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Thursday, August 21, 2008
Southland ShootAround: Injuries paved way for unpredictable finish

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Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After finishing with a 7-9 league record, UT-Arlington rebounded to win the Southland tourney.

Try to catch the Roadrunners

Texas-San Antonio's Brooks Thompson lived every head coach's worst basketball nightmare last season.

His 2007-08 Roadrunners, laden with talent, looked poised to break into the Southland's top tier and quite possibly return to the Big Dance after three seasons away. But a knee injury to returning leading rebounder Andrew Francis in the opening game served as ominous foreshadowing. UTSA won four of its first five games, but the injuries kept coming.

"You have your first really good start in two years, then your front four players go down," said Thompson. "We had head injuries, hand injuries, bad ankles, broken bones, ripped muscles, concussions here and there. Our leading scorer broke his foot in the first conference game. I'd never seen anything like it."

The biggest loss was 6-foot-7 Travis Gabbidon, who had registered team-leading averages of 13.9 ppg and 5.8 rpg before a broken foot claimed his season after 14 games. All told, 11 of UTSA's 13 scholarship players took time off with injury.

"It was unfortunate, but I was really proud of the way our team kept battling through it," said Thompson, who was the Orlando Magic's first-round draft pick in 1994 and played four seasons in the NBA. "They could have thought they were destined for failure and folded their tents, but they didn't. They wouldn't accept failure."

They'll be very talented with most of those guys back and should be a team that'll be there every year. They have resources that a lot of us don't have.

--Mike McConathy, Northwestern State coach

More often than should have occurred, Thompson's Roadrunners foiled the offensive plans of the Southland's Wile E. Coyotes. Opponents usually found themselves the victim of UTSA's "meep-meep" defense -- four players averaged at least one steal a game, led by all-league freshman Devin Gibson, who led the entire country with 3.3 spg despite missing two games due to a concussion. The Roadrunners as a team led the nation in forcing turnovers, as 26 percent of opponents' possessions ended in vain.

San Antonio ended its league season at 7-9, the exact same record as tourney champion and NCAA participant Texas-Arlington. But the improvement over a 2006-07 rebuilding year was palpable -- nine home wins and a near-doubling of the team's overall win total from seven to 13.

"That's always been a very difficult team for us," said Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy, whose league runner-up Demons dropped an 81-78 overtime decision to UTSA in January. "With all the injuries they had, they'd become very guard-oriented at that point; they really just shot the lights out against us. They'll be very talented with most of those guys back and should be a team that'll be there every year. They have resources that a lot of us don't have."

Indeed, UTSA is currently one of the largest Division I universities without a football team. Fueled mostly by basketball and volleyball, its total athletic revenues of just over $9 million place it second among league schools, just behind pigskin-playing Texas State. The school's 5,000-seat Convocation Center (aka The Bird Cage) easily ranks as the Southland's most sparkling.

And as long as they don't have to spend a lot of that money on hospital bills this year, they should be in the thick of the league race come March. The Roadrunners return a healthy Gabbidon, steal king Gibson and 6-3 senior Joey Shank, who nailed a team-leading 67 3-pointers last year season.

"This is the most optimistic I've ever been going into the season, we're more talented than we've been," said Thompson. "I think we've used up all our bad luck."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

North by Northwest
Northwestern State's stirring 2006 win over Iowa still resonates throughout the Southland and on NCAA highlight reels. But Jermaine Wallace's late 3-pointer from the corner isn't the Demons' only instance of March magic. Over the past four years, Mike McConathy's team is 15-6 in the month that matters.

A rough start to the 2007-08 season held the Demons to a 15-18 record, but two of those wins came out of a No. 5 seed at the Katy, Texas league tourney. With victories over Southeastern Louisiana and regular-season champion Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern State earned its four straight trip to the nationally-televised Southland championship game.

"You can have your ups and downs during the season," said Demons head coach McConathy, whose team fell to Texas-Arlington in the title game by three. "But when it comes to March, though, everything's on the table. In March, our players go into the league tournament knowing that Northwestern State belongs there. When you've been able to consistently win in March, they're going to expect to keep doing that."

