The Lumberjacks are picked to finish first in the conference, according to the preseason poll voted on by the league’s head coaches and sports information directors. Last season, New Orleans spoiled SFA’s run for a fifth straight regular season Southland championship and fourth-straight tournament title. FRISCO, Texas – The 54th season of Southland Conference men’s basketball tips off Friday when Central Arkansas takes on No. 24 Baylor in Waco, Texas, on Fox Sports Southwest, and Lamar contests at Tulsa. Both games are scheduled for a noon start. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks – Preseason Ranking: 1; 2016-17 Record/Place: 18-15 (12-6 SLC), T-2ndHead coach Kyle Keller returns four starters to his lineup in preseason all-conference automatic selection junior forward T.J. Holyfield, senior forward Leon Gilmore III and senior guards Ivan Canete and Ty Charles. Holyfield averaged 11.7 points per game along with 7.2 rebounds per game a season ago to earn all-conference honors. The Lumberjacks own the nation’s second best home-court winning percentage over the last five years (.959, 71-3 record).Season opener – Saturday at Longwood – 2 p.m. – Farmville, Va.Conference opener – Dec. 28 at Southeastern Louisiana – 7 p.m. – Hammond, La.Lamar Cardinals – Preseason Ranking: 2; 2016-17 Record/Place: 19-15 (10-8 SLC), T-5thSenior forward Colton Weisbrod highlights a Lamar squad that returns its most veteran lineup since its 2012 NCAA Tournament run. Weisbrod, a 2016-17 All-Conference First Team selection and automatic pick to this season’s preseason all-conference team, ranked seventh in the league for scoring (15.1 ppg) and third in rebounding (8.1 rpg) last season. The Cardinals are seeking their first back-to-back trip to the Southland postseason since the 2006-07 and 07-08 seasons.Season opener – Friday at Tulsa – Noon – Tulsa, Okla.Conference opener – Dec. 28 vs. Houston Baptist – 7 p.m. – Beaumont, TexasSoutheastern Louisiana Lions – Preseason Ranking: 3; 2016-17 Record/Place: 16-16, (9-9 SLC), 7thSoutheastern Louisiana brings back four of its top five scorers from last season, including a Southland preseason all-conference selection in junior guard Marlain Veal. The Lions also return three players from injury, most noticeably senior forward Jordan Capps who was averaging 22 points and 8.4 rebounds before being sidelined after the second game of the season.Season opener – Friday vs. Centenary – 7:30 p.m. – Hammond, La.Conference opener – Dec. 28 vs. Stephen F. Austin – 7 p.m. – Hammond, La.Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders – Preseason Ranking: 4; 2016-17 Record/Place: 24-11 (12-6 SLC), T-2ndTexas A&M-Corpus Christi looks to build upon a 2016-17 season that saw the team become the first Southland team to reach the final of a postseason tournament, falling two points shy to St. Peter’s in the 2017 CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament title game. The Islanders will have to replace forward Rashawn Thomas, who led the league in points (22.5 ppg) and rebounds (9.0) his senior season. Senior guard Joseph Kilgore of Houston returns to the lineup, averaging 10.9 points last season and most recently dropping 35 points in Corpus Christi’s preseason exhibition against Texas A&M-Kingsville on Nov. 2.Season opener – Friday vs. Our Lady of the Lake – 7:30 p.m. – Corpus Christi, TexasConference opener – Dec. 28 at Central Arkansas – 7 p.m. – Conway, Ark.Sam Houston State Bearkats – Preseason Ranking: 5; 2016-17 Record/Place: 21-13 (10-8 SLC), T-5thSam Houston State returns two of its top three scorers from last season in preseason all-conference guard John Dewey III and senior forward Christopher Galbreath, Jr., while looking to replace three players – Aurimas Majauskas, Dakarai Henderson and Paul Baxter – who graduated this past May, each scoring more than 1,000 points in their careers. Head Coach Jason Hooten, who is 13 wins shy of the 150 career mark, saw his team lead the Southland in field goal percentage defense a season ago. This was the second time in the last three seasons the Kats have led in that category.Season opener – Saturday vs. UT Tyler – 6:30 p.m. – Huntsville, TexasConference opener – Dec. 30 at Abilene Christian – 7:30 p.m. – Abilene, TexasNew Orleans Privateers – Preseason Ranking: 6; 2016-17 Record/Place: 20-12 (13-5 SLC), 1stNew Orleans, coming off its first trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament in 21 seasons, is backed by preseason all-conference selection senior forward Travin Thibodeaux and senior forward Makur Puou after the graduation of 2016-17 Southland Player of the Year Erik Thomas. The defending regular and tournament champions led the league last season in field goal percentage (.473), three-point field goal percentage (.316) and assists (15.7 per game). Reigning Southland Coach of the Year Mark Slessinger signed a seven-year contract extension in the offseason as the Privateers search for their fourth-straight trip to the Southland Tournament.Season opener – Friday at St. John’s (Fox College Sports) – 6 p.m. – Queens, N.Y.Conference opener – Dec. 28 vs. Abilene Christian – 7 p.m. – New Orleans, La.Abilene Christian Wildcats – Preseason Ranking: 7; 2016-17 Record/Place: 13-16 (7-11 SLC), T-8thIn