Southland Preview: Stephen F. Austin headlines balanced league

Our conference preview series continues with the Southland Conference. Here's a look at the projected standings, three must-see games and the conference's three most intriguing storylines entering the new season.

Can Stephen F. Austin reclaim the conference crown?

For a team expected to drop off a bit last season, Stephen F. Austin certainly didn't fall very far. The perennial Southland contenders notched a third straight 20-win season, finishing 23-9 and capturing first place in the Eastern Division before getting thumped by Sam Houston State in the conference tournament title game.

There's no reason to believe Stephen F. Austin can't post a fourth straight 20-win season considering how much talent the Lumberjacks have back. Senior guard Eddie Williams highlights a group of three returning starters capable of propelling Stephen F. Austin back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

Williams, a conference player of the year candidate, averaged 13.3 points and 5.9 boards last season on impressive 51.5 percent shooting from the field and 40.9 shooting from three-point range. Complementing Williams is fellow all-conference contender Jordan Glynn, a senior power forward who averaged 8.6 points and a team-best 8.3 rebounds per game.

Will revamped Sam Houston State repeat as league champs?

Think back to Baylor's historic Elite Eight run last season, and it's easy to forget that the Bears were on the ropes in the opening round. Their opponent in that game was Sam Houston State, which missed a go-ahead jumper with 2:50 to go in the second half before Baylor reeled off eight straight points to wrap up a 68-59 victory.

Sam Houston State dominated the Southland Conference a year ago, but this year's Bearkats roster bears only passing resemblance to last season's formidable group. All-conference guards Corey Allmond and Ashton Mitchell are both gone, as is longtime coach Bob Marlin, who parlayed last season's success into the Louisiana-Lafayette job this offseason.

New coach Jason Hooten inherits a team that should still contend in the Southland Conference if likely new starting guards Drae Murray and Lance Pevehouse can complement returning star Gilberto Clavell. Clavell, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, is a preseason conference player of the year candidate after averaging 17.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season.

How will Corliss Williamson do in his head coaching debut?

Central Arkansas generated some national buzz entering its first year as a full-fledged member of Division I when it hired homestate hero Corliss Williamson to be its basketball coach. Of course, the trouble for the former Arkansas star is that he's inheriting a program that has never won more than four league games in its first four seasons in the Southland Conference.

Williamson is hoping that 6-foot-7 Tadre Sheppard and three other senior starters can help the program be competitive this season as the new coach seeks to attract some higher-caliber recruits in the coming months. Sheppard averaged 11.6 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, hitting 56.2 percent of his field goal attempts and blocking 51 shots as well.

Although guard Imad Qahwash and a couple of late junior college signees may thrive in Williamson's fast-paced system, it doesn't seem like Central Arkansas has the talent to pull off 40 Minutes of Hell just yet. Look for Williamson's team to struggle until he can recruit guys who fit that approach.

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