Can Stephen F. Austin Be This Year's NCAA Cinderella?

Stephen F. Austin's players celebrate their third straight conference tournament title on Saturday night.
Stephen F. Austin's players celebrate their third straight conference tournament title on Saturday night.
John Royal

There were several possible storylines entering last week’s Southland Conference basketball tournament being played at Katy's Merrell Center. Would there be a Cinderella team stepping up and storming its way to the championship and the automatic NCAA Tournament spot? Would Texas A&M-Corpus Christi win the title, earning head coach Willis Wilson his first trip to the NCAA tournament as a head coach?

Instead, the story is of a dismantling, of Stephen F. Austin winning the conference for the third season in a row after going 18-0 during the conference’s regular season. Stephen F. Austin destroyed fourth seed HBU by a 104-68 margin on Friday, then exposed A&M-Corpus as a conference pretender with an 82-60 win on Saturday night.

And here’s the deal: None of those games were as close as the final scores indicated. It was, in many ways, a sight to behold. Kind of like watching the Golden State Warriors dismantle the Houston Rockets game after game, but with A&M-Corpus having a better head coach than the Rockets, yet still not being able to figure out any way whatsoever to stop a superior opponent.

A&M-Corpus coach Willis Wilson said the loss boiled down to little things. The little things that SFA did; the little things that his squad did not do. That’s like saying Golden State’s continued dismantling of the Rockets boiled down to little things like Steph Curry being the best player in basketball or the Rockets roster being stacked with guys who can’t consistently make a jump shot or a free throw.

Stephen F. Austin finished the season at 27-5 (18-0 in conference). It’s the third straight time the team will be going to the NCAA Tournament, and by this point, it’s hard to believe that Stephen F. Austin will be able to sneak up on some team and get the surprise win to move on to the next round as happened two years ago. And SFA struggled a bit in last year’s NCAA Tourney loss to Utah.

“We’re a better team than we were a year ago,” head coach Brad Underwood told the assembled media Saturday night. ‘I don’t know if that’ll show in the seeding. I know the one thing that happens to us is nobody wants to play us in the regular season. That’s probably why our seed will be a little bit lower. I hope not; I hope not because this team is far and away our best team.”

But SFA did get hit with a low seed, 13, and it’s got to travel all the way to Brooklyn, where it’ll face West Virginia on Friday. And while probably not the matchup SFA was hoping for, it might be the best opportunity this year to find out just how good SFA is, and as a result, just how good the Southland Conference actually is.

West Virginia is known for employing a stifling, full-court press, and there was no team in the conference that had the talent or depth to hit Stephen F. Austin with a full-court press for an entire game. SFA is a fundamentally sound team that passes the ball and doesn’t commit turnovers with good shooters. But then again, it’s easy to play fundamentally sound basketball when not being constantly hit with a full-court press.

That perhaps leads to the biggest problem that the Southland Conference, and the Southland Conference tournament, has as a whole. It has an extremely good team that dominates the rest of the conference — A&M-Corpus won 25 games on the season and yet it looked about as capable of ever taking down Stephen F. Austin as the Texans do of ever playing a competitive game against the Patriots. But just what does that do to prepare a team like SFA to go into the NCAA Tournament and play major programs?

“This team is very good,” Underwood said Saturday. “We’re going to go there. We’re not going to be afraid of the moment. We’re going to approach Monday’s practice just like we do every other day…and we’re going to show up to work.”

SFA is a very fun team to watch play basketball. But being a fun team to watch dismantle the rest of the Southland Conference is very different from being a fun team that can dismantle teams in the NCAA Tournament. And let’s hope that, at some point, the rest of the Southland Conference catches up to SFA and makes the rest of conference play, and the conference tournament, as fun to watch as Stephen F. Austin. 


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