its first season of NCAA Division I postseason eligibility, Abilene Christian will look to its three “Js” – juniors Jaylen Franklin and Jaren Lewis and sophomore Jalone Friday – to lead the team to its first Southland Tournament. Franklin and Friday were selected to the preseason all-conference teams as the Wildcats are the only team in the league with two selections to the preseason honors.Season opener – Friday vs. Randall – 7:30 p.m. – Abilene, TexasConference opener – Dec. 28 at New Orleans – 7 p.m. – New Orleans, La.Northwestern State Demons – Preseason Ranking: 8 – 2016-17 Record/Place: 13-16 (7-11 SLC), T-8thNorthwestern State returns three of its top five scorers from last season in junior center Ishmael Lane and senior guards Devonte Hall and Iziahiah Sweeney. The Demons also bring back the school’s career leader in assists and three-pointers in Jalan West, who has missed the past two seasons due to knee injuries. In Northwestern State’s exhibition game against Grambling, West netted 20 points as all 11 players scored for Head Coach Mike McConathy’s squad.Season opener – Friday at Texas – 7 p.m. (Longhorn Network) – Austin, TexasConference opener – Dec. 28 at Nicholls – 7 p.m. – Thibodeaux, La.Houston Baptist Huskies – Preseason Ranking: 9; 2016-17 Record/Place: 17-14 (12-6 SLC), T-2ndHouston Baptist advanced to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament for the second-straight year this past season. The Huskies have improved in each season as a member of the Southland, posting a better record than the previous year since 2013-14. They lost five seniors from a season ago, including All-Southland Second Team selections Colter Lasher and Reveal Chukwujeku, but return senior center Josh Ibarra and junior point guard Braxton Bonds. The tandem combined to start 60 games last season. Ibarra, who was named to the preseason all-conference team, has a chance to finish his career as the program’s all-time leader in shooting percentage (currently at .614; the record is .616).Season opener – Friday at Providence – 6 p.m. (Fox Sports Network) – Providence, R.I.Conference opener – Dec. 28 at Lamar – 7 p.m. – Beaumont, TexasNicholls Colonels – Preseason Ranking: 10; 2016-17 Record/Place: 14-17 (7-11 SLC), T-8thSecond-year head coach Richie Riley welcomes six newcomers from Division I programs, including Legend Robertin who Riley first recruited to Clemson when Robertin was the No. 2 ranked junior college prospect. Riley also adds three freshmen to a roster that features just three returnees: senior guards Jahvaughn Powell (11.9 ppg), Lafayette Rutledge (10.9 ppg) and Stevie Repichowski (7.4 ppg).Season opener – Friday at UTRGV – 7 p.m. – Edinburg, TexasConference opener – Dec. 28 vs. Northwestern State – 7 p.m. – Thibodeaux, La.Central Arkansas Bears – Preseason Ranking: 11; 2016-17 Record/Place: 8-24 (7-11 SLC), T-8thGuard Jordan Howard returns to Central Arkansas for his senior season, looking to lead the Bears to their first consecutive trip to the Southland Conference Tournament in program history. The preseason first team selection and school career leader in three-pointers made enters the campaign after a season that saw him average 19.5 points per game. The Bears also return senior guard and forward Mathieu Kamba, who averaged 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in his junior season.Season opener – Friday at Baylor (Fox Sports Southwest) – Noon – Waco, TexasConference opener – Dec. 28 vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi – 7 p.m. – Conway, Ark.UIW Cardinals – Preseason Ranking: 12 – 2016-17 Record/Place: 12-17 (7-11 SLC), T-8thUIW enters its first season eligible for Southland and NCAA Division I postseason play. The Cardinals lost four letterwinners but return Newcomer of the Year, Jalin Hart, and 2016-17 All-Southland honorable mention selections, junior forward Simi Socks and Shawn Johnson. Head Coach Ken Burmeister faces the program’s most difficult non-conference schedule with trips to national runner-up Gonzaga on Nov. 29 and Florida on Dec. 22 on the team’s slate.Season opener – Friday vs. Southeastern – 7 p.m. – San AntonioConference opener – Dec. 28 at McNeese – 6:30 p.m. – Lake Charles, La.McNeese Cowboys – Preseason Ranking: 13 – 2016-17 Record/Place: 7-22 (4-14 SLC), 13thThis season will mark the final campaign at Burton Coliseum for McNeese. The Cowboys return four of their top five scorers from last season, including leading scorer Kaleb Ledoux, who was the first freshman since Joe Dumars to lead the team in scoring after netting 11.9 points per game. McNeese returns leading rebounder Stephen Ugochukwu who averaged 8.0 rebounds a game last season.Season opener – Friday at Houston (ESPN3) – 7 p.m. – HoustonConference opener – Dec. 28 vs. UIW – 6:30 p.m. – Lake Charles, La.Each game is listed in Central Time The Southland Conference Basketball Tournament returns to the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, on March 7-10, 2018. This is the 11th consecutive tournament at the venue. Eleven teams begin their campaign Friday while preseason favorite Stephen F. Austin takes on Longwood at 2 p.m. Saturday. Sam Houston State is the last team to get its season started with a 6:30 p.m. tipoff Saturday against UT Tyler.