Let’s do this…
Dan: This is the second year for Kyle Keller to be running the basketball program at SFA. He just captured his first Southland Conference title, and first NCAA automatic bid. Can you tell us a little how Coach Keller has come in and had all this early success as the Lumberjacks head coach?
Isaac: First, what people need to realize about Kyle Keller and Stephen F. Austin is just how hard his job was. Brad Underwood took an exceptional group of players (mostly recruited by Danny Kaspar) and elevated them to another level. What he did was incredible, but really didn’t leave a lot of talent behind when he moved on to Oklahoma State after the 2015-16 season. The Lumberjacks did have Brandon Averette committed, but, as you probably know, he followed Underwood out the door.
Keller had to essentially build from scratch. His best inherited player, TJ Holyfield (who played one season as a freshman under Underwood), remains a staple of SFA but it is a whole new cast otherwise. With a very different offensive philosophy, but similar principles defensively, Keller was able to use the SFA pedigree to anchor an impressive recruiting haul. There are a handful of players, notably sophomore Kevon Harris and junior transfer Shannon Bogues, who could probably play in any league in America. That might be the biggest asset Keller has: his recruiting abilities attract winners. Probably the most exciting thing for SFA fans is that this team should be even better (and possibly by a wide margin) next season.
Dan: There is some history here, where Keller was the assistant to Sean Sutton at Oklahoma State. Sutton currently serves on the Texas Tech basketball staff as an advisor to Chris Beard. What sort of things will Sutton be telling Coach Beard about Coach Keller’s in-game strategy?
Isaac: Eddie Sutton is definitely Keller’s biggest defensive influence and there’s no doubt Sean knows it. There are more connections than just that though: Lumberjacks assistant Wade Mason served alongside Sean as an assistant at Oral Roberts and actually made the move to accept Keller’s offer at the urging of Sean’s brother (and former ORU head coach) Scott Sutton. Keller and Beard go way back in their own right as personal friends, though, so they should know each other’s basketball mind well.
Everything SFA does starts with defense and they’re one of the best teams in the country at turning fast-break opportunities into points. Where SFA has struggled (and what conference teams figured out in their four losses after rolling in the non-conference) is offensively they’ll struggle when a game slows down.
SFA can beat any team in America in a track meet. What Beard’s staff is probably doing between now and Thursday is finding all the ways they can force the Lumberjacks to run exclusively out of the half-court.
Dan: Can you tell us about the standouts and stars on the roster for SFA… like Southland Conference Tournament MVP T.J. Holyfield; or All-Southland Conference 2nd Team players Shannon Bogues and Kevon Harris?
Isaac: Part of what makes SFA such a threat is the depth on their roster. Keller likes to say he has nine starters and SFA’s leading scorer, Shannon Bogues, actually comes off the bench. Kevon Harris, a sophomore, led the team in scoring for most of the season but suffered a nerve injury in his leg back in January and just hasn’t quite returned to form.
Bogues is one of the fastest guards I’ve ever had the honor of watching in person and when he plays in space it can be just absolutely dazzling. He started the season in a mega-slump from outside the arc, but has shot it very well over the last month. Harris is an oversized guard with a really physical driving game and a good outside shot.
TJ Holyfield is the best offensive forward on the team and his post-up moves have improved a lot this year. He doesn’t shoot from outside a lot, but he’s pretty good at it, and he’ll have a night or two when he’s locked in defensively and it’s just fun to watch (he was two blocks shy of a triple-double during SFA’s semifinals win in the SLC Tournament). Leon Gilmore III is hot-or-cold offensively, but SFA assistant head coach Jeremy Cox (who specializes in forwards and spent time at Kentucky, Texas A&M and, actually, at Texas Tech) calls him possibly the best front-court defender he’s ever worked with.
The emotional leader of the team is senior Ty Charles, the only four-year senior, who played a role on Underwood’s teams but has battled injury ever since. Ivan Canete, a junior college transfer who switches between the #1 and #2 spots on the court, is the brains of the operation and will get hot shooting from time to time as well. Aaron Augustin and John Comeaux are defensive specialists who play a big role on the team but are often overlooked because they don’t put up numbers.
Dan: Looking at the SFA schedule, the Lumberjacks knocked off a strong LSU squad in Baton Rouge. Also, SFA lost a heartbreaker at Mizzou by 1 point. What would you consider SFA’s biggest win on the season and how did they come away with that victory?
Isaac: In the non-conference, SFA was rolling in part because teams have such a hard time preparing for what they do defensively. The LSU win was big, for many reasons, as was the Louisiana Tech win (at the time — it was before they lost arguably their best player to transfer and self destructed after). The game at Missouri, a one-point loss, might have been the most complete game they played in the non-conference, though. Unfortunately, Mizzou got hot from outside the arc and shot 50% from there to steal it.
