Top SLC storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. SFA has reloaded in Kyle Keller’s second season. The Lumberjacks had won back to back to back SLC titles while losing just one league game in that time frame before settling for the CIT last season.

2. Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word have completed their D1 transition process, which means both are eligible for the SLC tournament and postseason play.

3. The league has generally been extremely top heavy during the "SFA Era," but this is easily the most balance the conference has seen top to bottom.

4. Jalan West returns to Northwestern State as a seventh-year, 24-year-old senior after missing two years with devastating knee injuries. If he’s healthy, NSU is automatically a contender with the best player in the league back in the fold.

5. Nicholls State has a host of impact transfers eligible while Southeastern Louisiana is presumably healthy for the first time in Jay Ladner’s tenure. Consider those two programs to be quickly on the rise up the SLC standings.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Stephen F. Austin– The Jacks should be back in Kyle Keller’s second season after a year off from dominating the SLC. SFA was 12-6 last year in league play after losing just one SLC game in the prior three seasons. Keller had to incorporate a lot of new faces and the Jacks were hit hard by injuries in his first season. He was also forced to play Dallas Cameron out of position, and thus he didn’t really have a point guard. Consequently, the Jacks finished second to last in offensive efficiency, and were held just under 1 point per possession – unheard of for SFA basketball, which always featured one of the most intricate and versatile high-post spread offenses in the country under Brad Underwood. The defense, however, was still there for Keller, as the Jacks produced turnovers at the 10th-highest rate in the country, another staple in the Underwood era. With three legitimate options to run the point this year, I fully expect the offense to rebound in a big way. Keller addressed that point situation by bringing in two highly-touted ball handlers, one a JUCO transfer and the other a true freshman. 5-foot-11 John Comeaux was a big-time scorer in the JUCO ranks and is arguably the most athletic guard in the league, while freshman Cameron Mack is a lightning quick true point guard who could run the offense from day one, especially with Comeaux recovering from a knee injury. Aaron Augustin is the third option at the point, and he’s due for a big sophomore season. Ivan Canete returns off the ball as the team’s best perimeter shooter and Keller’s best perimeter defender. Canete’s versatility at 6-foot-4 allows him to wreak havoc in extended pressure, and he posted the league’s second-highest steal rate. JUCO combo guard Shannon Bogues should also see immediate minutes off the ball, especially while Ty Charles recovers from shoulder surgery. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Keller hold him out until league play begins.) The frontcourt is led by TJ Holyfield, who very well could be the SLC’s Player of the Year. Holyfield made a big leap offensively last year and should continue to skyrocket with all the options at point guard around him. Keller suspended Leon Gilmore in the offseason, the high-post passer that is essential in SFA’s spread offense, and he learned a similar style while at Creighton. I haven’t seen any timeline for his return, but he’s reportedly back practicing with the team. Gilmore’s a highly-skilled offensive player, thus the ball tends to filter through him. His availability can take SFA from a good team to a great team. Sophomore Kevon Harris is another versatile frontcourt piece who showed a knack for drawing contact when he was on the floor. The pieces are all there for SFA to rebound offensively after bottoming out on that end of the court in Keller’s first year, especially if Gilmore is back with the team at some point. SFA could very well return to their position as one of the best mid-major programs in the country.

2. Southeastern Louisiana– I really want to see what Jay Ladner can do with his team healthy, a simple luxury he hasn’t been afforded in his three seasons at SLU. However, despite the overwhelming amount of injuries, Ladner led the Lions to their first non-losing season since 2011, and he returns a loaded roster this year, assuming everyone can stay healthy. Leading the way is 5-foot-9 point guard Marlain Veal, one of my favorite players in the entire country. The lightning quick Veal posted a 105 ORtg in league play despite having the league’s fourth-highest usage rate. He was second in assist rate, fourth in steal rate and nailed 40 percent of his 3-pointers. He’ll have Jab Singleton beside him again as another ball handler and shooter who can wreak havoc on the perimeter defensively with his speed, an essential quality in Ladner’s harassing man to man. Josh Filmore is another shooter who has been among the many injured, tearing his ACL twice. If he’s 100 percent, he’ll play a key role in the backcourt. 6-foot-3 Eddy Polanco is a slasher who also nailed 41 percent of his 3-pointers in league play. 6-foot-8 Keith Charleston has a unique skill set for his size, especially in a league like the SLC. He’s also been among the wounded for the past few years, and would be a huge addition to the wing if he’s 100 percent. The frontcourt is solid and deep, again, if healthy. Moses Greenwood is an efficient block scorer while James Currington is SLU’s best rebounder, especially offensively, and Ladner really emphasizes extra possessions. The big addition to the frontcourt would be the healthy return of Jordan Capps, a plus interior scorer and the league’s best rebounder on either end when he can stay on the court. If, and it’s seemingly always a big if for SLU, the Lions stay healthy, they’ll challenge for a league title. Ladner is an underrated coach who has quickly turned around the program, and Veal is as good as it gets at the point. Should be a fun team to track this year.

