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Southland strong in early going

Last Modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 6:47 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

The numbers won’t hold forever, but there’s no question the Southland Conference is off to one of its strongest starts in recent memory with two weeks remaining before the beginning of league play.

A pair of wins by the Southland over Big 12 opponents — McNeese over Texas Tech and Stephen F. Austin over Oklahoma — may help the eventual league champion from becoming cannon fodder in March.

“For us, that seeding issue is so very important,” said Southland commissioner Tom Burnett. “In many ways that’s determined in November and December. Once conference starts, you have to play the schedule your conference schedules out.”

At the beginning of the week, three Southland teams — McNeese, SFA and Northwestern State — were in the Ratings Percentage Index Top 50. The NCAA tournament selection committee uses the RPI as a tool when determining seeding and at-large bids.

To put the Southland’s early success in perspective, the SEC only has two teams in the Top 50.

That will eventually work itself out as SEC and other major conference teams start playing each other instead of the little guys, and the smaller conferences play one another instead of playing up.

“They’re not going to stay in same RPI neighborhood unless they win every game the rest of the way,” Burnett said of the three Southland teams at the top of the charts, which is led by SFA at No. 14.

But the strong start for teams atop the league does create hope for a stronger finish to the year.

Since 1997, the Southland champion has been a No. 16 seed in the tournament nine times, including four appearances in the “play-in game” with a fellow 16-seed.

The last Southland team to win a game other than the play-in was Northwestern State, which beat Iowa as a 14-seed in 2006.

This year, the league is protecting the top two seeds in the conference tournament with a double-bye to the semifinals. That, in addition to a strong RPI, could pay dividends on Selection Sunday.

“What we’ve talked about is are we going to be in the 14, 15, 16 neighborhood or can we get to 12 or 13?” Burnett said. “We’ve agreed we can get to that neighborhood. Historically, we have not been in that neighborhood on a regular basis. (Our teams) have to make their mark on RPI and do this on the road.”

So far, the teams in the top half of the conference are on their way to doing just that.

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