Stephen F. Austin Are Ready to Be the Bad Guys of March Madness
Every year, some obscure upstart comes to the NCAA tournament and makes things painful for college basketball's big dogs. This year, Stephen F. Austin is gunning for that spot.
Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood hates to lose. All coaches do, but the extent to which Underwood hates it has shaped his life. When Underwood lost as a player at Kansas State, and as a junior college coach, and then as an assistant coach at Western Illinois, K-State, and South Carolina, it affected his personality. Losing makes Underwood angry, and dark.
"It is one of my biggest character flaws," he says. "I am a very competitive person, and there isn't one thing, coaching or otherwise, that has triggered it. It is just who I am."
It is too simple to say that there's anything causal at work here, but suffice it to say that for the past three seasons, Underwood hasn't had to worry much about his temper. His Lumberjacks have gone 53-1 in Southland Conference play, making two straight NCAA tournaments, which included an upset of VCU in 2014 and a near miss against Utah last year. Underwood himself has won three straight conference coach of the year awards, while the team has had a lock on player of the year—Thomas Walkup, a do-it-all senior guard, recently won those honors for the second time. The team, which is the eleventh-smallest team in Division I, has what is arguably its best roster to date, and clinched a third consecutive March Madness date with a convincing win on Saturday. They're good. There just aren't many people who know it yet.
"It's remarkable," says one Southland head coach. "On any given night, they can compete with any team in the country at any level. If Jacob Parker"—SFA's best player last season, who went just 3-of-14 from the field in the team's 57-50 loss to Utah in the 2015 tournament—"makes two of those shots, which he made all year long, everyone is talking about Stephen F. Austin."
And yet, despite all the success since 2013-14, Stephen F. Austin is essentially anonymous on the college basketball landscape. Even in the program's native Nacogdoches, Texas, where the university sits amidst a Wal-Mart, a nondescript road with numerous strip malls, and a virtually deserted historical downtown, football is still options A through D. "High school football is big here, but there is a great vibe for basketball," Underwood says.
Walkup is more blunt: "We are in East Texas."
Even with football hogging the spotlight, basketball is a bigger deal in Nacogdoches than elsewhere in Texas. When former coach Danny Kaspar swapped SFA for Texas State, he left behind a team that had just won the conference's regular season title, and the women's program had accumulated more than 1,000 wins. For Underwood, it was a turnkey situation.
"There are a lot of low-to-mid-major jobs where winning is just difficult," says Underwood, who eyed SFA's coaching vacancy from South Carolina, where he'd followed Frank Martin as an assistant. "There are tons that have never been to an NCAA tournament, and there is usually a reason why. That was something I didn't have the desire to be a part of."
Even though the Lumberjacks had lost three key seniors, including the player of the year, Underwood didn't consider SFA a rebuild. "I knew there was an environment for success," he says. This was before all five of the incoming players he was told to expect backed out, leaving Underwood with seven open scholarships and no coaching staff. "I put off hiring a staff for six weeks," he says. At the time, he was spending his time between hotel and a tiny apartment above a garage. "I felt I could go find and recruit the players that fit me, and I also felt I needed to build relationships with the remaining players."
Parker was one of those returnees, as was Walkup; they averaged 7.2 and 4.4 points per game, respectively, in the season before Underwood took over. During the team's individual workouts—"It's the biggest part of our program," the coach says—neither projected highly in Underwood's evaluation.
"We had no size," says Underwood, whose three SFA teams have been, on average, taller than just 15 other DI squads. "I had to shift my thinking to 'How best can I help them win?'"
Because of his background as a junior college coach, and his experience changing game plans night to night and season to season, Underwood was comfortable experimenting with various styles. "I've always wanted my teams to be aggressive defensively," he says. "Lots of rebounds and fouls. I've always been of the philosophy that you have to get easy baskets."