3. Lamar– With 4 starters returning from last year’s CIT team, there’s reason for high expectations in Beaumont this year. Tic Price has one of the league’s best interior scorers returning in Colton Weisbrod, and a dynamic point guard in Joey Frenchwood. Weisbrod is only 6-foot-5, but scores around the rim like he’s 6-foot-10. He also led the SLC in free throw rate. Frenchwood can be inconsistent at times, but he had the league’s sixth-highest assist rate while also shutting down opposing points in one of the league’s best perimeter defenses. Joining Frenchwood in the backcourt is Torey Noel, a second point guard and an even better defender than Frenchwood. Nick Garth returns to his role as the team’s deadliest perimeter shooter, and Louisiana Tech grad transfer Da’Shawn Robinson was impressive in Lamar’s offseason trip to Costa Rica. Senior wing Zjori Bosha epitomizes what Price wants to accomplish defensively, as he can guard 1-4 with his length, and he’s turned into an efficient scorer. Joining Weisbrod in the frontcourt is Josh Nzeakor, the better defender and rebounder of the two. The late loss of Christian Albright really hurts the depth of this unit, and that’s possibly the one aspect that could keep the Cardinals from a Southland title.

4. Incarnate Word– The Cardinals join Abilene Christian as full-time D1 members with postseason eligibility (ie SLC tournament and NCAA/NIT eligibility, as the UIW competed in the CIT last season), and like the Wildcats, they have arguably their best team since joining the league. Longtime UIW head coach Ken Burmeister runs a drag screen/dribble drive transition heavy offense that relies on athletic, interchangeable wings that can also get out and harass past the three point line defensively. Last year’s Cardinals played at the 32nd-fastest pace in the country (and top 50 in FG attempts in transition), were ninth nationally in free throw rate, and the defense allowed three point attempts at the second-lowest rate in the country (although teams often didn’t need to bother shooting the 3 against a defense that was doughy soft defending the paint). Leading that attack this year will be senior point guard Jalin Hart, one of the most underrated points in mid-major conference basketball. Hart’s an efficient penetrator and kept defenses from sagging against him by stroking 42 percent of his 3-pointers in league play. Surrounding Hart is a trio of wings that really makes Burmeister’s offense work- 6-foot-6 Simi Socks, 6-foot-5 Shawn Johnson, and 6-foot-4 Sam Burmeister (yes, the coach’s son). Socks upped his offensive game last year by adding a jump shot. In his first season of D1 ball, Socks attempted two 3-pointers the entire season. Last year, Socks shot 39 percent from deep on 78 attempts. He’s an undersized 4, but he makes up for that with his athleticism. He also draws a significant amount of contact offensively, and capitalizes by hitting free throws at an 83 percent clip, which is quite a luxury to have in your frontcourt if you’re Burmeister. Johnson meanwhile is a do-everything wing that had the highest block rate on the team while also shooting a team high 40 percent from 3-point range – a rare combination. Sam Burmeister rounds out the wing corps with his 39 percent 3-point shooting and senior leadership. Rising sophomore Jorden Kite is yet another shooter in Burmeister’s stable. Slotting in next to Socks at the 5 will be Devin Wyatt, who was the team’s best rim protector when he could stay on the floor. Injuries and an excessively high foul rate limited his time on the court. He’ll be joined by a pair of Russian JUCOs in Konstantin Kulikov and Marek Hulva in Burmeister’s attempt to add some bulk to last year’s thin frontline. With the Hart/Johnson/Socks trio giving Burmeister a strong foundation, any semblance of a frontcourt should keep UIW in the SLC title hunt.

