended SFA’s Cinderella run.
But what may have been more impressive than the two-game stretch in March was what Stephen F. Austin did to get there. The Lumberjacks put up a 28-6 campaign, going undefeated in all 18 conference games. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was a distant second with a praise-worthy 15-3 conference mark.
It was the fourth straight season that the Lumberjacks had finished atop the Southland conference — a stretch during which they lost only three conference games. This year — with SFA’s top player, Thomas Walkup, gone — look for the Southland to be much closer at the top.
Yes, Walkup might have been the Southland name the nation became most familiar with in March, but there’s another that the basketball world should keep in mind: Zeek Woodley.
Woodley, the senior guard for Northwestern State, averaged 22.2 points per game last season, making him the highest scoring returning player in college basketball this season.
The 6-2, 209-pound swingman was the only Demon to start in all 28 games of the season and averaged 5.2 rebounds per game (second-most on the team) and shot 40.7 percent from beyond the arc, making a team-high 57 threes on the year.
Woodley tested the waters with the NBA Draft during the offseason, but decided to return for his senior campaign. It should be a memorable one.
They don’t get much closer than this. In the preseason coaches’ poll, reigning Southland champs Stephen F. Austin received six first-place votes and 137 total points. Sam Houston State also tallied six first-place votes. And 138 total points.
It wasn’t the only honor the Bearkats received in the preseason poll. Sam Houston State was the only team to land multiple players on the preseason All-Southland teams. Senior forward/center Aurimas Majauskas found himself on the first team, while senior guards Dakari Henderson and Paul Baxter were named to the second team.
Those three will be leading a Bearkats team that returns all starters from last year’s impressive campaign. Majauskas, the 6-8, 225-pounder, averaged 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last year, while Henderson also put up 14.2 points per contest. Baxter took a medical redshirt in the 2015-16 season but averaged 8.4 points per game in 2014-15 and 9.1 in 2013-14 and will take over point guard duties this year.
Don’t expect Stephen F. Austin to lay down without a fight. The Lumberjacks have reigned supreme in the Southland for quite some time, but Sam Houston State returning its top seven scorers and starting five should give the Bearkats the edge and a conference title come March.
With how close the race is between No. 1 and No. 2 in the Southland conference, some might overlook No. 3. That would be a critical mistake.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was picked to finish third in the preseason coaches’ poll. Don’t be surprised if they finish higher. Last year, for the fourth straight year, the Islanders increased their winning percentage, finishing the season at 25-8 (15-3, SLC), good enough for No. 2 in the conference. Other than first-place finisher Stephen F. Austin, the Islanders were the only Southland team to notch more than 18 wins on the year.
A big part of that success was senior forward Rashawn Thomas. The 6-8, 230-pound big man earned Southland Defensive Player of the Year honors last season after leading the league with 16.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. He also recorded a league-best nine double-doubles. This season, Thomas was named to the preseason All-Southland First Team.
While the Islanders did lose the rest of their starting five from a year ago, they do return junior guards Ehab Amin, who shot 47.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, and Joseph Kilgore, who put up 7.0 points per game while averaging just more than 19 minutes on the court. It is still uncertain how this Islanders team can adapt after the loss of so many key players, but, if they can plug the holes, look for them to be competing for the Southland crown in March.
Freshman to Watch:
This year, Stephen F. Austin is without its two winningest players in Walkup and Trey Pinkney. But the Lumberjacks still have an embarrassment of riches ready for the 2015-16 season.
One of those is freshman guard Aaron Augustin. Augustin, a 5-11, 175-pound point guard from Suwanee, Ga., boasts the exciting triple-threat skillset of high intensity scoring, fantastic court vision and defensive prowess.
If the Lumberjacks are to overtake preseason favorite Sam Houston State, they’ll need Augustin to make an impact right out of the gate.
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