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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Stephen F. Austin

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Is last year's mid-major darling at the start of something special, or were they just a one-year sensation?

Will this March bring more jubilation for the Lumberjacks?
Will this March bring more jubilation for the Lumberjacks?
Jeff Gross

One of the best ways to get ready for tournament play is to play a lot of tournament caliber teams. This has the double benefit of not only allowing you to test your mettle against a squad that is actually a challenge but also being more helpful for your tournament resume - win or lose - than if you lined up a slate of cupcakes. Stephen F. Austin looked for all the world like a cupcake last year, but a screaming 29-game win streak and a two-point OT win over VCU in the tournament last year have given them a little bit of name value coming into this season. Here's what they'll bring to Cintas.

Coach/style:
Last season's 32-3 campaign was Brad Underwood's first as a head coach at a four-year school. He most recently had served as an assistant under Frank Martin, first at Kansas State from 2006-2012 and then at South Carolina when Martin took that job. His experience as a head coach is impressive, sporting a 132-84 record at two JuCo stops, including a three-year run of 70-24 basketball with Daytona Beach CC that won him two Mid-Florida Conference Coach of the Year awards.

As there is not yet a KenPom equivalent for the lower leagues, all I have to go on regarding Underwood's tendencies are the numbers from last year. The first thing worth noting is that the Lumberjacks were slow on offense. Their average possession length of 20.6 seconds was 343rd in the nation; only four D1 teams played more slowly. They were an average three-point shooting team (34.9%) but they were 37th in the nation with a 52.3% mark from inside the arc. When they did miss, they went and got it on the glass to the tune of a 38.2% OReb% (12th). Coupling that with a very good 16.9% TO rate made SFA the 38th most efficient offense in the nation.

Defensively, it's the exact opposite. The Lumberjacks' defensive possessions were only 16.1 seconds long - second-fastest in the nation - as they pressured the ball all over the court. They were 7th in the nation in TO% and 55th in steal percentage due to their high pressure, and they also allowed only 26.2% of opponents' shots to come from behind the arc. SFA was also very good on the defensive glass, with a mediocre EFG% against and a horrible propensity for sending opponents to the line being the defense's only shortcomings.

Departures:
Not many, but definitely some important ones. Scoring guard Desmond Haymon took his 14.5/3.8/2.9 game line on .420/.365/.667 and graduated, leaving a meaningful gap in the ranks. Haymon also avoided turnovers at an elite rate and drew 6 fouls per 40 minutes. His 24.7% usage rate led the team last year.

Shameless gunner Deshaunt Walker and his extra consonant also graduated (or at least ran out of eligibility). The 6' guard put up 11.7/1.7/1.2 on .406/.357/.795 shooting, hoisting an incredible 227 three-point attempts in just 761 minutes of playing time. A little quick math tells me that more than one in every three SFA possessions with Walker on the floor ended with him hoisting a three.

Moving closer to the realm of normalcy, you find Nikola Gajic, a 6'5" who contributed 9.6/5.0/1.8 with a shooting line of .481/.381/.693. More impressively, he posted a steal% of 3.5%, good for 75th in the nation. Combined with his OReb% and DReb% of 8.9% and 18.5% (respectively), you get the picture of an effective glue guy who could also get his buckets when the team needed him to.

Returnees:
The team's two most efficient scorers are coming back. Topping that category is 6'6" forward Jacob Parker, whose 127.4 ORtg was good for 32nd in the nation. The rising senior did a little bit of everything, going for 14.2/7.1/2.0 on .538/.469/.799 shooting, leading the team in OReb% (10.3%) and DReb% (22.2%), and posting a 2.8% steal%. Parker can pour home buckets like a gunner and fill in the gaps like a glue guy.

On his heels as a scorer was 6'4" wing Thomas Walkup (123.2 ORtg). Walkup threw up 13.1/5.3/2.1 on .568/.359/.733 shooting and led the team in EFG% at 59.2%. The rising junior was second on the team among players who got real minutes with an OReb% of 9.4%. He only shot 35 threes; most of his scoring came from close to the basket.

Other players who saw the floor every game were reserve guard Trey Pinkney, who led the team in assists despite playing only 24 minutes per game. At 6'9", forward Tanner Clayton is a full foot taller than Pinkney and averaged 2.9 and 3.4 in 14 minutes off the bench.

Incoming players:
Stephen F. Austin brought in five new players this year, including three JuCo guys and two true freshmen. The potential gem of the JuCo transfers is 6'5" wing Clide Geffard, Jr. Geffard played his freshman year at Samford and was very successful, putting up 11.1 and 4.4 and shooting 41.9% from behind the arc. That makes it all the more perplexing the he put up 5.8 PPG on .384/.224/.620 shooting at Northwest Florida State last year. SFA obviously hopes the dude from Samford is the one who shows up this year.

Joining Geffard will be 6' guard Jared Johnson out of Hill College. Johnson is an athletic combo guard who put up 14.5/3.8/3.9 on .449/.403/.782 shooting at Hill. I have a kid in my youth group named Jared Johnson, but I don't think this is him. The other transfer is 5'11" PG Demetrous Floyd, late of Chipola Junior College. He averaged 11.4 there on .500/.421/.757 shooting and was rated the #41 junior college player in the nation by nextuprecruits.com.

Ty Charles is a 6'5" guard out of Kennedale High in Texas. He is able to play the two or the three and was a particularly successful outside shooter in high school. Jaxon Holden is a 6'1" guard who is mostly a shooter at this point. Underwood praised his work ethic, which is good, because he's going to need to add size to compete at a D1 level.

Outlook:
Stephen F. Austin came from nowhere to make some noise in the NCAA tournament before crashing out. Having lost some key cogs in the machine from last year, they're going to have to gel quickly to get similar results, as their conference schedule will do their resume no favors. Like Xavier, they'll come into this game trying to find the right pieces to put in the right places. Unlike Xavier, they'll be trying to do it on the road. This is one X should win.