March 13-16 Merrell Center (Katy, Tex.) | Bracket
While the Southland is not quite an exception to the potentially self-defeating Small-Conference Entertainment Complex, it at least rewards its top two seeds with rare double byes straight into the semifinals. That's good news for Stephen F. Austin, one of the nation's elite defensive teams, and Northwestern State, purveyors of the nation's highest tempo and scoring average, who will only need to win two games to secure the league's bid.
Key Matchup: No. 5 Nicholls State vs. No. 6 McNeese State
It's an uphill battle for either of these teams to make a run, as whoever wins has to do so three more times, including beating top-seeded Stephen F. Austin in the semis, in order to get the Southland's tourney bid. But if nothing else, this game should be entertaining: Nicholls State won the teams' first meeting by one, with McNeese winning this past Saturday's rematch in double-overtime. The winner should also provide a difficult matchup for No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana, who awaits in the quarterfinals.
Team to Watch: No. 1 Stephen F. Austin
It may not be pretty to watch opponents' offenses go, ahem, stone cold against Stephen F. Austin, but if you're looking for a preview of an underdog that could give a high seed some headaches, the Lumberjacks are recommended viewing. They've ranked in the nation's top 10 in scoring defense each of the last six seasons (finishing first this year and in 2010-11) and based on per-possession efficiency, in which they rank sixth nationally, this unit is the best of Danny Kaspar's bunch. What they lack in size -- they rank 344th among the nation's 347 teams, according to KenPom -- they make up for with disruptively relentless ball pressure.
Hottest Storyline: Styles clash
This may be getting ahead of ourselves, but should the top two seeds win their semifinal games, the finals will be a great contrast in tempo. Where Stephen F. Austin's game plan revolves around disruptive defense that helps fuel a slower overall pace, uptempo Northwestern State averages more points (82.4) than any team in the country in a nation-high 74.0 possessions per game. The teams split their season series, with the Demons winning the first leg 61-57 at home before the Lumberjacks won second leg 64-63 on their court; a similarly tight rubber match with an auto bid on the line could be high drama.
The Pick: Stephen F. AustinAt 16-2 in league play and 26-3 overall (including a win over Oklahoma), the Lumberjacks are clearly the class of the conference. They are not invincible -- they did lose to Southeastern Louisiana, which despite a 10-8 Southland record finished 12-17 overall and is 294th in KenPom's efficiency-based rankings, and were one point away from being swept by Northwestern State -- but this looks like it will be their tournament to lose.