Mid-major report: Lumberjacks chopping toward March again

Stephen F. Austin is poised to make more noise in the NCAA tournament, if it can get out of the Southland Conference first, plus more Mid-Major Report.
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For the rest of the regular season, SI.com will have a weekly look at the teams, players and numbers making noise in the mid-major ranks.

(*Uses 30 for 30 voice*)What if I told you that there was a team with a top 30 offense that hasn’t lost since the week of Thanksgiving? That this team is a year removed from knocking off everyone’s darling, VCU, in last year’s NCAA tournament? And that its mascot is a beefy dude in a flannel shirt holding a giant axe?

You’d be pretty excited to hop on the bandwagon, too. Climb aboard the Stephen F. Austin Express. As of the beginning of February, there’s still plenty of room.

A year after finishing 32-3 and capturing the first NCAA tournament win in program history, the Lumberjacks are rolling once again. They’re currently 18-3 (8-0 in Southland Conference play) and are riding a 17-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s matchup against Houston Baptist.

Stephen F. Austin’s three losses this season were to Northern Iowa (in overtime), Xavier and Baylor, all of which rank in the RPI's top 40. Normally that would mean a team probably has some pretty impressive victories too. That’s where it gets tricky for the 'Jacks, though. Yes, a win over Memphis typically shines, although this year not as brightly as others. Beating Long Beach State never hurts. Outside of that, though, Stephen F. Austin doesn’t have much else that will get people scrambling for their pens when the tournament field is announced.

Weekend Picks: Notre Dame-Duke, Louisville-Virginia highlight action

KenPom.com believes in Stephen F. Austin, as much as a computer formula can believe in anything. The Lumberjacks rank 37th, above power conference bubble hopefuls like Providence (43), LSU (47), Indiana (51) and North Carolina State (56).

The RPI isn’t quite as forgiving. The ‘Jacks come in at 89th, and that isn’t likely to change much by the end of the year, even if Stephen F. Austin does what it is predicted to do and wins out the rest of the way. The best team the Lumberjacks play is Sam Houston State (again). After that are a pair of games against Incarnate Word. Neither is currently in the RPI top 100.

That puts the Lumberjacks in the all-too-familiar position of having to win their conference tournament to reach the Big Dance. That’s how pretty much every Cinderella Story starts. There’s reason to believe Stephen F. Austin’s success from last year's Madness can be replicated, though. Jacob Parker, the senior forward who scored a game-high 22 points in the upset of the Rams last March, is back and leads the team in scoring this year at 14.0 points per game. The Lumberjacks can shoot it, making almost 37 percent of their three-point tries as a team. And they are deep and talented, with 10 players who average at least 10 minutes per game

Stephen F. Austin has to make it to the NCAA tournament first, of course. But if everything plays out the way it could – and likely should – the Lumberjacks might just be in line for another memorable upset in the NCAA tournament. And that means you should get used to seeing this guy.

Weekend Spotlight: Buffalo at Akron, Saturday, 7 p.m. EST, ESPN3

Year 2 for Bobby Hurley at Buffalo has been a resounding success through the first three months of the season. Under the leadership of the legendary former Duke point guard, the Bulls are 15-6 overall and 6-3 in the Mid-American Conference, in a four-way tie for first in the East division. 

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That’s why Saturday’s game against Akron is so big. The Zips (15-7) are one of those three other teams, along with Bowling Green and Kent State, logjammed at the top. If Buffalo is going to make a play for the NCAA tournament, getting a good seed in the conference tourney is critical. Buffalo still has to play five of its six games against the other East contenders, and must visit each of them, starting with this road matchup. The Bulls' best player is junior forward Justin Moss, who averages 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and helps his team rank 37th in the nation in the latter category. 

Player To Watch: J.J. Avila, F, Colorado State

This is hardly a shocking pick, as Avila, a 6-foot-7 senior, has scored in double figures in all but one game he's played so far this season. After that outing, a 13-point loss at New Mexico on Jan. 3 in which he scored just six points, Avila responded with 51 points over his next two games. 

The Rams are in the midst of a critical stretch. They lost at Mountain West leader Wyoming on Wednesday, but can bounce back with home games against middling league members UNLV on Saturday and New Mexico on Tuesday before playing at preseason conference favorite San Diego State on Feb. 14. An at-large bid is in play, but it could go away quickly if Avila and Colorado State falter through Valentine’s Day.

Stat Of The Week: 71.6

That’s the true shooting percentage of Belmont’s Evan Bradds, good for second in the nation. The 6-7 sophomore, who averages 14.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, has helped Belmont to a 15-8 record overall and a 7-3 mark in Ohio Valley Conference play.

Rick Byrd’s team is in first place in the East division but coming off a loss on Thursday to Eastern Kentucky that snapped a five-game winning streak. Murray State, which is a perfect 10-0 in the OVC, is the favorite to land the league's automatic bid, but the Bruins will be a threat to reach their seventh NCAA tournament in the past 10 years after not making any in school history before that.