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NCAA Basketball

Stephen F. Austin Chopping Through the Southland Conference

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There’s seems to be a familiar face atop the Southland Conference–the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.

Last year’s conference champions, the Lamar Cardinals, have fallen flat this season after an impressive 23-12 campaign and trip to the NCAA Tournament last year. At 2-14, it’s fair to assume the Cardinals won’t be back in 2013.

The Lumberjacks (13-1, 4-0) might be at the top of the conference but winning games is nothing new to this program. In the past five seasons, not including this one, they’ve won 111 games. Talk about creating a powerhouse in the small Southland Conference.

Maybe they’re just a fluky team playing in a so-so conference? Nope. They always seem to play a pretty competitive out-of-conference schedule which no doubt helps prepare them for the Southland (No. 21 RPI) slate. This year is no different as they played and beat Oklahoma, San Diego and Tulsa with their only loss coming to 11-3 Texas A&M.

Besides not being afraid of the big boys, SFA also isn’t is afraid to play some defense, holding opponents to 50 points per game, the best in the NCAA. Last year they finished 3rd in the NCAA allowing only 54.7 ppg. The ‘Jacks also have a little streak going of 46 consecutive games holding opponents under 70 points, so defense is clearly paramount for their success.

Offensively, forward Taylor Smith is their workhorse, scoring nearly 16 a game and pulling down almost nine rebounds per. He’s also shooting 69% from the field, good for 2nd in the NCAA. Point guard Hal Bateman runs the offense and dishes out 6.9 assists per game, 12th in the NCAA.

They’ve do have some glaring flaws. They’re an interior team with very few options on the perimeter so feeding the 6’6″, 215 pound Smith is almost a necessity. They shoot only 28.3% from three, good bad for 316th in the country. They also can’t make their free throws (58.4%) which in a tight game down the stretch can hurt them.

The Lumberjacks have won eight straight and are poised to make a nice run but a  big test is on tap tonight as they head to the Mabee Center in Tulsa to take on conference newcomer and preseason favorite Oral Roberts.