The Southland Conference plays in the large shadow of the Big 12 Conference. However, once in awhile, the Southland gets a moment in the sun when one of its members beats someone from the nearby power conference. That's happened twice this season, as Sam Houston State upended Texas Tech and Stephen F. Austin knocked off Oklahoma. What those wins mean to Southland teams is immeasurable.
“It helps with exposure and it helps with confidence,” Sam Houston State coach Bob Marlin said. “We realize our teams aren’t deep enough to consistently compete with the Big 12 teams but we do have some good players. Every team in this conference has some players who could play in the Big 12.”
Stephen F. Austin coach Danny Kaspar feels that is especially the case this season.
“We have the type of teams this year that can give anybody problems in a one-game setting, whether it would be the NCAA Tournament or the NIT,” Kaspar said. “We would have trouble competing over a full season in the major conferences but we certainly have a number of talented teams capable of beating anybody on a given night.
“I would say this conference is as strong as ever. There are five or six teams capable of winning the conference in the regular season and probably a few more capable of winning the conference tournament.”
It is indeed a good year in the Southland, as evidenced by the upsets pulled by Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin. Those two rivals from the Southland’s West Division have certainly been the cream of the crop so far this season, as both are 14-2 despite dropping conference games last week. The teams face each other next Thursday at Stephen F. Austin.
Sam Houston State is No. 108 in the nation in the Pomeroy Rankings and Stephen F. Austin is 124th. Until this past week, Sam Houston had been receiving votes in The Associated Press poll and Stephen F. Austin had been doing the same in the USA Today coaches’ poll.
Both teams are succeeding because of strong defense. Sam Houston State ranks fourth in the nation in raw defensive efficiency (84.7) and 23rd in adjusted defensive efficiency (88.0) while Stephen F. Austin is 36th in raw defensive efficiency (91.1) and 99th in adjusted defensive efficiency (96.1). Sam Houston State is also fourth in three-point field goal percentage allowed (27.4) and eighth in effective field goal percentage allowed (42.6). Both coaches believe new personnel has helped the defense.
“We became better on the defensive end before we even stepped on the floor for the first day of practice,” said Marlin, who already had a defensive stopper in senior guard Shamir McDaniel.
Eric Bell, a 5'6" sophomore dynamo and junior college transfer, has been the key to Stephen F. Austin’s defense. He is 56th in the country in steal percentage (4.4) and 29th in assist rate (35.5).
“He plays the ball so well and he’s such a great defender, especially for his size, that everybody feeds off him,” Kaspar said.
McDaniel is also Sam Houston State’s leading scorer, with a 12.8 average, while fellow senior guard Ryan Bright is having an excellent all-around season, leading the Bearkats with averages of 10.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists while also scoring 11.1 points a game. Bright is also fifth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (30.6).
Other standouts for Sam Houston State are senior guard Jeremy Thomas, who is fourth in turnover rate (7.4) and 27th in offensive rating (128.4) and sophomore guard Ashton Mitchell, who ranks 37th in assist rate (34.8) and 46the in percentage of steals (4.6).
Stephen F. Austin has an outstanding 1-2 scoring and rebounding duo in juniors Matt Kingsley and guard Josh Alexander. Kingsley is averaging 16.1 points and 5.4 rebounds while Alexander’s numbers are 15.7 and 5.6.
Meanwhile, Texas-Arlington (11-4) and Southeastern Louisiana (10-6) also have strong defenses and a chance to win the Southland. Texas-Arlington is 30th in raw defensive efficiency (90.1) and No. 141 in the Pomeroy Rankings and Southeastern Louisiana is 23rd in raw defensive efficiency (89.3) and 167th in the Pomeroy Rankings.
Senior center Jermaine Griffin leads Texas-Arlington with averages of 13.9 points and 8.9 rebounds a game while ranking seventh in the nation in effective field goal percentage (67.2). Southeastern Louisiana is paced by freshman guard Derrio Green, who is averaging 15.3 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“When we were 12-1, there were people saying that we might get an at-large berth in the NCAAs but, realistically, that’s not going to happen because we’re strictly a one-bid conference,” Marlin said. “That makes it tough for teams like us but it also makes conference play so much more important than in the bigger conference. Every game counts in our conference because we’re all playing for that one bid. Every game has a great amount of intensity.”
Georgetown coach John Thompson III has drawn occasional criticism this season for not involving senior center Roy Hibbert enough in the Hoyas’ offense. The 7'2" senior is averaging only 8.2 shots and scoring just 12.5 points a game. However, Hibbert says the blame should be laid on him rather than Thompson.
“I just haven’t been aggressive enough at times,” Hibbert said. “I need to work a little harder to get shots. I’ve been a little too passive at times.”
That was the case in Monday night’s 69-60 loss at Pittsburgh. Hibbert managed only six shots, as he was continually hounded by Pitt freshman DeJuan Blair, who is seven inches shorter.
“Blair is a good player but it was more a case of me not being aggressive enough,” Hibbert said.
Penn State’s high hopes of being a factor in the Big Ten race came to a halt Tuesday night when the Nittany Lions lost their second straight home game, 80-55 to Wisconsin, and senior forward Geary Claxton for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Claxton was averaging 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds, both team-leading figures. He also was using 29.7 percent of Penn State’s offensive possessions, the 59th-highest figure in the nation.
“I just feel horrible for him,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said. “He has been a great kid for the 3 ˝ years he has been with us. He was a great ballplayer, great person and great student for our program. I really can’t put it into words. He wanted to work very hard. He wanted to do great things this year.
“Now, we’ve got to figure out our next move and regroup as a team. We’ve got to band together and go back to work.”
Claxton is fourth all-time in scoring (1,542) at Penn State and fifth in rebounding (755).
This week’s Team To Watch is Kansas State, which is not in The Associated Press top 25 but is No. 21 in the Pomeroy Rankings thanks to the stellar play of freshmen forwards Michael Beasley and Bill Walker.
The Wildcats have won six of their last seven games and are 11-4 overall. They are 1-0 in the Big 12 after winning 84-82 at Oklahoma last Saturday and host Texas A&M this Saturday.
Beasley is averaging 24.8 points and 13.1 rebounds a game and ranks sixth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (29.5), 18th in percentage of possessions (31.6), 26th in percentage of shots (33.6), and 35th in offensive rebounding percentage (15.1). Walker is scoring 15.8 points and pulling down 6.5 rebounds a game.
Kansas State is fourth in the country in rebounding percentage (42.6), eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency (84.9), and 16th in two-point field goal percentage defense (41.8).
The top five games of the week from Jan. 18-24, according to the Pomeroy Ratings (through Wednesday), with all times Eastern:
No. 15 Clemson at No. 3 Duke, Saturday, Jan. 19, 6 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 Kansas at No. 26 Missouri, Saturday, Jan. 19, 8 p.m., ESPNU
No. 19 Notre Dame at No. 13 Georgetown, Saturday, Jan. 19, 12 p.m., Mid-Atlantic Sports Network
No. 10 Washington State at No. 22 Arizona, Thursday, Jan. 24, 9 p.m., Fox Sports Net Arizona
No. 12 Texas A&M at No. 21 Kansas State, Saturday, Jan. 19, 4 p.m., ESPN
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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