The Southland Conference is going to have one of the most unpredictable tournaments of the conference tourney season. Don't trust my word for it? How about we refer to Ken Pomeroy, who posted his simulation update of the conference tournament today on Basketball Prospectus. Per the computers, five separate teams have a 10% or higher chance of winning the tournament. The No. 2 seed, Northwestern State, has the lowest chance of winning the entire tourney according to the simulations. Yes, you heard me, the No. 2 seed. Every team has at least a 40% chance of winning its first game. I'm sure there have been even fields with bigger names, but this is one of the very few conferences where anyone could win.
Pomeroy pegs Sam Houston State is the team with the best chance to win, so let's start with them. The BearKats went to the NCAA Tournament last year on the back of 6-6 senior Gilberto Clavell, who finished second in the conference with 19.6 PPG and eighth in rebounding with 7.4 per game. Clavell is literally SHSU's entire offense, as he accounts for over 35% of their offensive possessions, a figure that ranks 20th among every team in the nation. Their biggest weakness as a team is definitely three-point shooting, as the BearKats shot just 31% on three-pointers this season, good for 302nd in the nation. However, the BearKats match up early with the team that the Pomeroy rankings think has the second-best chance to win the tourney: the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. The Jacks would be an incredibly interesting team to watch if they made the NCAA's, they have a potent defense (far and away the best in the Southland) and run a very deliberate pace, making them a hard team to run away from. At that point, all you need is for a few shots to go awry and the game can turn in their favor.
The Lumberjacks have a pretty good offensive profile, and they're (surprisingly, given their overall height) very effective on the offensive glass. But their one major problem is turnovers--they turn the ball over on almost a quarter (23.3%) of all possessions they've had. These two teams met twice in the regular season, and both suffered embarrassing defeats at home by a blowout margin. Clearly, we're due for a tight game in the tourney, right?
Next up is No. 1 McNeese State, which plays against No. 8 Nicholls State. Unfortunately for McNeese, this isn't much of a break, as both teams are real threats to win the tournament. The Cowboys run a very balanced offensive attack between Patrick Richard, Diego Kapelan, and Stephan Martin. This undoubtedly gives them the best punch in the Southland, and that would be awesome for them if they had any big men who could play as well as they could. Instead, the team gets killed on the offensive glass and fouls a lot down low. The Colonels have just one player you need to know about: the conference's leading scorer, Anatoly Bose. Remember how I said Clavell was the BearKats whole offense? Well, Bose takes 37% of the Colonels shots, and uses 36.1% of their possessions. Just think of him as The Southland's Allen iverson.
The Colonels will have a punchers chance if Bose gets hot, but since they're also pretty bereft of height, their game plays right into McNeese State's hands. Most of their defensive stops come on turnovers, but the Cowboys can handle the ball just fine. McNeese won a one point decision against the Colonels on the road, then blew them out by 20 at home. Look for the margin to be closer to seven or eight, but it seems pretty likely that the Cowboys will move on here.
The University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners are given the greatest chance to escape the first round of the tournament by Pomeroy as they face the underdog #2 seed Demons. Neither of these teams have especially impressive resumes, but Roadrunners freshman Jeromie Hill might be the closest thing to a dominant big man in the conference. He averaged 13 points and 6.8 boards a game, and will likely be the anchor of UTSA's Southland hopes for years to come. The Demons have an interesting little team that revolves around a frantic pace and senior guard Will Pratt. Pratt is another high-usage player, and though he isn't the most efficient scorer, he leads the nation with nine fouls drawn per game.
These teams met only once in the regular season: a 63-58 UTSA victory in Louisiana. The No. 2 seed is an underdog for a reason. While I wouldn't place money on it or anything, the fact that the tourney is held in Texas and Northwestern St's lapses (including a loss to non-D1 LSU Shreveport) make me feel comfortable with picking the Roadrunners to advance.
Finally, the 4/5 game pits the Texas State Bobcats against the Southeastern Louisiana Lions. Texas State runs one of the fastest paces in college basketball, which regularly gets them into barnburners. Sometimes it turns out well, such as the 95-91 win over the BearKats at home, and sometimes it turns out sad, like when the Texas Longhorns dropped 101 on them. Both of these teams lack scoring punch, or really even a go-to guy. The Bobcats have a very deep bench that they love to utilize, while the Lions will rely mostly on David Ndoubma and Trent Hutchin to control the ball and take good shots when they can.
I'd probably go with the Bobcats in this one. Neither team has a compelling case to win, but the Bobcats can wear down the Lions with superior depth, and they did wax the floor with them by 13 at home last month.
Looking at the overall scope of the tournament, I think the winner of the Stephen F. Austin-Sam Houston State game will likely be facing McNeese State in the final. While they aren't that much better than the other teams in the field, those three clearly distinguish themselves. If you're a fan of slow ball games decided by turnovers, pull for the Lumberjacks. If you're big on the three-ball and a balanced offensive game, go for the Cowboys. And if you just want the Southland to put it's best team out on the floor come tourney time, root for Sam Houston State.