Once the league play started, a number of things changed. SFA dealt with adversity (like Harris going down) but the conference was also way better prepared for SFA’s defense than most teams (even the good ones) in November/December. Late in the season, SFA made a tweak on defense, trapping a lot less and switching more on ball screens, and they seemed to kind of rediscover their identity after that. People will point to SFA’s four losses in the Southland Conference this season, and they should, but they should also remember that the team playing Texas Tech on Thursday is going to look a bit different than it did during those defeats.
Dan: Based on your evaluation of watching this SFA team for the season, how do they stack up to the mighty Lumberjacks of 2016 that knocked off #3 West Virginia in the Big Dance?
Isaac: It’s really hard to compare teams, but I’ll try. First, keep in mind that the Southland Conference is better today than it was just two years ago. It’s a copycat league and a lot of coaches tried to recreate what Brad Underwood did schematically. From an athletic standpoint, this team is probably better than that 2016 team, but they lack a few things. What made that team so good was experience and, led by Thomas Walkup, they had a basketball IQ that was so far off the charts. They were battle tested and the seniors on that team (there were a lot of them) went to three NCAA Tournaments and an NIT in their careers. They had won games at every level by the time they beat West Virginia.
This team is young and still trying to create their own identity. SFA is going to be really, really good for a long time if Keller sticks around, but their leader isn’t their best player, and that can be a flaw. Charles has a heart of gold, but his injury-riddled past has kept him from being able to assume the Walkup role. Canete has only been here as long as Keller and, while Harris is a superstar in the making, he’s just a sophomore and Bogues a first year junior college transfer. The talent is there. The experience is lacking.
Dan: This SFA team is deep, with their leading scorer comes off the bench. How has that depth played into their success this year?
Isaac: Like I mentioned earlier, most teams can’t win a track meet against the Lumberjacks. SFA loves to run a fast-paced offense and that depth you speak of is the reason why. Bogues has such a unique role, because he plays heavy minutes, but has just been better off the bench. He’s like a spark that comes in and just catches people off guard with his speed and quickness. In the Southland Conference Tournament, that depth was enormous, because a lot of teams have a hard time playing three games in three nights — in fact, until SFA did it this time around, nobody had ever won the tournament without the league’s double-bye into the semifinals.
SFA loves to run and that depth makes it possible. There really isn’t a fall-off at all when the second unit comes in.
Dan: SFA forces turnovers, lots of turnovers. The Lumberjacks currently rank as #1 in the nation at having their opponent average 19 turnovers per contest. Can you tell us how the defense is so good at getting opponents to give away the basketball?
Isaac: Disruption is the word. SFA coaches scout religiously and change up their defense in every game to force teams to do what they don’t practice. Sometimes it’s little things like making someone new bring the ball down the court, other times it’s more advanced like setting traps where they know a player likes to roam. People see high turnover numbers and automatically assume SFA runs a press, but they really don’t. They’ll pick up man-to-man at half court and they’re always looking for an opportunity to create a turnover.
Keller’s philosophy is, if a team has to do something against SFA they don’t practice for against anyone else, they’ll make unforced errors. It has generally played out exactly like that.
Dan: Now, the important stuff… What do the SFA fans think about Texas Tech?
Isaac: Being an in-state school, I’m sure everyone has a differing view. Texas schools all carry a certain stereotype and SFA and Tech are definitely not exempt from that. Everyone knows someone with a connection to the other school, though, and I guess personal experience probably shapes views more than anything. Red Raiders like to party, so do Lumberjacks. I guess that and our shared love of college basketball should be enough to bond over.
Well, any day but Thursday, at least.
Dan: Is SFA more of a basketball or football school here in the Great State of Texas?
Isaac: SFA is a basketball school, right now, for sure. The biggest reason is obvious: SFA plays true Division 1 basketball, but FCS football which is kind of like Division 1-lite. I’m sure with some more on-the-field success, SFA could get up for football too, but honestly, basketball is just a bigger source of exposure when playing in a mid-major conference than football can be. People all over the country will turn on a competitive SFA-Mizzou basketball game on national television, but fewer will bother to check the bowels of ESPN3 for an SFA-Southern Utah football game. When SFA football does get paid to travel to a Power 5 school, as Tech fans should remember well, it usually isn’t pretty. The competitive balance in basketball is very different.
That doesn’t mean people don’t care about football. Tailgating at SFA is a big part of the student culture (Saturday is the only day when alcohol consumption is allowed on campus and it is definitely taken advantage of) but the whole community shuts down for an NCAA Tournament game.
Dan: What is your prediction in this 1st round NCAA match-up game?
Isaac: I have Texas Tech by 10, but I think it’ll be pretty close until late. I’m not sure this team is ready—they may still be a year or so away—but Tech will get their best shot on Thursday. The non-conference experience told them they had the talent to matchup with anyone, and that confidence will carry over. They definitely won’t be afraid of the moment.
From all us us here at STP, I’d like to thank Isaac for taking the time to talk with me. This should be a great NCAA tourney game to play in Dallas for two Texas schools. Please follow him and his SFA site at The Sawmill, and on twitter @SFASawmill.