Things have gone pretty well so far for the teams that have been featured in this segment. Both Miami and Colorado State are safely in Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket predictions, and the Hurricanes have even managed to take over the title for having the nation’s toughest strength-of-schedule.
This week, we’ll travel south to a conference that doesn’t get much press…well, ever. Many of you may roll your eyes at this week’s selection, but I think this team has a chance to shock people in March if they get a chance to play in the Big Dance.
Let’s take a look at the pride of Nacogdhoces, Texas, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.
The Basic Info
You might not be able to pronounce where they’re from (don’t worry…I wasn’t able to at first, either), but the Lumberjacks are doing everything in their power to make you forget some of the bigger names in Texas in favor of them. Stephen F. Austin hails from the Southland Conference, generally one of the weaker conferences in Division 1 college basketball each year. However, the Lumberjacks are putting together a pretty nice season so far, thanks to one of the most reliable forwards in the country.
At 17-2, the Lumberjacks have proven that they are capable of beating just about anyone in their conference. The 8-1 conference mark backs that up, but it won’t do much in terms of impressing the selection committee because of the perceived strength of the Southland Conference. Thus, Danny Caspar’s team will just have to continue winning, including its conference tournament to get a shot on the national stage.
Despite a modest RPI ranking (74) and a poor strength-of-schedule (306) that ranks the lowest of any team currently in the top 100 of the RPI, there is reason to suggest that the Lumberjacks are capable of hanging with the bigger schools. A win over Oklahoma and a competitive loss at Texas A&M proves Stephen F. Austin isn’t intimidated by schools from the power conferences. In addition, anything seems possible with do-it-all forward Taylor Smith leading the team.
Why I Like Them
Although the Southland Conference isn’t known for being particularly strong from top to bottom, there have been years where the conference’s automatic bid has caused trouble in the tournament. Such was the case in 2006, when 14 seed Northwestern State took down third seeded Iowa in the first round.
The Lumberjacks aren’t like the other teams that I have featured in this segment so far. Five players have started all 19 games for Stephen F. Austin, and those same five account for the majority of playing minutes. However, unlike Miami and Colorado State, the Lumberjacks have a true star in their lineup.
I don’t usually get overly excited about individual performances in college basketball, but Taylor Smith appears to be the real deal. In addition to nearly averaging a double-double (15.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the junior is fourth in the NCAA in shooting percentage at 68.9%. This is pretty incredible considering the fact that Smith is just 6’6”, which means that he is getting quality looks close to the basket as well as pulling down rebounds every game against guys who may have at least a few inches on him.
If Smith continues to be a beast in conference play, the Lumberjacks should have a very good shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament.
So, Why Are They Being Ignored?
This one isn’t too difficult to answer. Obviously, it’s the conference that the Lumberjacks play in that is keeping them from showing up on the radar of most college basketball fans. It’s hard enough to explain to someone that the Southland Conference isn’t made up in March, let alone at the end of January.
For more passionate hoops fans, the low SOS is concerning. It isn’t all that surprising considering the conference that the school plays in, but being ranked in the bottom quarter of all Division 1 schools isn’t attractive. It is completely normal to wonder whether a school that hasn’t played any truly tough competition will be blindsided by almost any team it plays in the NCAA Tournament.
Lastly, the fact that Taylor Smith appears to be the do-it-all player for the Lumberjacks could come back to bite them. Smith is actually the tallest player on the team that sees significant minutes, and at 6’6” that is pretty remarkable. While there is the chance that he may be able to outwork some of the bigger bodies he may see against a larger school, it is more likely that he could get pushed around in the paint.
The Lumberjacks would actually be in better position to creep up on someone if they relied more on bench depth and equal scoring distribution.
What Can We Expect?
Despite the drawbacks, Stephen F. Austin has yet to face many troubles this season. Currently, Joe Lunardi has the Lumberjacks as a 13 seed, which would give them a decent chance of pulling off an upset. However, this is a pretty high seeding for a Southland Conference team and would only be possible if Coach Caspar’s team only loses a couple more games from here on out.
This is not a team that could realistically count on an at-large bid if it loses in its conference tournament. Thus, we’ll know before Selection Sunday if this is a team we have to keep an eye on.
As far as Southland Conference teams go, I like this team a lot. Oral Roberts switched over to the conference from the Summit League this year, which could make things difficult for the Lumberjacks if they end up seeing Mark Sutton’s team in the conference tournament. He knows how to win in March, and the Golden Eagles have made three NCAA Tournament appearances during his tenure.
I think that the Lumberjacks could receive as high as a 13 seed, but will probably earn a 14 or 15 seed because it’s hard seeing them win out from here. Don’t be surprised if they give a top seed trouble, though. It is clear from most of their in-conference games that they are not a typical Southland Conference squad. They have the potential to hang with anyone.
If you would like to submit a team for consideration for this weekly series, please send me an email at email@example.com, tweet me @KBecks_ATC or contact me on Around The Corn’s Facebook page. In addition to any submissions, you are more than welcome to send a short summary of why you think the team is a good candidate for this type of article. Thanks everyone.