Early in the season, there were plenty of good feelings that surrounded the McNeese State men's basketball team.

Despite quite a few nonconference losses, the Cowboys could at least hang their hat on the fact that they competed hard and were within a minute and a bucket or two from going on the road and beating New Mexico and Texas.

They had a furious rally and made things uncomfortable against Louisiana-Lafayette. At Wisconsin, the Cowboys gave the Badgers as good of a first-half punch as they could muster. UW wound up winning comfortably because it scorched the earth from 3-point range in the second half, but some positive signs were there.

Right before winter break, McNeese almost started Southland Conference play with what would have been an amazing comeback to beat Stephen F. Austin. Yes, that Stephen F. Austin that went on the road and beat No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor. The same SFA that is one of the favorites to win the SLC regular season and tournament championships. The SFA that has been the standard of the conference for the better part of the last decade.

Maybe all of those perceived positives and moral victories was too much to handle for the Cowboys. It's possible that they've regressed to their mean. I figured if McNeese can give SFA all it can handle and more, competing in the upper crust of the SLC isn't impossible.

Whoa there, slow down, big guy.

This definitely isn't a bad McNeese team. After the Cowboys played Abilene Christian on Wednesday night, they host Northwestern State on Saturday, followed by Incarnate Word and New Orleans.

The three teams yet to win an SLC game through last night?

McNeese, UIW, and UNO.

So if the Cowboys can go on the road and steal a victory at ACU, then come back home and take care of business against their neighbors from Natchitoches, it's quite possible that McNeese could be 4-3 in conference play by the end of the day on Jan. 18.

But, right now, this definitely isn't a team ready to compete for a conference title. Before the season I said that the conference tournament should be the bare minimum for this team, and I still believe that. However, they are too inconsistent at this point in time to get into the top four seeds. If the Cowboys can get things right, I certainly see a seed anywhere from 5-8 in the making.

One reason why McNeese isn't ready to take the next step is because it doesn't have the bulk needed to consistently bang with the big boys in the Southland. Yes, McNeese looks bigger and stronger, but it's adjusting to muscle that some of these other teams (i.e., SFA and Central Arkansas) have had for at least a year or two already. Plus, just because the Cowboys have gotten bigger doesn't mean they're truly big.

Another major issue for the Cowboys has been turnovers. The Cowboys are averaging 17.3 turnovers per game, which ranks 342nd out of 350 Division I teams. A.J. Lawson is a good player, but I think he's more of a shooting guard, maybe a combo guard. The point guard experiment hasn't really worked him, but the problem is, who else do they go to?

Leondre Washington looked like he could be the guy, especially after his performances New Mexico at Texas. But during conference play, he's had seven assists and eight turnovers in three games. Not terrible, but certainly not good either.

Trey Johnson is a good energy guy with solid defense and the ability to bury some wide-open shots. But he's not a player to bring the ball up the court every possession and initiate the offense. Even Roydell Brown can run the offense from the top of the key, but that's not something Cowboys head coach Heath Schroyer wants to do all the time.

Defensively, the Cowboys rank 327th in the country in 3-point field goal defense, allowing opposing teams to shoot 37.1 percent from behind the arc. That is not good. Schroyer said it's a mix of teams getting hot and McNeese not being good in its defensive rotations.

Whatever it is, each of the Cowboys' first three SLC opponents have hit at least seven 3s. If that continues, McNeese won't win many more games, especially if the offense can't come close to matching the other team.

As of today, the Cowboys have another 16 conference games, so the season is far from over. They'll either be 1-3 or 0-4 with a softer portion of the schedule coming up. Doesn't mean those games are guaranteed wins, it just means they won't be playing the top teams in the SLC.

But they need to start winning soon. Schroyer and his Cowboys don't want to be in the position of chasing for that final SLC Tournament spot late in the season.

David Berry covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at dberry@americanpress.com

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