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Southland Conference tournament: Preview, prediction, TV info

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

Desmond Haymon and the Lumberjacks haven't lost since Nov. 23. (USATSI)

Latest in hoops: Top 25 (and one) | Bracketology | Bubble Watch

What: Southland Conference championship.

When: March 12-15.

Where: Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy, Texas.

Bracket: View tournament field here.

TV: Championship game on ESPN2 (March 15, 7:30 p.m.). Semifinals on ESPN3.com.

Last year's champ: Northwestern State (23-8, No. 14 seed)

What matters: Stephen Freaking Austin. At least that's what the "F." in Stephen F. Austin should stand for. This is a program that just went 18-0 in league play, only matching Florida and of course Wichita State for such a feat this season. It's the first time since 1967 a team has gone undefeated in the Southland. The Lumberjacks (cue your Monty Python paraodies now, please) got to 27-3 last season before falling to Northwestern State in the league tournament. SFA was the Southland's best team yet got trumped in the league tourney bracket and missed out on the NCAAs.

Now, this season? We've already seen most of the No. 1 seeds in league tournaments fail to win the auto bid. Vermont, Green Bay, Robert Morris, Belmont, High Point and Iona all will be headed to the NIT. Stephen F. Austin is arguably the best in its league compared to any. The team hasn't lost since prior to Thanksgiving, now riding a 26-game winning streak.

Elsewhere, Northwestern State does pose the biggest threat. The Demons absolutely love to run, averaging an NCAA-fastest 76 possessions per game. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is the No. 2 seed, having gone 14-4 in the league. But the team was 3-10 in non-conference play, one of those wins against a non-DI school. SFA needs to make the Big Dance to give the Southland the best chance.

Who matters: SFA junior Jacob Parker is the Player of the Year. Parker averages 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds. He scores more than 1.25 points per possession, one of the most efficient players with the ball in the country. Desmond Hayman is the point guard pacing the 'Jacks. A confident senior that has as an upperclassman teammate in Nikola Gajic who'll steal two or three per game if you don't pay attention.

Elsewhere, Northwestern State sophomore guard Jalan West was Defensive Player of the Year, and his teammate, Zeek Woodley, was Freshman of the Year in the Southland. According to the conference, "West is the only Division I player who averages at least 18.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game."

And he's 5-feet-10.

Fun fact: This tournament will be one for the horses. It averages 68.3 possessions per game, according to KenPom.com, making it the second-fastest conference in the country. The irony here is that Stephen F. Austin and Corpus Christi are methodical and take much more time with the ball. The two best teams like to slow things down. It should be noted that SFA's been so good two years straight under two coaches: Danny Kaspar last season and Brad Underwood in 2013-14. Underwood's 29-2 start is one of the 10 best in D-I history for a first-time coach.

Prediction: They're the Lumberjacks, and they're OK. They're going to get to the NCAA Tournament and maybe even be a 12 seed when they get there.

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