Many newbie Division I programs spend years in the independent wilderness before finding a conference home, but UCA was able to enjoy its first season at the top flight with all the assurances that Southland membership offers. The comfort level served the Bears well. There was a 50-48 nonconference upset of Bucknell at the Marist Classic, a season sweep of Nicholls State and a six-point home win over defending champs Northwestern State to end the season. With a pair of 12 ppg scorers returning in senior Durrell Nevels
and sophomore Marcus Pillow
, Central Arkansas' next goal is to break out of the East Division's basement.
Cardinals fans were red in the face last season, what with all the frustration their team caused. The Cardinals were one of the most athletic squads in the league, leading the Southland in rebounds and assists. But the Cards also featured a leaden shooting touch -- ranking as one of the nation's worst free-throw shooting teams -- and were plagued by off-court distractions. Now comes word that 7-1 center James Davis
, the team's leader in scoring (15.3), rebounding (7.9) and suspensions (2) last season, ended his collegiate career one year early to play overseas.
Dave Simmons was brought to Lake Charles in mid-August after the late firing of Tic Price, then performed one of the more outstanding coaching feats in the conference. Using Price's players, he piloted the Cowboys to a 9-7 league record and a tourney No. 4 seed on the strength of a conference-leading rebounding and field-goal defense. Leading scorer and rebounder Jarvis Bradley
(15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) returns as a senior, and Simmons brings in his first true recruiting class: four young forwards and local point guard Stephan Martin.
The Colonels started 2006-07 with 10 eligible players, spent most of the season with eight, and from Feb. 8 on only dressed seven. Somehow, J.P. Piper's squad went 4-3 in that latter period, culminating in a one-point loss to McNeese that would have clinched the eighth and final tourney seed. Now, NSU will have to do without the league's leading scorer in '06-07 Stefan Blaszczynski
(19.2 ppg), but the Australian pipeline that brought him to Thibodeaux also produced two of last year's missing redshirted players, 6-7 Dominic Friend
and 6-2 Michael Czepil
The five-in, five-out substitution-crazy Demons have to replace leading scorer Luke Rogers
(13.5) and three key seniors, all of whom were on the court for school's historic NCAA Tournament upset of Iowa in 2006. Long and lean 6-9 Trey Gilder
, last season's most athletic player, returns for a final year after scoring 12.2 ppg in 17 minutes a game as a junior (that's 27.6 per 40 minutes). But NSU's head coach is still looking for the right chemistry to fill out a couple of five-man units after a Labor Day weekend trip to the Bahamas. "I've got to find the right combinations," McConathy said. "I'm nowhere close right now."
Sam Houston State
Last season's Bearkats had the opportunity to wrap up the regular season SLC title on their home court. But they were declawed by Corpus in a 85-68 loss, and after losing to No. 7-seeded Lamar in the conference tourney by a single point, SHSU was excluded from the national postseason altogether. Three of the top four scorers from that squad have moved on, but leading scorer Ryan Bright
is back for a senior season. The 6-6 redhead has grown into one of the Southland's best all-around scoring threats, going from 8 ppg as a freshman to 14.8 ppg last season. He'll be expected to hoist the team on his shoulders in 2007-08.
Only one of the Lions' four senior starters last season was present on the 2005 conference championship squad, and the lack of cohesion and experience on a transfer-heavy Southeastern squad showed down the stretch. Despite some league-leading individual statistics, the team dropped five of its last six and finished with an 8-8 league record. Senior swingman and former Nevada prospect Kevyn Green
, the fifth-leading scorer from last season's team at 8.5 ppg, will be the player to watch this season.
Stephen F. Austin
In mid-January, the Lumberjacks lineup was one of the most effective 3-point shooting units in Division I. The team ranked in the top 25 in long-distance percentage while enjoying a perfect 4-0 conference record. But a videotape of a 55-52 Jan. 18 loss to Sam Houston started circulating, it showed the Bearkats pressing SFA hard and camping out on the perimeter defensively. After that, the Jacks went 4-8 to finish at .500 in the league. Danny Kaspar responded by engineering a massive roster overhaul; the 2007-08 team will feature a total of 10 new players.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Seven-footer Chris Daniels
, the reigning league POY and tourney MVP, was a senior in 2006-07. But not so fast. The bad news for the other 11 Southland schools is that Daniels has one year of eligibility left (he was a nonqualifier four seasons ago). He did test the NBA waters this spring, but didn't hire an agent and will return to the Island. He'll help defend Corpus' conference championship and attempt to improve on his 15.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg totals from last season.
If the Mavericks break through and contend for the Southland title, you're likely to hear a lot of talk about Jermaine Griffin
. The 6-9, 240-pound senior led the Mavs in scoring (13.3) and rebounding (6.9 ppg) last season. He tallied five double-doubles along the way. It wasn't just against conference competition, either. Griffin hung close with eventual No. 2 overall pick Kevin Durant
in UTA's visit to Texas on Jan. 2, putting up a 16-and-12 double-double against Durant's 21-and-15 performance.
After losing three players last summer to new coach Brooks Thompson's boot, as well as promising 6-7 juco transfer Travis Gabbidon
to a foot injury, the once-proud UTSA program bottomed out with a 7-22 season lowlighted by a pair of seven-game losing streaks. The Roadrunners were left by the side of the road in the run-and-gun Southland and averaged only 57 points per contest. With redshirt junior Gabbidon returning, along with five scholarship seniors and an incoming class featuring 6-10 California prep product Matt DeWaal, don't expect the Roadrunners to continue to struggle to score.
In a state as large as Texas, it's odd to measure anything in small steps. But in Doug Davalos' first year as Bobcat bench boss, Texas State won nine games to triple its win total over the 3-24 embarrassment of a season before. Only a single senior is gone, and a potential star is emerging in Brandon Bush
, a versatile 6-6 junior who led the team last season with 14.4 ppg. But the Bobcats, one of the most ridiculously up-tempo teams in the country, allowed 85.4 ppg. If they can find the energy to play a little defense, they're sure to evolve into something more than a burr in the Southland's collective saddle.