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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
Southeastern Louisiana coach Jim Yarbrough already had enough hurdles to clear this season.
Consider it's his first year as the Lions' head coach, and that man he succeeded -- Bill Kennedy -- captured two Southland Conference regular-season titles and last year's league tournament title, earning the school's first ever NCAA Tournament berth in the process. Also, he takes over a squad that lost its big man, 6-10 center Nate Lofton, who led the Lions in rebounding (7.2 per game) and was third on the team in scoring (11.3 ppg) his senior season.
Now one more, one bigger than most any coach could fathom and one nobody really knows how his team -- or any team -- might overcome.
With Southeastern's campus in Hammond, La., sitting barely 30 minutes north of Lake Pontchartrain -- which swelled out of its banks and spilled into New Orleans in late August -- the school, like others in the area, felt the wrath of the hurricane.
As water subsided and power was restored, Southeastern students returned to campus midway through September.
Now, Yarbrough hopes his team can return to the NCAA field of 64, with or without Lofton.
Yarbrough was already behind the game a bit after being hired in June to replace Kennedy, who in late May announced he was leaving to join Miami coach Frank Haith's staff as an assistant. The move seemed curious, because Kennedy had things going at SE Louisiana, and had been a head coach before, at Centenary.
Yarbrough, 41, was 97-42 in four seasons with Valdosta State and was the Gulf South Conference coach of the year in 2003-04.
"This is one of the bright moments of my career and I'm looking forward to the opportunity, rolling up my sleeves and getting to work," Yarbrough said.
Fortunately for Yarbrough, he has All-Southland forward Ricky Woods (17.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg) -- returning for his senior season. The 6-6 Woods is one of just two starters back from the conference tournament champions.
His team's leading scorer a year ago, Woods is once again expected to be one of the league's impact players and is a member of the preseason all-conference team. An athletic, slashing player, Woods relies more on getting to the basket and getting high-percentage shots than he does long-range shooting -- evidenced by his 55.8 percent shooting from the field a year ago and the fact he took just four three-pointers all season.
Woods also grabbed 56 steals, second on a team and a prime example of what made the Lions arguably the toughest defensive team in the Southland Conference.
Southeastern swarmed opponents with an athletic, attacking defense in 2004-05, forcing nearly four more turnovers per game than it committed -- tops in the league. The Lions had the league's No. 1 scoring defense, allowing just 56 points-per-game, and averaged nine steals per game, third in the conference.
Another key cog in the defensive machine Yarbrough hopes to recreate is 6-0 junior guard Terry Bryant (8.5 ppg), the Lions' other returning starter.
Bryant was third on the team with 52 steals and handed out 71 assists, second on the team.
Unfortunately for the Lions, that's where the experience and proven scoring ends. The three starters lost before Yarbrough ever took over -- Lofton, Jonathan Patton and Neill Berry -- combined not only for nearly 30 points per game, but also totaled nearly 150 steals between them.
Outside those five starters from a year ago, only two other players saw the floor in at least 30 of the Lions' 33 games last season. Both -- 6-3 senior guard Chris Lee (3.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and 6-8 senior forward Jonathan Walker (5.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) -- return with hopes of having a greater impact on this Southeastern squad.
From there, the on-court experience really drops.
Senior guard Scott Roninger did play 25 games last season, but his scoring impact (0.6 ppg) was minimal. Guard Thomas Woods (1.2 ppg), a 6-3 sophomore, averaged eight minutes per game as a freshman and figures to have improved in the off-season. The other five returning players -- 6-4 junior forward Justin Edwards (1.2 ppg), 6-4 sophomore guard Cavin Payton, 6-4 junior guard Michael Cyprian, 6-2 senior guard Dee Gadsden and 6-9 senior center Leonard Harden (1.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg) -- combined to play in just 52 games last season.
The Lions hope some of the scoring, rebounding, defense and leadership lost by three departing starters can be found in their four junior college signees. Leading the class is 6-7 junior forward Joseph Polite, who averaged 10 points and seven rebounds last season at San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College. He shot 54 percent from the floor while leading San Jacinto to a 31-3 record.
Another key JUCO signee is 6-4 junior guard Daryl Cohen, one of the top rated JC guards in the nation while at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College. After averaging 22 points per game as a freshman at Pearl River (Miss.) Community College, Cohen transferred to Pensacola and averaged 14 points and five rebounds as a sophomore.
Two other players signed by Kennedy who should be inherited by Yarbrough are 6-5 junior forward Darien Green from Panola (Texas) Junior College and Quran Wimberley, a 6-0 guard originally from Newark, N.J., who played for Jacksonville College.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Perhaps no player in the Southland Conference will be missed more than Lofton, who continually drew double teams to open up things for Woods and the Southeastern guards. Last year, Southeastern had three dominant players in Lofton, Patton and Woods. That number is down to one, with unproven talent all around.
How the seldom-used guards from last year perform -- if they aren't overtaken by new guard signees -- will be critical to Southeastern's defensive success.
Also, Woods is sure to be the focus of opposing defenses with Lofton gone, meaning he will be tested like he never was last year. Add in a new coach and a late school start because of a natural disaster, and how the Lions' season might end appears to be a huge question mark for now.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).