No team has been as dominant in conference play as Stephen F. Austin the past three years.
Since 2014, the Jacks are 59-1 in their league, including the three conference tournaments victories that have sent them to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Their only loss came last Valentine's Day on the road against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Two of their conference wins this season were by single digits, 15 were by 20 points or more. The Southland isn't college basketball's greatest conference, but no matter how bad the competition, it's incredible to blow the freakin' doors off the opposition each and every game.
The Jacks turned heads in 2013 by toppling VCU in a 12-5 upset. Not much has changed. They're still coached by Brad Underwood and play the same style. (After three ridiculous seasons, I can't imagine SFA will be able to fend off larger schools much longer.) They're led by Thomas Walkup, who has won back-to-back conference player of the year titles since his double-double helped them secure that 2013 upset
The biggest difference between this team and that one is the seed. But even as a 14 facing a very good West Virginia team, the Jacks are capable of pulling an upset.
How can they pull an upset?
The Jacks' strength is their ability to force turnovers. Sometimes they play a full-court press, sometimes they play a half-court trap, sometimes they even play a 1-3-1 zone. All are designed to make teams make mistakes. Opponents turn the ball over 25.9 percent of the time, the highest rate in the nation.
They're able to pull this off with a small lineup that often features no players over 6'5. Walkup, a 6'4 195-pounder, makes this work. Laugh at the idea of a 6'4, 195-pound "big man," but while you're laughing, Walkup will be driving your team's big man absolutely crazy.
A massively undersized forward without a reliable jumper, he's got one of the most unique games in college basketball. too fast for most power forwards to guard, he's got a variety of post moves, and he's incredible at finishing around the basket. He shoots 64 percent from inside the arc, draws a ton of fouls and hits all his free throws. He doesn't even really need to shoot from the outside. He shot only 21.9 percent from deep this year. On defense, he keys the team's emphasis on turnover, stealing the ball on 4.1 percent of opposing possessions, top 20 in the nation.
Stephen F. Austin is located in Nacogdoches, a town in the Piney Woods of East Texas. And the school has one of the nation's best forestry departments, complete with its own "experimental forest." So, yes, the school's mascot is the Lumberjacks. Specifically, the school's mascot is this dude:
Photo credit: Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images
Believe it or not, this dude's name is Blake Loggins. I'm not joking. He is a lumberjack with an axe and enormous beard named Blake Loggins. I cannot imagine a better mascot.
SFA fans like to hold their fingers in an "axe em" gesture along the lines of Texas' "hook 'em," Baylor's "sic 'em" and A&M's "gig 'em." It's a rule. If you're a sports team in Texas, you have a hand sign indicating how you will murder your opponent. The school's women's teams are oddly called the "Ladyjacks." Lumberjacks jack lumber ... so ... do ladyjacks ... well, never mind. I would've called them the Lumberjills. I made this same joke two years ago. Deal with it.
Stone Cold Stunners
In case you're wondering who Stephen F. Austin is, he's the guy known as the "father of Texas." Now the state's capital (and, of course, this college) are named after him. Here here is a painting of him in 1823, shortly after he settled the region with 300 American families.
Photo credit: Bryan Bedder, Getty Images
Can they really pull the upset?
I really think so!
I love this matchup for them. Remember how I told you SFA is No. 1 in college basketball in turnover percentage? Well, West Virginia is No. 2. The Mountaineers rely on a all-out full-court press to fluster opponents and often rely on a 1-3-1. That won't fluster the Jacks, who practice the full-court press and 1-3-1 themselves.
Take a look at who SFA beat two years ago in the first round: VCU, whose HAVOC defense under Shaka Smart got them to a Final Four in the year before. The Jacks were calm and didn't let the tenacious press bother them. They were used to it.
I'm a bit concerned about SFA's size -- the Mountaineers are an aggressive offensive rebounding team, and the tiny Lumberjacks aren't great at defensive rebounding. And SFA's few out-of-conference games against major conference teams were very troubling. They lost by 42 to Baylor and by double digits to Northern Iowa and UAB.
But you can't rule out a team that obliterated its conference opposition so thoroughly. You don't win 15 games by 20 points on luck. You do it by being 20 points better than most teams you play. Those non-conference losses were literally months ago, and since then, all they've done is dominate.
The Jacks have the same strategy and one very good player from the team that made a big upset two years ago. There's reason to believe they can come out with a similar result, too.
* * *
Potential Cinderella: Northern Iowa is cruising after a remarkable turnaround
Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more