NCAA Tournament 2014: The many reasons to love Stephen F. Austin

The Lumberjacks were one of three teams in the country to finish conference play undefeated. They'll be a popular pick for a 12-5 upset on Friday. SB Nation's Andy Hutchins lets you know why.

I have wanted to give Stephen F. Austin a ranking in the last Savory Sixteen since I started writing it just to write about them. But enough teams kept winning to make ranking the Lumberjacks, who have not been and will not be one of the nation's top 16 teams in 2014, look more than just wrong.

That's not really the Lumberjacks' fault. Their schedule's been one of bad non-conference teams and a bad Southland Conference, but who wants to play Stephen F. Austin? They don't have the talent to count as a great mid-major team, but they have enough talent, and the corresponding unorthodox system, to fluster nearly anyone.

And they win. My goodness, do they win.

Here is a list of things I love about this Stephen F. Austin team:

  • There are three teams that are undefeated and 18-0 in conference play in 2014: Florida, Wichita State ... and Stephen F. Austin.
  • The Lumberjacks pressure the ball on defense as a way of life, and because doing things virtually any other way would be suicidal for a defense that counts 6'6 Jacob Parker as its center and tallest player. They're third nationally in turnover percentage, and have the shortest defensive possessions of any team in America -- because they hack pressure anything and everything in the hopes that turnovers will happen, and that teams will miss more free throws than they can make shots against an aggressive, attacking defense.

    On the flip side, as a way of maximizing their offense (and shortening games), the Lumberjacks take their time on offense, and rank 342nd in average possession length.

    This is, on one hand, an extension of the system that Danny Kaspar installed during his time at SFA, which produced the nation's No. 6 per-possession defense in 2013 and the No. 9 per-possession defense in 2009. On the other, it is a capitulation to a very specific idea of how an undermanned, undersized mid-major should be run.

    For that, credit Brad Underwood, a journeyman and longtime Frank Martin assistant who became SFA's head coach after Kaspar left for Texas State last spring. The fouling is new-ish, though SFA's tallest player in 2013 was 6'7, and the Jacks fouled plenty, but why play defense for 35 seconds when you can make steals happen in 10, or get the ball back after fouls? And why play more possessions against teams that might be able to wear on you? Stephen F. Austin is presenting the same tough questions to other teams that it did under Kaspar, because Underwood's smartly shied away from reinventing the wheel.

  • That style also makes for wonderful contrasts between the Lumberjacks and their Southland Conference rivals, the Northwestern State Demons, who run and run and run and run like a team of hellions, annually ranking among the nation's fastest teams, because they want to pose an unanswerable question: Why play slow when we can make you try to play at our speed and get as many possessions as possible?

    Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State played the most enjoyable game not featuring a national championship contender -- this is a convenient caveat that lets me rule out Arizona-UCLA and Florida-Kentucky; of the entire championship fortnight in a Southland Conference Tournament semifinal. The Jacks couldn't get a call for much of the game, and had to go even smaller without Parker thanks to foul trouble, while Northwestern State was flying and sinking threes. So the 'Jacks ran with them, scoring 1.23 points per possession and making 12 threes, as streaky scorer Desmond Haymon put up 27 points of his own, and won an 85-78 shootout.

  • SFA's teams are named the Lumberjacks -- because Nacogdoches, where the university is located, is in the middle of pine forests -- and the Ladyjacks, because two women decided in the 1930s that "Ladyjack" made more sense than the existing term, Lumberjill, for a female lumberjack, and because no one has apparently considered changing this to something that makes sense and/or does not separate the men's and women's teams in 80 years. If it's sexist, it's at least incomprehensibly, archaically so.
  • SFA is 30-2 despite playing 16 of those 32 games on the road, and lost to Texas and East Tennessee State in November before starting its current 26-game winning streak. The Lumberjacks' 14 road wins on the year are the nation's best, and SFA got them despite one stretch of four straight road games in November and another stretch of five straight road games in Southland play.
  • This buzzer-beater:

    Watch it again: That was Parker, SFA's "center," making that play, and he did it against the runnin' Demons.

  • SFA's cutesy fight phrase is "Axe 'em, Jacks!" Though it is not quite "Hook 'em, Horns!" or "Gig 'em, Aggies," it does make me think of the Axem Rangers, and I love Super Mario RPG very much.

Stephen F. Austin drew either the cruelest or the most sensible opponent for its round of 64 matchup: No. 5-seeded VCU. The No. 12 seed for the Jacks makes sense, as it rewards them for their incredible regular season, and playing a team that had a lot more "success" in a general sense than most see in a 30-2 year against weak competition makes sense, too.

VCU, however, is either just graduated from mid-majordom, given its new digs in the Atlantic 10 and the A-10's new-found ability to place several teams in the NCAA Tournament, or in the uppermost echelon of mid-majordom; pitting a great mid-major having a great year against a great, if lesser, mid-major having a great year is one of those tricks the NCAA seems to pull with dismaying regularity, at least for fans of the little guys.

On the bright side, SFA could totally beat VCU: They play pressure defense, too, and shouldn't fall prey to the HAVOC-happy Rams because of novelty, and VCU is smallish, so there's no imposing post player to get Parker in foul trouble or clean up on the glass. The Lumberjacks will be looking in a funhouse mirror on Friday, but it will be a mild distortion -- and seeing a team that looks like a slightly better version of themselves shouldn't scare these guys.

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