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March 23, 2014

SCOTT: Bearkats should be back in the college basketball mix next year

HUNTSVILLE — It was bittersweet watching Stephen F. Austin compete against UCLA in the “Round of 32” portion of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

Whenever another Southland Conference team makes it to a bigger stage, it’s easy for Bearkats to both identify with the compelling mid-major story, while at the same time thinking, “That could be my school.”

And this year, it very well could’ve been.

Sam Houston State (24-11 overall) just happened to run into an SFA group that  had “postseason” written all over it. Before going 18-0 in regular season league action and winning the conference tournament, the Lumberjacks were already on an eight-game winning streak going into conference play.

They sported an 11-2 non-conference record with close losses to Texas and East Tennessee State.

SFA’s season ended Sunday night against the Bruins, but in beating VCU on Friday, the Jacks had already picked up the first tournament win by a Southland Conference team since 2011, when former league member UTSA won a first-round game against Alabama State. VCU was the highest seeded team beaten by a Southland team since Northwestern State took down third-seed Iowa in 2006.

“Honestly, we got beat by a team that was just destined to do things and sometimes you have that,” Sam Houston head coach Jason Hooten said Sunday evening.

The Bearkats are hoping to be one of the mid-major teams with that type of destiny next season.

For as unfamiliar as the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament was for some of us, it served as an opportunity for returning players like Jabari Peters, Kaheem Ransom, Paul Baxter, Michael Holyfield, Aurimas Majauskas and Dakarai Henderson to get a taste of what tournament life could be like after conference bouts.

Except the Bearkats really want to punch the ticket next season, especially with DeMarcus Gatlin returning to the team after being sidelined with a knee injury for all of this past season. It’s been over a year since Gatlin played for the Bearkats, but his defense and ability to collapse opposing defenses with his penetration is something Sam Houston looks to retreive.

Gatlin is a known double-digit scorer in the Southland since he averaged 10 points a game as a sophomore transfer in 2011-’12.

Hooten said he’s excited about the high school recruits who signed with the Bearkats last fall, 6-5 wing Josh Delaney of Killeen Harker Heights and guard Albert Almanza of Austin Saint Stephens.

The Kats are faced with the challenge of replacing two key big men on the team in seniors James Thomas and Terrance Motley.

If there is a lesson for Sam Houston to learn from SFA’s success this season, or at least to keep in mind, it’s that no sport respects the mid-major program like basketball.

With the way bracket challenges are marketed now, many look forward to that opportunity to be right about a mid-major program they’ve likely never actually seen play.

That was the case for those who picked Harvard over Cincinnati, the few who picked Dayton over Ohio State (then Syracuse), Mercer over Duke and even SFA over VCU.

For all of Sam Houston’s success in football in recent years, basketball is actually the school’s best chance at exposure in the most idealistic sports scenario.

Unless the Football Championship Subdivision bracket rates higher than I’m giving it credit for.

“We’re going in the exact direction I want to go in all aspects of our program,” Hooten added. “Academically, we’re graduating our guys and I couldn’t be more happy about that. It’s just about us taking it one step further.”

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