Fall from grace
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was the unquestioned top story of the 2006-07 season in this league. The Islanders entered the Southland after seven years as an independent, won 26 games and both league titles, then took an eight-point lead into halftime against No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the NCAA first round before falling late. But after Ronnie Arrow left for South Alabama, Corpus Christi and new coach Perry Clark endured the worst season in school history, winning just nine games in 2007-08.

The Islanders became the first Southland team ever to win the league championship, then miss out on the playoffs the next year. Because the league only allows eight of its 12 teams into the conference tourney, the only postseason that Corpus Christi had occurred when outgoing senior guard Will Bullard earned runner-up status at the college slam dunk championship in San Antonio. He jumped over one, two and then three players in the nationally-televised spectacle.

But that's nothing compared to the hurdles that Bullard's old program now faces. In July, the NCAA accused Texas A&M-Corpus Christi of eight major infractions, including use of ineligible players, recruiting violations, and "lack of institutional control." According to documents sent to the school, the NCAA claims that athletic director Brian Teter for filing a false report about one of the ineligible players. The school has until late October to respond to the charges.

The more the merrier
The Southland has never earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but routinely sent multiple teams to the national postseason back in the 1980s when Lamar and Louisiana Tech were peaking. In 2007-08, the league featured multiple postseason teams for the first time since 2001, when 22-9 McNeese was upset by Northwestern State by a single point in the title game. Stephen F. Austin earned only the second NIT bid since 1988.

SFA pulled a memorable 66-62 upset at Oklahoma, then went 13-3 in the league before falling short in the conference semis. But an RPI of 64 and the 242nd-ranked strength of schedule meant that the Lumberjacks were sent packing all the way up to UMass (on two separate planes due to the short notice), where they lost by 20.

The disappointing finish did nothing to dull the accomplishments of 6-4 dynamo Josh Alexander, who scored 500 points and was named player of the year in the Southland. Later, Alexander was honorably mentioned by the AP All-American panel. His coach thinks he can improve even more in 2008-09, as SFA attempts to take the next step.

"Josh is just a great player," said Lumberjacks head coach Danny Kaspar. "Athletic shooter-scorer. He's been our leading rebounder last two years, and gets in the passing lanes on defense. If he can improve his ballhandling and passing, he'll be a hell of a pro. He could seriously be making money somewhere as a two-guard."

"Other" Mavs
Texas-Arlington had never made it to the NCAA tournament before this past March, and that again looked unlikely at the close of a 7-9 regular season. But the Mavericks summarily eliminated the second and third seeds (Lamar and Sam Houston), then edged Northwestern State by three to earn its first Dance ticket. As could be reasonably expected, UTA's dream year ended quickly when eventual national runner-up Memphis delivered a 24-point knockout blow in the first round.

That might not be the end of Texas-Arlington, though. Scott Cross' crew retains the services of 6-7 senior Anthony Vereen, who led the team in scoring at 13.8 ppg and scored 20 in the Memphis game on 7-for-11 shooting. The Metroplex's other Mavs also picks up former Boston College Eagle Marquez Haynes, a 6-3 local product from Irving who wanted to end his college career closer to home.

And the increase in television exposure has definitely helped UTA in recruiting. After watching the Mavericks beat Northwestern State on ESPN2 this past March, Armani Williams called up Cross and committed his services. Williams scored over 1,700 points at Elgin High in Illinois, and should spend a large portion of his freshman year on the court.

Bragging rights
All but one of the conference's 12 teams (Central Arkansas) are in either Texas or Louisiana, so there's always an overarching border war ever since the 1970s. Louisiana currently holds an 20-14 lead in all-time auto bids.

After a two-year period of Louisiana rule with Southeastern Louisiana and NWSU in 2004 and 2005, the balance of power has shifted back to the Lone Star state. Despite Corpus Christi's dramatic falloff and UTA's seven-seed run, the top successes were from Texas.

"Sam [Houston State], us, UTA and Lamar were the best teams in the league last year," said Stephen F. Austin head coach Danny Kaspar, whose team finished 26-6 and went to the NIT as regular-season champs. "That's pretty clear."

The trio of SFA, Lamar and SHSU averaged nearly 23 wins for the season. Their long-suffering compadres from the West division also are making rapid improvements. Texas State, which has spent most of the decade in the wilderness after string of league titles in the late 1990s, has surged from three wins to 13 in three seasons. Despite its horrible luck with injuries, Texas-San Antonio won 13 games, nearly doubling its win total. The future looks as big and bright as the stars at night.