Despite Underwood's insistence this wasn't a rebuilding project, the 2014 season could have quickly turned south, so he sought to remake the team's culture. "With Coach Underwood, the energy is different," says Walkup. "It was no longer 'Let's get through practice'; it was now 'I am ready for practice.'" The shift could be seen even in the players' appearance: Parker grew out his hair into an Adam Morrison-esque cascade of brown locks as Underwood tried to facilitate what Walkup calls a "fun atmosphere."
"I am a practical joker," the coach explains. "I'll wear a tie-dyed shirt every single day—to shootaround, to home games. I've done crazy dance videos, and we play music during practice, really blast the stereo, to help keep the mood loose."
Those practical jokes and the sprawling playlists, which feature Frank Sinatra, Luke Bryan, and Lil Durk (a particular favorite of senior guard Demetrious Floyd) worked—SFA won 32 games in Underwood's first season and beat VCU in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The next year was roughly the same: a 29-5 record, which included the team's lone conference loss, to Texas A&M Corpus Christi. On Saturday, the team blew out TAMU-CC to clinch another Southland title.
During that time span, Parker transitioned to a mismatch four in the mold of the NBA's current small-ball revolution. Underwood had been warned that Walkup could not shoot and would likely be a benchwarmer, but the player evolved into one of DI's most intriguing and unguardable talents. In 2015-16, Walkup's offensive rating of 131.5 ranks fifth nationally; not only does he lead the team in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.4), two-point field goal percentage (63.7 percent), and assist rate (31.1 percent) but he manages to steal the ball on four percent of an opponents' possessions.
"I would give all the credit and all the success I've had on an individual level to this coaching staff," Walkup says. "How willing they are to work with us."
"I play ten guys this year," Underwood says. "Our rotation is a bit deeper, which has hurt [Walkup's] numbers some. If I played him 30-plus minutes a night, he'd have several triple doubles this season."
"When I first got here, I talked to our guys about 'Why not us?'" Underwood says. "I thought last year if we beat Utah, we were going to beat Georgetown and then play Duke in Houston. Why not us? It didn't change from year one, and it hasn't changed this year."
SFA could still have that chance. While Parker has graduated, the team is still loaded with seniors excelling in much larger roles, including Floyd (the guard has made 42 percent of his threes) and Clide Geffrard, a 6'5'' forward who has connected on 64 percent of his two-point attempts. "This is our most athletic team by far, and our length is very good," Underwood says. "We don't get beat off the dribble as much as we have in the past, and that has put less pressure on our bigs."
Opponents were loath to schedule the Lumberjacks in 2016. When Underwood first got the job, he says, "everyone wanted to play us." Two back-to-back tournament appearances later and those same teams didn't even return Underwood's phone calls; a few already scheduled mid-majors tried to even back out. "I finished in the middle of this past September, and I had to schedule non-DIs," he says. But those games against Our Lady of the Lake and Henderson Tech helped SFA refine its relentless defense, harassing and pressuring opponents through a press that changes a team's pace and unsettles ballhandlers; SFA leads DI in turnover percentage, and forces their opponents to commit them on a quarter of their possessions.
According to one Southland coach, Stephen F. Austin has even subtly altered their offense to fit their interchangeable personnel. "Even though they aren't tall, their guards are 6'4 and 6'5," the coach says. "That helps them throw in wrinkles that are hard to see coming. You won't see that action on the first or the second side of the floor, but 20 seconds into the shot clock, all of a sudden it's different. They do a great job of stealing possessions in that regard."
Once they enter March Madness, the Lumberjacks are no longer the biggest and baddest in a small bracket, but they welcome the challenge of another uphill climb, which starts on Friday against West Virginia.
"We are looking forward to it," Walkup told me before the Southland tournament, which Stephen F. Austin romped through after receiving a double-bye. "We wouldn't expect anything less." The confidence is one thing—a new one, but one that has been a signature of Underwood's teams; that the Lumberjacks deliver on it is another.
"I love being the bad guy," Walkup continued. "The team everyone else hates that they can't beat us. It's fun to step out there knowing we are getting their best shot—I welcome that." No one is talking about Stephen F. Austin now, but maybe this is the year that changes, too.