Program Reviews: Stephen F. Austin is all pressure, all the time

Thanks to their work over the last several years, it’s easy to feel like Stephen F. Austin has been a March mainstay for our entire lives. However, it wasn’t always like that. Stephen F. Austin, a D-I program since 1984-85, didn’t make the NCAA Tournament until 2009. Even then, they were quickly dispatched from the field of 64 by Syracuse in the first round. It took Danny Kaspar nine long, hard years of work to get the Lumberjacks to the NCAA Tournament, and when he left SFA after the 2012-13 season – a 27-win season where they dominated the Southland, but lost in the conference tournament final – he wasn’t able to make it back.

However, Kaspar established a standard that’s been carried on by Brad Underwood and furthered even deeper by current coach Kyle Keller: a pressure cooker of a defense that forced tons of turnovers and makes life very, very hard on their opposition. Kaspar and Underwood’s teams were more deliberate offensively, though. Keller, now in his fourth season at SFA, has pushed the limit on both ends of the floor with the Lumberjacks. SFA ranked 65th in offensive pace this past season, their highest ranking yet in the KenPom era, and ranked #1 overall in defensive turnover percentage for the third time in five years.

The national identity for Stephen F. Austin is largely built upon two NCAA Tournament runs: 2014 and 2016. The 2013-14 Stephen F. Austin team entered the Tournament at an astounding 31-2 and played hyper-speed basketball on defense, forcing turnovers left and right. You remember this team because they forced overtime (and then beat) VCU on a truly ridiculous four-point play. You definitely remember the 2015-16 team that demolished West Virginia’s press by beating them at their own game, forcing 22 turnovers on 70 possessions. They very nearly became the first 14 seed since 1996-97 Chattanooga to make the Sweet Sixteen, falling a point short against Notre Dame.

While Keller has yet to have his own signature March moment, he came very close against future Elite Eight team Texas Tech two years ago when Stephen F. Austin led the Red Raiders 58-57 with under five minutes to play. (Unsurprisingly, no other team Texas Tech played in that Tournament forced more TTU turnovers than the Lumberjacks.) This year’s Tournament certainly could’ve provided this fun, exciting program another signature game. They’ll have to wait until next year, but there’s great things in waiting, too. This program knows a little about waiting, and my guess is they’re comfortable taking another year to reap the rewards.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Kyle Keller: “On the court, everything we do is pressure. I think we have great synergy in what we do, both offensively and defensively. It’s about pressure and being aggressive. We want to be disruptive defensively and try to get the best shot we can offensively. Off the court, our philosophy from a staff standpoint is about trust. Can we build relationships and have trust with our players? The growth within from the time they get here to the time they leave is really important. Another word we use in our program a lot is love. I cry a lot and show a lot of raw emotion.”

WW: You spent the better part of 26 years as an assistant at five different Division I colleges, with 17 of those spent in the Big 12 and, later, the SEC. What attracted you to Stephen F. Austin when the job opened in 2016?

KK: “I’m a man of faith. God kind of led me here. I told my wife the last year at Texas A&M (2015-16) that this was the last year we’d spend at A&M. She asked ‘why?’ I said God’s speaking to me: enjoy this year, make memories with the kids. We won the SEC, made the Sweet Sixteen, all great things. I was involved in four or five jobs, and when Brad Underwood left Stephen F. Austin, the AD called me and said they’d consider me and it worked out. Following what Danny Kaspar and especially Underwood had done, it’s impossible to replicate that. As a coach, I really had my doubts I could ever get the program back to the point [Brad Underwood had it]. However, I just kept feeling drawn and led here. They really love basketball here at SFA, which is a rarity in Texas. I’m so blessed that we have this opportunity.”

WW: Your defense gets lots of attention, and rightfully so. However, few teams are quite as terrifying as yours offensively, in terms of hammering the offensive boards and consistently getting to the free throw line 25+ times a game. Why do you think this formula of crashing the boards and drawing fouls is so successful?

KK: “First off, thank you for asking about the offense. Everyone wants to talk about the defense. I don’t think we overcomplicate offense for our kids. They play with a free mind and can attack. Sometimes, you overcomplicate things – I’ve been guilty of it, because everyone wants to show they can coach. The Duke game actually really helped, because Coach K is so good in his simplicity. [This year], we focused on being great at a few things to allow our guys to play faster. Our guys didn’t have to think, and they were the most aggressive and toughest team most of the time.”

WW: What are some of the challenges of carrying on and attempting to further what Danny Kaspar and Brad Underwood helped build?

KK: “When you’re the winningest program in the state of Texas over the last decade-plus, there’s great expectations. I don’t take those lightly. I appreciate being here. I’ll never be the best coach at Stephen F. Austin, and I don’t have ambitions of being the best coach. For me, my goal is simple: I just want to coach the best team. For us, that means we need to win games in March, because that’s how we’re evaluated. We try to build our teams for March success.”

WW: Kevon Harris has been with you for all four years of your SFA tenure and surely ranks alongside Thomas Walkup as one of the greatest players in school history. What sets him apart from other players you’ve coached?

KK: “His work ethic is unmatched. He’s a loyal kid that had dreams of being in the NBA when he got here. He wasn’t a great shooter his freshman year and he asked me ‘why didn’t I get to play against Kentucky?’ I told him I didn’t trust him to make a shot. I really don’t think he’s left the gym since I said that. They moved the line back this year and he shot 42%. He allowed me to coach him, and great players want to be coached.”

WW: For what seems like my entire life at this point, SFA has always ranked among the nation’s best in forcing turnovers, and you’ve carried this tradition on as head coach. Why do you feel like having an intense turnover machine of a defense is so integral to SFA’s identity?

KK: “I go back to my lineage, the guys that I’ve played and worked for. All of them were aggressive guys – Leonard Hamilton, Bill Self, etc. For me personally, I think that for us to win NCAA Tournament games or beat Power 5 teams, we have to be different and unique to give us a chance. We don’t have McDonalds All-Americans. We have to do something different, and being aggressive and forcing steals gives us a chance to win these games. Kids like playing that way, and I think that’s why Brad [Underwood] was able to win those NCAA Tournament games.”

WW: The Duke win is probably the greatest win in SFA history, and I’m taking a wild guess that you might say it’s the biggest win in your career. Other than the Duke game, what’s your favorite win from your time at SFA thus far?

KK: “Beating Southeastern Louisiana to get into the NCAA Tournament two years ago was the most important win to me. For this year, the win I enjoyed as much as any was the game after Duke. We went to Arkansas State, and at that time, they were 5-1 and had won at Colorado State. Our team went up there and we were physically and emotionally drained. Our kids still played terrific – it was a close game at half in a hostile environment and we still won by 19. I knew it was going to be a special season after that.”

WW: This year’s SFA team was one of the best in school history, and you’re on track to return most of the roster for 2020-21. What’s the next big step for SFA as a program?

KK: “I think trying to play in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I think that’s why I was led here. I’ve coached in seven Sweet Sixteens, three or four Elite Eights, and a Final Four. I thought this team, depending on who we played, could’ve done it. We’ve got to get next year’s team to believe the same things we believed this year.”

WW: What’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

KK: “I’ve tried to read more, but the thing I’ve been doing the most is playing board games with my family. We play a lot of Scattergories. I have a 10-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, and every day, I’m thankful she came first, because my son can be a real piece of work.”

Here’s a few of my favorite plays from the SFA games I sampled.