If I were the Southland commish …

I would to move the championship game off Selection Sunday. Sometimes, because of the résumé, the Southland champ may have no choice but to be in the opening-round game. But playing an afternoon game on Selection Sunday can potentially force the NCAA tournament selection committee into putting the league winner in the only available remaining seed. Had Northwestern State beaten Texas-Arlington in the final, there was a good chance NSU would have been in the opening-round game. So the league should try to find an earlier date to play the final so the committee has plenty of time to evaluate the champion in the seeding process. The argument against rescheduling the final is that there aren't many other games on that day, so the Southland has more exposure. But the game is dwarfed by the news coming out of the ACC, SEC or Big Ten. If the game gets on a night when there are fewer high-profile games, there is more chance for national exposure.

2008-09 Team Capsules

By Kyle Whelliston
ESPN.com
Southland
UCACentral Arkansas
UCA has two more years to go before it becomes eligible for the Southland and national postseason, but until then the Bears will sharpen their claws against a full league schedule. Last season's squad registered the same 4-12 league record as its inaugural D-I season in 2006-07, but it took a step backwards on offense. Central eked out just 66.6 points per game, and was among the country's worst shooting teams at 39.7 percent. Wichita State transfer Chris Brown, a 6-8 lefty, will be counted on to move those numbers up after getting limited minutes in the Valley.

LamarLamar
The 19 wins were the most since the program joined the Southland, but a shocking quarterfinal loss as a No. 2 seed to Texas-Arlington sandblasted all the luster off Lamar's co-regular season championship. This was the best 3-point shooting team in the SLC (38.2 percent from behind the arc). But the Cardinals' Achilles' heel was their shoddy field-goal defense, which allowed 47.5 percent of shots to connect, a weakness that Texas-Arlington exploited to a 53.6 percent tune in the 81-75 eliminator. Two key starters return as seniors: 5-9 Kenny Dawkins and 6-6 Justin Nabors, who combined for 25.8 ppg last season.

McNeese StateMcNeese State
Hanging around the .500 mark all season, the Cowboys turned in a virtual carbon copy of their previous four seasons. It turned out to be a major disappointment for the five seniors with increased expectations. On the plus side, McNeese was tough around the basket, leading the conference in 2-point field goal defense and blocks -- but the primary source of the team's bulk, 6-11 Kleon Penn, is among the departed for 2008-09. A .500 follow up would be quite an achievement.

Nicholls StateNicholls State
The Colonels, perhaps the most impressive 10-win team in the nation last season, were blown out only twice during a 5-11 Southland campaign. The 2008-09 squad has a legitimate chance to make it back to the eight-team conference tournament for the first time since 2001, as coach J.P. Piper's Down Under project looks like it's ready to pay off. Senior Ryan Bathie and sophomore Anatoly Bose are both 6-6 Aussies who combined for 24.4 ppg last season, and Nicholls will retain the services of 6-2 senior and a Melbourne product Michael Czepil. Czepil suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December, soon after scoring 13 in a 10-point loss at North Carolina.

Northwestern StateNorthwestern State
Turnovers did in the Demons last season -- only three teams in America coughed up the ball more often than their 19 times per game. If Northwestern State reaches its fifth straight SLC title game next March, head coach Mike McConathy will have found suitable replacements in his heavy-rotation system for Trey Gilder, Colby Bargeman and two other outgoing seniors. One might be Aramie Brooks, a 6-8 PF transfer from two-year school Arkansas-Fort Smith.

Sam Houston StateSam Houston State
Before an upset loss in the league semifinals ended their season at 23-8, the Bearkats achieved their third straight season with at least 21 victories. That era coincides with the last three years of 6-6 standout Ryan Bright's career, who averaged a double-double in his senior season. The post-Bright period at Sam State may someday be referred to as the Bootle Era, in honor of Scouts Inc.'s top Southland recruit. Antoine Bootle is a 6-7 small forward who played his prep ball at Saint Thomas High in Houston.

Southeastern LouisianaSoutheastern Louisiana
Since storming to the 2005 Southland title, the Lions have been erased in the conference quarters three straight times. Southeastern will lose three starters from its 17-13 (9-7 SLC) team from last season, but the cupboard is far from cleaned out. Patrick Sullivan, a 6-9 junior from Orlando, more than doubled his scoring output as a sophomore (4.5 ppg to 10.0), led the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) and collected five double-doubles.

