Winning formula won't change for Lions

Double take
SouthlandJim Yarbrough isn't really the same guy as his predecessor at Southeastern Louisiana.

It will just seem that way.

When the 2005-06 basketball season begins, Southeastern Louisiana isn't going to look that different with Yarbrough in charge than the Lions did in reaching last season's NCAA Tournament under Billy Kennedy.

"It's kind of remarkable, the parallels," said Yarbrough, who was hired after Kennedy left to be Frank Haith's associate head coach at Miami. "We were born six days apart in 1964, we were both at the top of our leagues defensively. There are some similarities."

The biggest similarity is the attention to defense.

"His teams were great defensively," said Yarbrough, who was the head coach at Division II Valdosta (Ga.) State. "That's where it will start with us."

What does that mean? It means the Lions aren't suddenly going to be running up and down the floor and trying to outscore opponents. Southeastern Louisiana is still going to attempt to defend like it did a year ago, when it was No. 4 nationally in scoring defense (55.8 points per game).

One look at Yarbrough's past and the fact that he likes defense isn't a surprise.

Before he was a head coach at the Division II level, he was an assistant to John Kresse at the College of Charleston. And in the mid-to-late '90s, Charleston was among the elite mid-major programs in the country -- and one of the stingiest.

That hasn't been lost on athletic directors across the country. With Yarbrough's hiring, he becomes the third former Kresse assistant to become a head coach, joining Gregg Marshall at Winthrop and Ben Betts at South Carolina State.

Last season, Winthrop was 11th in Division I in scoring defense (59.4 points per game) while South Carolina State was 23rd (61.4). Valdosta State, which reached the Division II national tournament, was third in Division II, giving up 60.9 points per game.

"The blueprint for success has been taken from John Kresse," Yarbrough said.

While Yarbrough has only been on the job at Southeastern Louisiana for a few weeks, he likes what he has seen on tape of the Lions. The night he took the job, Yarbrough watched Southeastern Louisiana's NCAA tournament loss to Oklahoma State. Since then, he's been watching tape of the Lions' Southland Conference games to gain some knowledge about his own players and the rest of the league.

"I wanted to see how hard they played, and I liked what I saw," Yarbrough said.

His impressions of the Southland, a league that saw four teams bunched near the regular-season lead?

"It's a good league, an athletic league," he said. "There are a lot of good coaches and good schemes."

Unlike many first-year coaches, Yarbrough doesn't inherit a massive rebuilding project. Although the Lions lost guard Jonathan Patton and big man Nate Lofton (23 points per game combined), Southeastern Louisiana returns four of its top six scorers, including wing Ricky Woods (17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds per game).

"It's still a challenge, but it's much different," Yarbrough said. "We have to be careful not to relax. We have to approach it with the same concerns and fears.

"It's a challenge to maintain the success they've had here and not get complacent. We have to come out every night with real ferocity. We'll be everybody's big game just like we got to be at College of Charleston. We're going to have to keep focused and stay hungry. But to not have a completely bare cupboard, it's really nice."

Especially for a guy who is making a move from Division II to Division I. The opportunities for lower-division coaches to land head coaching jobs in Division I have become more and more rare. While it happens -- Bo Ryan went from D-III Wisconsin-Platteville to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Bruce Pearl went from D-II Southern Indiana to Milwaukee, after Ryan moved to Wisconsin -- it is something of a rarity.

"It doesn't happen that often, but what (athletic directors) are looking for at a certain level is that they're looking for people with head coaching experience," Yarbrough said. "They don't want to turn over a program to someone who needs some on-the-job training. They want people who know how things work, they want a guy who has a philosophy and has built something."

Yarbrough, however, doesn't need to build; he just has to keep things moving.

Summer indicators
Good signs: Don't be surprised if Northwestern State finds a way to win a game against a high-major opponent this season. The Demons are certainly the Southland favorite. A year ago, Northwestern State tied Southeastern Louisiana for the regular-season league title before losing a seven-point game in the conference tournament championship game. This season, Mike McConathy's team returns its top seven scorers from a year ago.

Red flag: Like many low-major conferences, the bottom of the Southland is not very good. Last season, Texas-Arlington (272), Stephen F. Austin (291), Louisiana-Monroe (317) and Nicholls State (326) all finished near the bottom of Division I in the Ratings Percentage Index. UL-Monroe and Nicholls State were a combined 3-29 in Southland Conference play.

Worth watching: Billy Tubbs has had success pretty much everywhere he's been. He took Oklahoma to the national championship game in 1988. He made Texas Christian a solid program. He took Lamar to the NCAA Tournament in the late '70s. Now Tubbs is back with the Cardinals. Last season, Tubbs led Lamar to a fifth-place finish in the Southland and a 9-7 record in league play. The Cardinals have seven of their eight leading scorers returning from a year ago, all of whom are seniors.

Our resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi agrees that Northwestern State is the team to beat in the Southland. He has the Demons penciled in as a 15 seed in his early look at the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

2006 Bracketology


* -- NCAA Tournament

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.