Four teams will receive a first-round bye in this year’s Southland Conference basketball tournament.
Though it is still early in conference play, all indicators are that Oral Roberts, Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State will be among that group — barring the loss of a significant player or two for an extended period of time.
However, just about everyone else is in the mix to become the fourth team in that group.
“Any team, after those who have established themselves at the top, we can all beat each other,” said McNeese head coach Dave Simmons. “And that’s not saying we can’t beat them. Hopefully we’ll become better as the season progresses. If we can peak at the right time we can be considered one of those top teams. But right now we’re just improving, trying to win games and jockeying for position.”
While in previous years there was virtually no difference between being seeded fourth or fifth in the tournament, this year it marks the difference between having to win four games in five days and the more feasible three games in four days.
That makes McNeese’s 3 p.m. matchup today with Sam Houston State one with potential huge consequences come March. The Cowboys (7-7, 1-3 SLC) can ill afford dropping another game behind the Bearkats (9-6, 2-1) with a game still to be played on Sam Houston’s home floor.
“Every home game is so important in this league,” Simmons said. “(Today) is a very big game. It’s very important to build off what we did against Corpus. This is our fifth game in 10 days. We have to find the reserve energy to win another game, which will be another nail-biter. The way we play, they’re all going to be nail-biters.”
The challenge of the Bearkats is that it isn’t clear which player will hurt you. No one on Sam Houston's roster is averaging double figures, but nine are averaging more than 5.0 per game.
“They’ve got good guards, shoot well and play hard,” Simmons said. “There’s a lot of new faces. The familiarity with personnel is our first adjustment. We’re going to have to withstand their press and stop them from penetrating and kicking to their shooters.”
The 70-point mark may be a telling one for both teams. McNeese has yet to lose a game in which it has scored more than 70, and Sam Houston has eclipsed 70 points against one Division I opponent.
At the bare minimum, four of the Southland Conference’s top 10 women’s basketball players will be on the floor this afternoon when McNeese State hosts Sam Houston State at 1 p.m.
The league-leading Bearkats (7-8, 3-0 SLC) counter Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett with their own star seniors in Britni Martin and Sequeena Thomas.
Martin averages 17.1 points per game, while Thomas leads the league with 12.2 rebounds per game to go along with an average of 13.9 points.
“They’re both very tough to guard. They have a lot of grit,” said McNeese head coach Brooks Donald Williams. “It should be a great game. Sam Houston beat Lamar on the road. We know they’re going to come ready to play.”
The Cowgirls (7-8, 2-2) are trying to keep their momentum going forward after a 68-39 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Thursday night. But the Cowgirls have had difficulty stringing those performances together.
“We’ve talked about consistency. It’s certainly something we haven’t been this year, and we need to start it (today),” Donald Williams said. “We had a great workout (Friday). I felt we carried our defensive effort over. That’s Step 1. Step 2 is carrying it over to the game.”
For the Cowgirls to succeed, Donald Williams said defensive play will be foremost.
“The thing we have to worry about is us taking care of us,” she said. “Our girls playing Cowgirl basketball. Team defense. Hands down, that’s the most important thing no matter whether we are playing Sam Houston, Corpus, Lamar or whoever it may be. That’s where our focus needs to really be.”