Who, what, where
The Southland Conference Tournament, Merrell Center, Katy, Texas, March 13-16
The Southland switched formats this year. Perhaps inspired by a tournament last year where No. 1 UT-Arlington and No. 2 Stephen F. Austin were both eliminated in the semifinals, this bracket gives double-byes to the top two seeds, rewarding their regular season performances with much easier roads to the title. Here's how the schedule plays out:
Wednesday, March 13
5 p.m.: No. 5 Nicholls State vs. No. 8 McNeese State
7:30 p.m.: No. 6 Sam Houston State vs. No. 7 Central Arkansas
Thursday, March 14
5 p.m.: No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana vs. Nicholls State/McNeese State
7:30 p.m.: No. 3 Oral Roberts vs. Sam Houston State/Central Arkansas
Friday, March 15 (both games on ESPN3)
5 p.m.: No. 1 Stephen F. Austin vs. SE Louisiana/Nicholls State/McNeese State
7:30 p.m.: No. 2 Northwestern State vs. Oral Roberts/Sam Houston/Central Arkansas
Saturday, March 16 (ESPN2)
Finals, 7:30 p.m.
Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks went 16-2 in-conference for their first title since winning in back-to-back years in 2008 and 2009. A quick summary of the Southland conference: Pretty much everything about this conference is average or worse. The one exception is Stephen F. Austin's defense. It's the only unit in the country that is in the top 100 in either offensive or defensive efficiency, and not only is it in the top 100, it's No. 6 in the nation, allowing just 86.3 points per 100 possessions. The Lumberjacks hold opponents to just 28.0 percent from three -- third-best percentage in the country -- and just 41.4 percent from inside the arc -- fourth-best -- and they don't allow a lot of offensive rebounds, either. It's all thanks to Taylor Smith, the 6'6 senior who averages 3.0 blocks and 9.0 boards per game -- oh, and he averages 15.6 points per game on an unreal 68.8 percent shooting from the field.
Northwestern State: It's hard not to think the other team that gets the auto-bye into the semifinals has a decent chance of winning this tournament, and the Demons provide an awesome matchup for SFA: Their offense is the best in the Southland, with 104.8 points per 100 possessions, and when you combine that with a breakneck pace -- 74.0 possessions per game, tops in college basketball -- they average 82.4 points per game, more than any other team. SFA slowed them down twice, but the results were still close. In the first game, the Demons scored 11 straight at the end of the game to win, 61-57. In the second, a Lumberjacks bucket with 11 seconds left gave SFA a 64-63 win.
Who's going dancing regardless
Nobody. This is a one-bid league, regardless of who wins.
Players to watch
Taylor Smith, Stephen F. Austin: Not many players did more for a team than Smith did for SFA. The 6'6 senior was a defensive presence, the team's best rebounder and also had the best EFG% of any player in the country. That's any player, for any team, in any conference.
Damen Bell-Holter, Oral Roberts: The 6'9 senior scores 15.8 points and grabs 9.7 rebounds per game for the Golden Eagles, fourth and first in the conference, respectively. Oral Roberts is the third-seeded team. As such, should have a chance of knocking out Northwestern State, and if they do that, SFA as well. Bell-Holter had two great outings against the Demons, including 25 points and a season-high 20 rebounds in an 80-74 win back in early January.
DeQuan Hicks, Northwestern State: The 6'7 JUCO transfer made a real impact on the Demons in his first season at Northwestern State, averaging 14.2 points despite playing just a hair over half of the team's minutes. Northwestern State goes 10 deep, in part to facilitate their enormous pace, but don't be mistaken: Hicks is the feature player.