5. Abilene Christian– The Wildcats return nine of their top 10 players from last season, and should have a good chance at their first winning SLC season – good timing with their D1 transition period over. Led by a power trio of Jaylen Franklin, Jaren Lewis, and Jalone Friday, Joe Golding should have his best team since joining the D1 ranks. Franklin moved over to the point last season, which saw his scoring productivity take a massive hit, but he was fifth in the league in assist rate, and spearheaded Golding’s extended pressure man to man defense (meant more to slow down offenses than to get in transition, as ACU was the slowest offense in the league last year). Franklin might be able to move off the ball some more this year with the addition of JUCO transfer Tevin Foster and continued development of sophomore Payten Ricks. Drake Green and Isaiah Tripp added senior leadership to the backcourt, and Green is the team’s best three point threat. On the wing, 6’6 junior Jaren Lewis is Golding’s most versatile player, as he’s able to check positions 2-4 defensively, and wreak havoc in the pressure schemes with his length. The frontcourt is led by sophomore Friday, who was outstanding as a freshman. Friday posted a 115 ORtg in SLC play despite being fifth in usage and second in shot percentage. He’s also the only rim protector for a defense that allowed opposing offenses to hit at 65 percent at the rim. Veterans Hayden Howell and Hayden Farquhar round out the frontcourt, with the latter being more of a stretch big.

6. Texas A&M Corpus Christi– The Islanders enjoyed their best season since 2007 and very nearly returned to the NCAA Tournament, narrowly losing to UNO in OT in the SLC title game. They shook off that disappoint and very nearly won the CIT, losing in a wild title game to St. Peter’s. Willis Wilson has to replace the best big man in the league in Rashawn Thomas, but a trio of versatile guards should keep the Islanders competitive in the SLC. The heart of the team is unquestionably 6-foot-4 point guard Ehab Amin, who posted the country’s second highest steal rate and is a matchup nightmare for opposing point guards because of his ranginess on both ends of the floor. Joe Kilgore returns as another long, versatile guard in the backcourt, while Kareem South is due for a big sophomore season after hitting 39 percent of his 3-pointers in league play. Freshman Myles Smith is the most likely newcomer to see minutes in the backcourt and could let Amin play off the ball when he’s on the floor. 6-foot-8 sophomore Elijah Schmidt is the most likely candidate to try to fill Thomas’ shoes. Obviously he doesn’t have the same dominant offensive game, but Wilson can use him in space and in pick-and-pop situations like he did with Thomas. The rest of the frontcourt is a major concern, and probably keeps Corpus from truly contending at the top in what should be a much deeper SLC.

7. Nicholls State– Thanks to a massive influx of transfers brought in by second-year head coach Richie Riley, the Colonels are a sleeper with a bullet in the SLC. Riley is replacing four key seniors with outstanding talent from the high-major, mid-major and JUCO ranks. Former Maryland and USF four-star recruit Roddy Peters gives Riley another point guard alongside Jahvaughn Powell, who posted the league’s highest assist rate and knocked in 36 percent of his 3-pointers. If Peters stays healthy (an issue throughout his career), he’ll be a nightmare matchup in this length with his combination of talent and size as a ball handler. The Peters/Powell duo could end up being the best backcourt in the league. The pieces around Peters and Powell are more than solid as well. Stevie Repichowski is a plus set shooter with length, Lafayette Rutledge proved he can score in bunches when healthy, and JUCO transfer Zaquavian Smith should fit right into Riley’s up-tempo attack. On the wing, UNC Greensboro transfer Tevon Saddler could end up leading the team in scoring, and Arizona State grad transfer Maurice O’Field should see minutes. In the frontcourt, Riley had to address the loss of 7-foot Aussie Liam Thomas, who led the country in block rate and shot 64 percent from the field. That’s a tall order (pun intended), but I think Riley pulled it off with the addition of Colorado State transfer Kimani Jackson, undersized by underrated Northern Colorado transfer Jeremy Verhagen, and 7-foot-1 former four-star Clemson recruit (who Riley helped with as an assistant at under Brad Brownell) Legend Robertin. Not many SLC programs replace a 7-footer with another 7-footer the very next year. JUCO transfer Daniel Regis should also be a factor in the frontcourt rotation because of his rebounding ability and defense. The Colonels easily have the highest talent level in the league. Can Riley make it all gel by conference play? If so, Nicholls State could pull off one of the biggest turnarounds in the country.

