By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Basketball Editor
The Southland Conference will be more competitive than ever this season as the returning members try to give an unfriendly welcome to a powerful newcomer.
Oral Roberts joins the SLC as one of the top mid-major programs in the NCAA. The Golden Eagles became instant favorites to win the league upon their arrival. It won't come without a fight though, as there are plenty of competitors ready to spoil ORU's first tour of the league.
Stephen F. Austin, SE Louisiana, and defending conference champion Lamar will not go away quietly. Danny Kaspar has transformed Stephen F. Austin into a stingy defensive unit and has added pieces to address the lack of offensive punch. SE Louisiana will be much tougher as it gets its superstar shooting guard back for one more season. Pat Knight lost some important components from his NCAA Tournament team, but Lamar was not expected to win the conference either.
The middle of the pack is filled with upside as Nicholls, McNeese State, and Sam Houston State are all on the fringe of being competitive with the top tier. J.P. Piper's Colonels is expected to make a huge leap after finishing last season on a roll. The Cowboys were just a game away from winning the 2012 conference tournament. Jason Hooten's Bearkats have a group of promising newcomers that will make an immediate splash.
The bottom of the conference does not feature any teams that will be a cakewalk during the conference season. Corliss Williamson's Central Arkansas team is the deepest in the league. Northwestern State has a senior leader as a floor general to follow. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is not eligible for the postseason, which makes the Southland Conference regular season championship its only goal.
ORAL ROBERTS There is a new powerhouse in the Southland Conference as Scott Sutton and his Eagles step into the league. Sutton, who is a 17-year veteran, led Oral Roberts to a Summit League regular-season title and set school records for wins (27) and conference wins (17) before being upset in the conference tourney's semifinals. Although the Eagles lost some crucial players from that squad, including the Summit League Player of the Year, Dominique Morrison (19.8 ppg), they still have a deep and talented rotation. Senior guard Warren Niles will take on a greater role after finishing second on the team in scoring (12.1 ppg) and assists, earning an honorable mention All- Summit accolade. Juco transfer Tramel White and redshirt freshman D.J. Jackson are expected to share the point guard responsibilities alongside Niles in the backcourt. The Eagles should be able to dominate the opposition inside with the forward trio of Damen Bell-Holter (6-9, 245), Steven Roundtree (6-8, 190), and Shawn Glover (6-7, 195). Bell-Holter (7.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is the only other returning starter. Roundtree (9.8 ppg) was last season's Summit League Sixth Man of the Year and Glover brings big-time experience after playing 31 games at Utah in 2010-2011. Despite having to replace its MVP and its new setting, Oral Roberts is the clear favorite to win the Southland.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN Since Danny Kaspar took over as the Lumberjacks' head coach 12 seasons ago, SFA has the second-best winning percentage (.617) among schools from Lone Star State, trailing only Texas (.723). Kaspar added his fourth 20-win season in the past five years by coaching the team to a 15-5 record after Christmas. The Lumberjacks found their success by limiting opponents to just 54.4 ppg. SFA will turn to first-team all-conference selection Antonio Bostic (11.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.8 apg) to be the leader on the floor. Desmond Haymon (8.2 ppg) and Hal Bateman (4.0 ppg) will both see time in the backcourt. Although SFA will have to replace center Jereal Scott's 12.4 ppg, senior forward Taylor Smith showed he could lead the team in scoring by posting 9.2 points on 70.1 percent shooting from the floor and 6.3 boards per game off the bench last season. Bostic and Smith give SFA a great chance of competing with the conference's new favorite for the top spot.
SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA The Lions struggled after the leader of their pack went down with a broken toe. Once Brandon Fortenberry (17.6 ppg) was sidelined, coach Jim Yarbrough's team managed just a 12-17 overall record and a 5-11 mark in league play, which was not enough to make the playoffs. The good news for SE Louisiana is that Fortenberry was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA and will be back to pace the squad. His ability to score in multiple fashions and his tenacious approach on the defensive end of the floor may earn him the Southland Player of the Year award. Juco transfer Dre Evans (5-9, 170) is likely to start at point guard alongside Fortenberry. Evans played his freshman season at Providence before his junior college stint. Fortenberry is not the only Lion with scoring ability. Senior forward Roosevelt Johnson (11.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg) showed he can be just as deadly by averaging a double-double of 17.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest in the team's last seven games. The 6-8, 225-pound Jan Petrovcic will bring his scrappy style of play back for his senior season. Jamaal James (6-8, 250) is the top forward option off the bench.
LAMAR Pat Knight reminded many of his father after he verbally ripped into his team after a late season loss to Stephen F. Austin in February. The Cardinals responded by winning six in a row to win the Southland Conference Tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. Although Knight faced some obstacles while coaching the team to 23 wins in his inaugural season at the helm of the program, he will be challenged even more as Lamar tries to replace four starters, three of which had double-digit scoring averages. Senior forward Stan Brown (4.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) is the lone returner to the starting lineup. Osa Ebomwonyi (6-11, 220) is a valuable defensive presence and could see his offensive numbers skyrocket as he is forced to be more assertive. Senior Nikko Acosta (6-9, 220) should be more settled after making 10 starts as a junior college transfer in his first season at Lamar. Donley Minor is the best ball handler returning, but freshmen Keilan Blanks (5-10, 170) and Donnell Minton (5-11, 170) are going to continuously compete for minutes. Lamar needs to be a strong defensive team once again due to its lack of proven scorers.
NICHOLLS J.P. Piper has plenty of reason to be optimistic after last season's injury plagued 10-20 finish. Piper lost his starting shooting guard Ben Martin to a career-ending injury, while Dantrell Thomas, Lachlan Prest, and Chris Talkington all missed time. This season, Nicholls has a deadly trio in its backcourt consisting of Thomas (11.7 ppg), Trevon Lewis (12.6 ppg), and the 2009 Southland Conference Freshman of the Year, Fred Hunter. Hunter sat out in 2011-2012 with a medical redshirt, but his return gives Piper a dangerous weapon in the backcourt. Sam McBeath (8.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Talkington (8.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg), and Prest (6-7, 209) form a decent rotation of forwards. The Colonels have made it to a school-record four straight Southland Tournaments. They should be able to make it five in a row and could even compete for the crown if they improve on the defensive end of the floor.
MCNEESE STATE The Cowboys came up just one game short of the Big Dance last season as they were edged out by Lamar in the SLC Tournament finals. Coach Dave Simmons will be anxious to get his team back to the conference championship game, but it will be much more difficult without the Southland Conference Player of the Year, Patrick Richard. The backcourt tandem of Dontae Cannon (11.9 ppg) and Jeremie Mitchell (10.8 ppg) is still arguably the best in the league. Cannon is a very crafty point guard and earned honorable mention all-conference selection. Mitchell is a three-point threat and netted 2.2 shots from long range per game. Junior Adrian Fields is the best wing on the squad. His offensive abilities are apparent, but his inconsistent defensive effort limited his playing time. McNeese State also has a pair of talented forwards in Craig McFerrin (6-7, 230) and Desharick Guidry (6-5, 200). McFerrin is the best low-post scorer on the team, while Guidry is a tenacious defender and rebounder.
SAM HOUSTON STATE The Bearkats were a very capable team offensively in Jason Hooten's second year at the helm of the program. However, the team is going to have to work even harder to achieve that success after its top two leading scorers transferred. Sam Houston will not drop off too far with Marquette transfer Erik Williams (6-7, 215) making his Southland debut. Williams should get a lot of open looks from beyond the arc with DeMarcus Gatliin (10.4 ppg), the son of former NBA All-Star guard Alvin Robertson drawing help defenders. Senior point guard Darius Gaton (6.7 ppg, 4.5 apg) is likely to lead the conference in assists after finishing second last season. Sophomore center Michael Holyfield (6-11, 255) could take on a greater role after posting four points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a rookie. Hooten is excited about incoming junior college transfer Will Bond (6-3, 190), who will help address the team's obvious need for outside shooting. Although Sam Houston has a talent at guard and on the wing, it will have a challenge in the paint with Holyfield being the only experienced big man on the roster.
