Sam Walker isn’t sure how you’d handicap the Lone Star Conference South Division men’s basketball race.
You can understand why the fourth-year Texas A&M-Commerce coach would feel that way. Four of the division’s seven teams finished pre-South play with records of 10-5, while the other three were 9-6.
While it’s dangerous to put much stock in out-of-conference records, this year’s race looks like it could be competitive from top to bottom.
“Any other year, I could probably give you two or three (teams to beat),” said Walker, whose squad hosts Eastern New Mexico University tonight in Commerce. “I picked (Texas A&M-Kingsville) last (in the South), and they beat us by 20 (actually, 89-70 on Monday night) down there.”
Tuesday night, Abilene Christian whipped Angelo State 85-71 at home. The other teams begin South play tonight.
“I think it should be a dogfight,” Walker said of the division race. “I think we all have a little bit of firepower. It’s a matter of which team gets hot and pulls it all together.”
ENMU went 11-1 to win the division by three games a year ago, but that apparent domination was deceptive because three of the Greyhounds’ wins were in overtime and two others were by three points.
West Texas A&M was a solid favorite in the preseason poll, but the Buffaloes have gone through some tough times with division preseason player of the year Rod Prater missing a couple of games at Christmas for disciplinary reasons and 3-point specialist Eduardo Caviglia playing through a broken nose suffered in one of the crossover games.
“I talked to (defending North co-champion Northeastern State coach) Larry Gipson and his comment was that, honestly, after playing everybody in the South there weren’t five points separating all of us,” ENMU coach Shawn Scanlan said. “We’ve got a lot of hotly contested games ahead of us.”
Abilene Christian’s Klint Pleasant allowed that his team “played well in spurts” against Angelo after the Wildcats were the only South team with a losing record (2-5) in crossovers against the North.
“I think there’s an awful lot of parity in the South,” Pleasant said. “Anybody can beat anybody in the South. I think you can throw out the non-conference records, and you can throw out the records against the North.
“Everybody turns it up a notch (in division play).”
While Commerce, ENMU and Midwestern State all received several first-place votes in the preseason poll, there don’t appear to be any soft touches, Pleasant said.
“We’re one of those teams that, I’m hoping, gets better as the season goes on,” Pleasant said. “Everybody’s going to have to come to play every night.”
Defending a team’s home court is usually crucial to winning a championship, but could be even more important this season.
“It’s definitely an advantage to play at home, with travel in the conference the way it is,” Scanlan said. “It’s going to be a great race.”
Scanlan isn’t about to predict his team — or anyone else, for that matter — will through the South 11-1 this time around.
“We have to take these one game at a time,” he said. “We just have to bring our best every night and see if it’s good enough.”