8. Northwestern State– The big news out of Natchitoches is that Jalan West is finally back after two devastating knee injuries. If West is fully healthy, the Demons will absolutely fly down the court. Mike McConathy teams always play fast, but with West at the helm, NSU finished with the fastest tempo in the country twice and the second fastest the other year. Additionally, with a second point guard in Devonte Hall who had the league’s second- and fourth-highest assist rate in the two seasons West missed, McConathy might push 80 possessions per game. Iziahiah Sweeney returns to the backcourt as well, and his athleticism lends itself to McConathy’s system. Two JUCO transfers really bolster the wing for McConathy, as DeAndre Love and Brandon Hutton should see immediate minutes. Hutton particularly should be of interest to NSU fans, as the former three-star Iowa recruit could be an All-SLC performer in his first year in the league. The frontcourt is anchored by Ish Lane, a solid rebounder and rim protector who’ll really benefit from playing with West. If West is anywhere close to his former self, NSU, who finished the year strong, could make a big leap back near the top of the SLC standings.

9. New Orleans– Mark Slessinger was rewarded with a contract extension after guiding the Privateers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years. UNO was one of the better stories in all of college basketball last year, but they figure to take a step back as they reload in the backcourt. The frontcourt, however, should be one of the best in the league, and that’s key in Slessinger’s offense, where getting the ball to the rim is of the utmost priority. Only two teams in the country attempted field goals at the rim at a higher rate, and UNO had the 18th-highest free throw rate in the nation. That frontcourt is led by Travin Thibodeaux, something of a point forward in Slessinger’s compact offense. Thibodeaux was ninth in the SLC in assist rate, exceedingly rare for a big man, and fourth in defensive rebounding rate. He’ll be asked to score more this year. Makur Puou slots in at the 5 as Slessinger’s top rim protector. 6-foot-6 wing Michael Zeno is the quintessential "glue guy", but will need to provide some offense after posting an abysmal 80.5 ORtg in SLC play. Senior Jorge Rosa likely takes over the Christavious Gill role as the team’s lone three point threat, and he’ll likely have to take over some of his ball handling duties as well. While Slessinger’s offense doesn’t necessarily rely on a "true point," 5-foot-6 freshman Lamont Berzat will likely be the primary ball handler, while two more freshmen are Slessinger’s highest rated recruits. 7-foot-3 Bol Riek is a project, but could be a lethal weapon in the SLC, and 6-foot-4 wing Troy Green had a few high-major offers. Ultimately, whoever is able to wreak havoc defensively amongst the newcomers is most likely to see the floor. The past two seasons, the Privateers have finished 20th and 13th nationally in defensive turnover rate, and Slessinger takes great pride in his harassing man-to-man defense. UNO has a lot to replace from last year’s title team, but Slessinger has the pieces to make this a reload year instead of a rebuild.

10. Sam Houston State– The Bearkats were ultimately one of the bigger disappointments in the league despite posting another 20-win season. Jason Hooten’s squad was loaded with seniors and realistically should have won the league. Instead they finished at 10-8 and made another CIT appearance. Simply put, the Bearkats were awful offensively, and one of the league’s most potent defenses in terms of creating turnovers (16th nationally in turnover rate), couldn’t muster enough extra possessions to buoy the league’s second least efficient offense. Hooten teams are almost always one of the best in the league defending in the paint and rebounding, and last year was no exception. However, this year’s team is more backcourt oriented with the return of John Dewey at the point, the Delaney twins off the ball, and San Diego transfer Marcus Harris joining the fold. Dewey was third in assist rate in SLC play and hit 41 percent of his threes. Josh Delaney is one of the better shooters on the team, while his brother Cam is probably Hooten’s best perimeter defender. Harris should be asked to shoulder a big chunk of the scoring load early. Albert Almanza and Jamal Williams make up the wing corps. Almanza is a long 6-foot-6 sharp shooter, while Williams is a versatile senior glue guy. 6-foot-7 Chris Galbreath returns as Hooten’s most stereotypical player, a solid rebounder and rim protector with inconsistent offense that include flashes of brilliance. The rest of the frontcourt around him will be filled in with unproven JUCO transfers and freshmen, which is fairly worrisome given Hooten’s typical style of play.