CENTRAL ARKANSAS Corliss Williamson was almost always the most physical and tenacious players on the court throughout his Arkansas and NBA career. Now entering his third season as head coach of Central Arkansas with a 13-45 career record, Williamson needs to inject that tenacity into his team. The Bears' turnaround will start with junior guard LaQuentin Miles (14.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg). After transferring to UCA from Southeast Missouri State, Miles was named to the all-conference third team. Ryan Williams (4.2 ppg, 2.0 apg), Oliver Wells (3.2 ppg), and Lenell Brown (1.4 ppg) will all compete for minutes in the backcourt with top newcomer, DeShone McClure. The juco transfer from Navarro College is an active defender and slasher on the other end. Freshman Zach Padgett could see minutes due to his pure shooting ability. The Bears' guards will likely grow to appreciate the man in the middle, Anthony Borden (6-10, 240). While the senior center only played 13.5 minutes per game, he finished seventh in the league in blocks. Borden is academically ineligible for the first semester, which will put more pressure on Jarvis Garner (6-7, 220). The senior power forward averaged 10.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and began showing improvement down the stretch last season.
NORTHWESTERN STATE Mike McConathy's teams always seem to balance out. In his 13 years at the school he has compiled a 200-204 overall record. Last season, his squad went 9-9 before encountering a five-game winning streak. Then the Demons lost seven of their last nine to finish at an even 16-16. Northwestern State lost second and third leading scorers, William Mosley and Louis Ellis, but returns lefty point guard Shamir Davis (13.3 ppg, 3.1 apg). With the departures of Mosley and Ellis, Davis is expected to play more like a combo guard and look for his own shot even more. That is possible with redshirt freshman Jalan West (5-10, 175) set to make his debut. West was heavily recruited after he led Bossier High School to the Louisiana State Championship in 2011. Three-point threat Gary Roberson (6.2 ppg) should get plenty of open looks with Davis and West commanding the defense's attention. Inside, 6-6 forward Patrick Robinson and 6-8 James Hublin are going to be the Demons' best options. Robinson is a high-energy guy that has all the intangibles. Hublin (8.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) could be the real difference-maker by providing a consistent low-post threat. Gary Stewart is one of the top role players off the bench. Junior college transfers Brison White (6-1, 185) and DeQuan Hicks (6-7, 230) will both make an immediate impact. Austin and Dustin Adams are 6-7, 205-pound twin freshmen who will provide depth at forward.
TEXAS A&M-CORPUS CHRISTI The Islanders had a transitional year in 2011-2012 as long time Rice head coach Willis Wilson made his debut with the program. Wilson's team played tough and took many of their opponents to the wire, but they finished just 6-24 overall. TAMU-CC has no choice but to focus on rebuilding this season as it is barred from all postseason tournaments due to a low Academic Progress Rate score. Wilson's team lost his top two offensive threats as Terence Jones (UAB) and Myro Dempsey (Paul Quinn College) elected to transfer after the NCAA's ruling. The Islanders will still be competitive with future all-conference point guard Johnathan Jordan (6.5 ppg, 4.6 apg) running the show. Jordan led the Southland and set the school-record for assists (138) as a freshman. Fellow sophomore guards Hameed Ali (4.3 ppg) and Jake Kocher (3.2 ppg) will play alongside Jordan in the backcourt. Ali made game-winning shots against Utah State and Sam Houston State to give TAMU-CC two of its six victories. Kocher is one of the better perimeter defenders on the team. Nate Maxey has great size (6-11, 215) and uses it well to block shots and anchor the defense, but his inconsistency on the offensive end kept his minutes limited as a freshman. Junior transfers Joy Williamson (6-5, 210) and William Nelson (6-6, 215) can provide versatility and athleticism as forwards. The Islanders have a deep group of talented underclassmen. Solid growth and development this season could make TAMU-CC a contender down the road.