Stephen F. AustinStephen F. Austin
Roster churn is an annual tradition at SFA, in good years and bad. Only three seniors depart from the breakthrough 26-6 squad that earned the school its first postseason appearance since the 1987 NIT. But coach Danny Kaspar signed a total of six players, four of them juco transfers. Among the new pieces Kaspar has at his disposal are Oklahoman 5-8 point guard Jarrod McDaniel, former Idaho Vandal 6-8 PF Aaron Smith and Zach Williams, a Dallas-area shooting guard who'll be groomed to be an eventual replacement for reigning Southland POY Josh Alexander.

Texas A&M-CCTexas A&M-CC
Replacing six seniors from the team that gave Wisconsin a scare in the 2007 NCAA first round was a contributing factor to the Islanders' on-court crash, as was the less-than-dominating senior season for 2007 Southland POY Chris Daniels. The 7-footer saw his production slip considerably, but the real difference between the two teams was the perimeter game. In 2006-07, Corpus Christi shot a blistering league-best 40 percent from 3 and only managed a Southland-worst 28.8 percent last season. Freshman point guard Terrence Jones, a 6-2 Marylander, will get every opportunity to fix the failing offense.

UT-ArlingtonTexas-Arlington
The Mavericks might have had an even better season if not for a December injury to shooting guard Brandon Long. After starting UTA's first nine games and scoring 12.3 ppg, the 6-1 junior suffered a thumb injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. The Mavs were 8-1 at the time and struggled to regain their form before sprinting to the tourney title. Head coach Scott Cross applied for a redshirt for Long, and the Illinois native will be back at full strength this season.

UT-SATexas-San Antonio
This could be the season that everything comes together, if only because this team is overdue for a run of good luck. A year after 6-7 juco transfer Travis Gabbidon was sidelined by a foot injury, he broke his leg 14 games into the 2007-08 season. Gabbidon was leading the team with 13.9 ppg at the time and will redo his junior season. In all, 10 members of the 12-man roster missed games with various injuries. Despite all that, exciting first-year point man Devin Gibson led the nation in steals (3.3 spg), and the team forced turnovers at a NCAA-leading 26 percent clip. If they stay healthy, the Roadrunners will definitely contend.

Texas StateTexas State
No team burns as little shot clock as the Bobcats, proud to be the fastest team in Division I. You can afford to miss a few shots when you play that way, but a lack of defense meant no conference tournament for a third straight year. But third-year head coach Doug Davalos has overseen improvements from three wins to nine to 13 -- in part because of the extra possessions afforded by being the third-leading rebounding squad in the country (42.2 team rpg). Seniors Brandon Bush and Brent Benson, who combined for 27.3 ppg, will try to run and gun their way to a top-eight finish.

2007-08 Southland Standings

Overall record East Division record
Lamar 19-11 13-3
Southeastern Louisiana 17-13 9-7
Northwestern State 15-18 9-7
McNeese State 13-16 7-9
Nicholls State 10-21 5-11
Central Arkansas 14-16 4-12
Overall record West Division record
Stephen F. Austin^ 26-6 13-3
Sam Houston State 23-8 10-6
Texas-Arlington* 21-12 7-9
Texas-San Antonio 13-17 7-9
Texas State 13-16 6-10
Texas A&M-CC 9-20 6-10
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth

For all the Southland news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Josh Alexander, Stephen F. Austin, Sr. 16.1
Matt Kingsley, Stephen F. Austin, Sr. 15.7
Kenny Dawkins, Lamar, Sr. 14.6
Brandon Bush, Texas State, Sr. 14.6
Devin Gibson, Texas-San Antonio, Soph. 14.1

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Brian Marks, Central Arkansas, Sr. 7.8
Brandon Bush, Texas State, Sr. 7.2
Justin Reynolds, Texas A&M-CC, Soph. 7.2
John Pichon, McNeese State 6.4
Justin Nabors, Lamar, Sr. 6.4

Final Shot

• Which Southland team ranks the highest since the start of the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• The Southland isn't known for its NCAA tournament prowess, but next March, the conference could earn a relatively high seed. Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.