11. Central Arkansas– Offense will never be much of a problem for a Russ Pennell coached team, but the Bears’ defense has been ranked last, 12th, and last in the SLC in defensive efficiency in his three seasons at the helm. The highest UCA has finished in defensive efficiency nationally during that span is 344th. That said, Pennell could very well field his best team this season with Jordan Howard returning in the backcourt and versatile 6-foot-5 powerhouse Mathieu Kamba returning to… well, all over the court. Howard is arguably the league’s best offensive player as a lethal volume 3-point shooter (47 percent in SLC play) with the ability to create his own offense off the dribble. Ideally a shooter like Thatch Unruh and maybe Daraja Parnell, along with Kamba, can help offset the offense left in Derreck Brooks’ wake, but neither of those players lend the defensive versatility that Brooks possessed. Tanner Schmit and Ethan Lee comprise the frontcourt, with Schmit being the better rim protector and useful in pick-and pop-situations, but freshman SK Shittu is likely going to slot into the 5 immediately. At 6-foot-10 with a massive wingspan, Shittu is the best recruit Pennell has landed in his four years in Conway. Shittu is also athletic enough to run the floor in Pennell’s transition based offense. The Bears were 10th nationally in field goal attempt rate in transition last year. Led by Howard, the UCA offense should once again have enough firepower to compete for a spot in Katy, but the defense has to undergo a major overhaul. Pennell is banking on Shittu, and to some extent 7-foot freshman Hayden Koval, to facilitate that.

12. Houston Baptist– Long-time HBU head coach Ron Cottrell has to replace a senior core (the bevy of veterans is why HBU was my top SLC pick last season but fell short in the semis) that led the Huskies to back-to-back CIT appearances. Cottrell does have a solid point guard/center duo in Braxton Bonds and Josh Ibarra, respectively. There are four tenets of Ron Cottrell basketball that have remained steady during his long tenure at HBU: 1) Harassing man-to-man perimeter defense 2) crashing the offensive glass 3) getting the ball as close to the rim as possible as often as possible in a flex style offense and 4) running in transition whenever possible. Between the two of them, Bonds and Ibarra check all three of those tenets. (In fact, Ibarra had the highest offensive rebounding rate in the league). That’s a solid nucleus to build around for Cottrell, but he’ll need the Gates brothers, William and Jalon (sons of "Hoop Dreams" subject William Gates) to turn into two-way players in the backcourt, CSUF transfer Tim Myles to slot in at the 4 and former three-star Baylor recruit David Caraher to make an immediate impact on the wing if HBU is going to continue to build on their recent program success.

13. McNeese State– The Cowboys should be improved from last year’s SLC cellar dwelling squad, but there’s not much optimism for a big jump in the standings. Dave Simmons’ team was actually middle of the pack-ish defensively (although some of that "good defense" could be chalked up to off nights from behind the arc from opposing offenses), but they scored at just .98 points per possession in league play, the lowest mark in the SLC. The offense was dead last in 2PT field goal percentage and free throw rate in league play, which means the Cowboys simply couldn’t generate easy points, and they were just 11th in defensive turnover rate, meaning they weren’t necessarily getting out in transition off turnovers. The focal point of this year’s team is Kalob Ledoux, who was playing his best basketball at the end of his freshman season. Ledoux is a pure shooter, but needs to improve significantly on the defensive end (conversely, his twin brother Jacob was Simmons’ best on ball defender). Jarren Greenwood likely has to move over to the point this year, and if he does, his 89.8 ORtg has to improve dramatically if the offense is to have any chance of climbing over 1 point per possession. Junior off guard James Harvey is a volume shooter who simply needs to miss fewer shots if he’s going to chuck 160-plus 3-pointers again. Stephen Ugochukwu is the lone proven producer in the frontcourt, but he’s capable of double-double numbers and is a solid rim protector on the other end. LaBarrius Hill, if healthy this year, should be able to help on the glass and defensively.

FINAL OUTLOOK: SFA returns to glory and scares someone in March as usual, and the league could see as many as five teams reach postseason play.

SLC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: TJ Holyfield, SFA

FIRST TEAM ALL SLC:
TJ Holyfield, SFA
Jalan West, Northwestern St
Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas
Ehab Amin, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Marlain Veal, Southeastern Louisiana

SECOND TEAM ALL SLC:
Colton Weisbrod, Lamar
John Dewey, Sam Houston St
Jalin Hart, Incarnate Word
Simi Socks, Incarnate Word
Jordan Capps, Southeastern Louisiana

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