Streaking Lumberjacks face VCU in NCAA tournament
Stephen F. Austin stands out among potential NCAA tournament darlings this March.
Start with a 28-game winning streak, second in the country behind undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State. Then take a look at floppy-haired Southland Conference player of the year Jacob Parker and clean-cut sidekick Thomas Walkup, who made sure the Lumberjacks didn’t miss out on the Big Dance after a big season for the second straight year.
How about Brad Underwood, a nearly 30-year veteran in his first season as a Division I head coach – and now tied for third in wins among Division I debuts after leading the Lumberjacks (31-2) to the first 30-win season in Southland history.
”Thirty’s a hard number,” said Underwood, who went to the NCAA tournament four times in six years as an assistant at Kansas State. ”I don’t care who you’ve played. Go beat the worst team in the country 30 times. You’re probably going to slip up.”
SFA is the 12th seed in the South Region, playing Friday in San Diego against VCU, one of the few double-digit seeds to reach the Final Four when the Rams made it to Houston at No. 11 in 2011.
It’s the best seeding for a Southland team since Karl Malone led Louisiana Tech to the Sweet 16 from the No. 5 spot in 1985. Malone’s team also had the record for wins in the Southland at 29 before SFA broke it in the tournament semifinals.
”When coach Underwood got here, he said he wanted to have everyday guys and since the summer we’ve been putting in work,” said Parker, who was the leading scorer until guard Desmond Haymon slipped by him during the Southland tournament. ”We’re having a blast this year. We love the staff, love the team. It’s just enjoyable every single day.”
The Lumberjacks are the talk of Nacogdoches, a college town in the piney woods of East Texas that’s also the hometown of U.S. soccer star Clint Dempsey. The buzz has been building since November – the last time SFA lost.
The 66-58 defeat at East Tennessee State on Nov. 23 came about a week after the Lumberjacks were even with NCAA qualifier Texas late in what ended up being a 10-point loss.
Since those two losses in three games, SFA has beaten everybody with a motion offense that has five players averaging at least 9.6 points per game and an active man-to-man defense that is among the national leaders in turnover margin. The Lumberjacks have a 33-game home winning streak, tied with Duke for the longest in the nation.
”We’re positionless other than really our point guard,” Underwood said. ”The more we got into our year, it just created mismatch problems. Our guys became confident in it and we shoot it from every spot and we’re a very, very good passing team. So it became a great fit.”
Underwood gives a lot of credit to Haymon, a senior who remembered the looks on the faces of those whose last chance to go the NCAA tournament ended with a 68-66 loss to Northwestern State in the Southland title game a year ago, when the Lumberjacks finished 27-5.
Haymon scored 27 points to help hold off the Demons in the semifinals this year. Walkup took charge in the title game, scoring 19 points and 8-of-10 shooting.
”We didn’t want to leave here two years in a row feeling the same way,” Haymon said. ”We had great leadership from everyone, and we are going to run with it.”
Winning isn’t new at SFA. Parker just had his third 20-win season in three years on campus, and the Lumberjacks are making their second NCAA trip five years after the first. It’s not even the first 31-win season. SFA went 31-3 and finished third at the NAIA national tournament in 1971-72.
But winning like this is new. Pundits were instantly picking a win for the Lumberjacks when the bracket came out Sunday, something it’s safe to say didn’t happen when they were a No. 14 seed and lost to Syracuse 59-44 in the first round in 2009.
”I dream big,” said Underwood, who has used the dream theme with his team all season. ”Why put limitations on where we could go? I waited a long time to become a head coach. I’ve dreamed big my whole life. When you stop dreaming, you put limits on yourself.”
It didn’t take long for Underwood to get his Lumberjacks to believe.