It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: The top-heavy Southland.
Our ongoing theme of conference realignment doing weird things to small leagues continues today with the Southland, which is now a 14-team league (would-be super conferences of the world, eat your heart out) that scrapped together the likes of Houston Baptist, New Orleans, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word (OK, maybe not). The latter two in that that group were actually Division II teams last season, and, as an aside, it is this writer's humble opinion that Incarnate Word is an awesome name for a school. So there's that.
In truth, the really interesting realignment shake-up in the Southland happened last summer, when Oral Roberts completed its move from the Summit League. The Golden Eagles had been among the Summit League's most consistent competitors before their move; it was generally assumed the same would be true in their new digs. Not so. Oral Roberts finished third behind Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State last season. The former was one of the country's best defensive teams at any level; the latter finished 15-3 in league play and won the Southland automatic bid with a 68-66 win over SFA at the conference tournament in March.
Scott Sutton's team is even younger this season, but it is still talented: Former Utah transfer Shawn Glover is back for his senior season, Western Illinois transfer Obi Emegano has been earning Sutton's raves, and freshman forward Corbin Byford (who had a stellar prep career but took a medical redshirt last season) is ready to jump in, too. Stephen F. Austin lost three seniors -- including star forward Taylor Smith, who shot 69.4 percent from the field last season -- that could be most difficult to replace on the defensive end.
Only Northwestern State seems to have the combination of returning personnel and previous success to edge ahead in the search for a new Southland favorite. The Southland may not be the toughest pound-for-pound mid-major league in the country; it may have needed to add something called Incarnate Word to boost its membership this offseason. But at its highest levels, among conference contenders, the basketball is better than ever -- and more than good enough to challenge your favorite high-major team come March.