Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood set a simple goal for his basketball team this season: dream bigger. Dream of more than just winning the Southland Conference. Dream of bigger things than just advancing to the NCAA Tournament, of winning just one game at the tournament. Dream big. Dream of winning every game.
The Lumberjacks (29-4) haven't won every game this season. But after Saturday's 83-70 Southland Conference tournament title game dismembering of Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin has come damn close. It lost just one conference game this season. It's the repeat conference champion, making a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament. It's got a RPI of 33, one of the best in the country. Underwood expects his team to be perfect in an imperfect game.
The SFA team that played in Katy this past weekend was a fun basketball team to watch. There was a precision to the offense, no wasted movement, no rushing of shots. The defense swarmed, the players with good footwork, never out of position. When the offense got into rhythm, the players pushed up the court, hitting quick shots, getting back down the court and forcing opponents to work and work and work for a decent shot. There was never a sense of panic, but never a sense of elation on the court.
"The one thing this team is is matter-of-fact," Underwood said after the game. "They never get real high. They never get real low. And it's always about the next day. That's the way we try to approach every single game -- that's the most important one on the schedule."
Sam Houston State (25-8) had been in a shooting slump coming into this game, with Bearkats coach Jason Hooten lamenting his team's inability to make shots after Friday night's hard fought win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. And Sam Houston State managed to keep Stephen F. Austin close for about the first 10 minutes of the game, with the Lumberjacks several times threatening to pull away only to have the Bearkats get back into the action. But then big man Clayton Tanner banked a half court shot into the net just as the halftime buzzer blew, giving the Lumberjacks a 37-27 lead that Sam Houston State just couldn't overcome.
"We don't really enjoy this one until after the season," Stephen F. Austin forward and tournament MVP Thomas Walkup said. "We have so much more in front of us that we can accomplish. No need to enjoy this one when we have bigger things to enjoy."
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That bigger thing could come on Thursday when the Lumberjacks, a 12 seed, faces Utah in Portland and once again, as last year, many are predicting that Brad Underwood's crew will pull off the first round upset. And the potential is there for the Lumberjacks to come back to the state of Texas to play more basketball since it's in the South Regional and the finals of the South Regional (Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight) will be held inside NRG Stadium.
Stephen F. Austin is a deep team, with guys able to come of the bench and provide bursts of offense, the team never breaking stride. It's also a team that's different from last year's NCAA tournament team. It's a bit quicker, a bit smaller. It doesn't play with a true post player, and that can cause fits for bigger teams -- that was a big issue for Sam Houston State, for instance. It's a team that dominates its conference but doesn't take for granted that the wins will be easy or that the wins are a given.
"But yeah, [Stephen F. Austin] is a bad matchup for us, but there is a reason why they've lost one conference game in the last two years because it's a bad matchup for a lot of people," Sam Houston State's head coach Hooten said Saturday.
It's doubtful that the Lumberjacks will fulfill Underwood's desire to win every game and get the NCAA title. But Stephen F. Austin demonstrated last March that it can be a bad matchup for the big boys schools of the NCAA. And while Sam Houston State and the rest of the Southland Conference are tired of being bad matchups week in and week out to the Lumberjacks, there can be no doubt that they look forward to the Lumberjacks causing someone else that same discomfort that they face. And if you're going to dream big, there's not much more of a bigger way to dream than of dreaming of the national title.