By Dave Wagner
Eastern New Mexico University may be the two-time defending Lone Star Conference South Division men’s basketball champion, but if early-season performances mean anything it’s Texas A&M-Commerce coming in as the team to beat.
While everybody else in the South sits between 6-9 and 9-6 heading into Thursday’s first full night of division play, the Lions are 13-3 and ranked No. 13 in NCAA Division II.
Even more impressive is their 7-0 sweep of crossover games against the LSC North, while the rest of the South combined to go just 12-30.
Still, the Lions are already 0-1 in the division — a five-point loss at Midwestern State last week in the only South game played so far — and coach Sam Walker knows the road to the top is filled with potential pitfalls.
“I still think very few points separate any of us from each other,” said Walker, whose team has two more road games on tap this week against ENMU and West Texas A&M. “I’ve been in the league for 13 years now, and I see a lot of balance. I think we’re going to beat up on each other.”
Eastern, meantime, was picked to win the title again in the South’s preseason poll, followed by Texas A&M-Kingsville. But the Greyhounds are 7-8 so far and trying to battle through a rash of injuries.
ENMU coach Shawn Scanlan has been impressed by Commerce’s early play.
“I think you have to say they are (the team to beat) until proven otherwise,” Scanlan said. “They were unbeaten against the North, and that alone gives them that right.”
Last year, all seven teams entered the South schedule either 10-5 or 9-6. Everyone, other than Commerce, has been a bit more up-and-down this time around.
“My personal feeling is that until somebody knocks off Eastern New Mexico, they’re the reigning champs,” said Kingsville coach Pete Peterson, whose team actually handed ENMU its only two division losses last season but still finished second at 9-3. “We’re hoping to try to get to where Shawn’s had his team the last couple of years. To win the South is a great accomplishment.”
Walker said that while Commerce has enjoyed a good start, the Lions have been able to pull out several close games.
“We’re pleased with our record,” he said. “We’ve beaten some people we probably shouldn’t have beaten. I don’t want to take away from what we’ve done, but I know wins are going to be hard to come by the next five or six weeks.”
West Texas A&M coach Rick Cooper said he expects Commerce and Midwestern State (9-7) — teams the Buffaloes host this week — to be tough nuts to crack.
“They look like they might be in the driver’s seat on the South side,” Cooper said. “But I think it’s very difficult to tell at this point.”
The Buffs (6-9) have been a perennial South contender under Cooper, but haven’t hit their stride so far despite having a number of veteran players.
“We’d better get better in a hurry,” Cooper said. “From one day to the next, we’ve proven to be a different team. We’ve just been horribly inconsistent.”