Can the Lamar Cardinals Contend for Southland Conference Title in 2015-16?

Despire their 3-3 record on the 2015-16 season, Tic Price and the young Lamar Cardinals have been competitive in each game this year. Do they have the look of a team who can contend in the Southland this season? (Source: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Despite their 3-3 record on the 2015-16 season, Tic Price and the young Lamar Cardinals have been competitive in each game this year. Do they have the look of a team who can contend in the Southland this season? (Source: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

When the Southland Conference works its way into basketball discussions, people tend to focus on the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. With the way the Lumberjacks have played in the last few seasons, can you blame them?

Over the past three seasons, the Lumberjacks have gone an astounding 51-3 in conference play, dominating the conference during the regular season. They have made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances as a result of their strong play.

This season, however, could see a different ending to the story. With the Lumberjacks missing Jacob Parker in the front court, they don’t appear to be as dominant as they have in the past. That swings the door open for a slew of other teams in the conference, giving them the perfect opportunity to contend for the conference title.

One team who can sneak up and surprise a few people this season can be found down in Beaumont, Texas. Tic Price and the Lamar Cardinals have the talent in place to contend, and are starting to pick up some positive momentum as the 2015-16 season progresses along.

Lamar put together their best performance of the season on December 2nd when they welcomed the UT-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros to town. They came away with the 83-60 victory on their home floor, and put together a complete team performance. Lamar held UTRGV to 39.2% shooting, while shooting 44.4% themselves. Four different Cardinals scored in double-figures, and they forced 16 turnovers in the game.

All in all, it was a strong performance, and pushed the Cardinals back to the .500 mark on the year

But, some may ask, what makes Lamar a contender in the Southland Conference this season? They’re coming off a 15-15 record overall a year ago, including 9-9 in conference play. They sit at 3-3 on the 2015-16 season, and lost three of their first five games on the season before the dominating performance against UT-Rio Grande Valley in their last outing. Six players on their official roster on freshmen, and they only have three seniors.

So, can the Cardinals actually win the Southland Conference title this season? We’ll answer that question at the end, but here’s why the Cardinals shouldn’t be taken lightly this season.

While they sit at 3-3 on the year, the Cardinals could very easily be 4-2, 5-1, or even 6-0 right now. Their three losses have been by 8 points or less, and the Cardinals put themselves in a position to win each one of them down the stretch. Despite coming out on the wrong end of three games, Lamar looks like a team who will be competitive all season long.

Yes, they have their fair share of freshmen on their roster this season. But, they aren’t playing like freshmen. The group of youngsters, led by Nick Garth, Dorian Chatman, and Josh Nzeakor, are playing some inspired basketball and look wise beyond their years. The jump to the NCAA has been a relatively seamless one for them. Add in the experienced core, led by Kevin Booze, Dontavious Sears, and Lincoln Davis, and the Cardinals have a healthy of combination of talented youth and experience that often result in teams contending for conference championships.

Garth has enjoyed a high level of success through his first six collegiate games with the Cardinals. His 14.0 points per game lead the team, and he has reached double figures in each game this season. He put up a season-high 21 points against UTRGV on December 2nd, going 5-of-7 from three point range in the process. Garth’s shooting ability add another element to the offense for Price and the coaching staff.

Chatman (8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds) and Nzeakor (6.7 points, 3.8 rebounds) are also putting together some early success at the Division I level. Chatman was the College Court Report Preseason Freshman of the Year in the Southland Conference, and he has opened the season looking like a contender for the award.

Chatman and Nzeakor are both listed at 6’6” tall, and they give the Cardinals a much-needed boost in the paint. While they have the size of players who would traditionally line up at the 3- or 4-spots, they have the skill sets to battle inside with opposing forwards. They can also stretch the floor, creating match-up problems for opposing teams.

Not to be outdone by the youngsters, the experienced leaders of the Cardinals have opened the season by playing some strong basketball. Sophomore guard Kevin Booze has picked up where he left off after his freshman campaign, averaging 11.3 points and 4.0 assists per game this season. He provides stability on the back end with his ability to control the offense. Add in his scoring touch and shooting ability, and Booze is a dual-threat guard who can hurt you in different ways.

Booze was critical of his own play in the Cardinals’ 74-69 loss to UC Riverside back on November 29th, recording just 6 points on 1-of-9 shooting. That was the first game after his 25-point performance against Rice. Star players have off games, and Booze is in a mini two-game slump. He has the skills to bounce back and still help the team in other ways, it’s just a matter of him believing in his skills. Everyone else knows he can do it, and don’t expect to see him “struggle” for much longer.

Dontavious Sears could be the key to the team’s success this season. He stands at 6’2”, but is listed as a forward on ESPN, and is averaging 7.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. While his statistical production won’t blow you away, its his leadership that will mean the most to the team. The senior brings a wealth of experience, and that’s something that’s invaluable to the team.

Sears is still capable of putting up significant stat lines on any given night, as evident by his 11 point, 10 rebound performance against UTRGV.

As you can see, the Lamar Cardinals have a wealth of talent on their roster who are capable of carrying the team towards the top of the Southland Conference standings this season. They were projected to finish fifth in the conference standings in the preseason polls, so they had the respect of people in and around the conference before the season even started.

Looking ahead at the rest of their non-conference schedule, the Cardinals have a great opportunity to enter January on a roll. They have a home date with Idaho State upcoming before back-to-back road games against Liberty and Virginia Tech.

The Cardinals then close out non-conference play with three straight home games against non-Division I opponents. At the very least, Lamar should enter the new year riding a three-game winning streak, and could very well win five of their six remaining games. Their toughest contest will be in Blacksburg, VA when they take on the Hokies. The Cardinals have the talent to score the upset, so don’t write them off before the game even tips off.

As you can see, the Lamar Cardinals have the talent to contend in the Southland Conference this season. They will have to go up against strong conference teams like the Lumberjacks, Texas A&M-CC, New Orleans, and Incarnate Word to get to the top. Add in a depleted Northwestern State team into the mix as well, because the team will still put up points in bunches despite the loss of Jalan West.

The road to the top for Lamar won’t be an easy one, but don’t expect them to back away from tough competition. The Cardinals will come ready to play every single night, and you can bet that fans of the Cardinals will flock down to the Montagne Center to cheer on their team.

So, the question still remains: can the Lamar Cardinals contend in the Southland Conference and possibly come away with the conference title?

The answer is simple.

Yes they can.

– T.B.

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