FRISCO - The Sam Houston State men’s basketball team has been picked to finish second in the Southland Conference preseason poll, the league announced Thursday.

The Bearkats, who are the defending SLC regular-season champions, received seven first-place votes for a total of 251 points to come in behind New Orleans (270), which garnered 13 first-place votes. Abilene Christian (220) is picked third, followed by Stephen F. Austin (214, one first-place vote), Central Arkansas (180, four first-place votes), Lamar (163, one first-place vote), McNeese (158), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (147), Houston Baptist (129), Southeastern Louisiana (113), Nicholls (101), Northwestern State (46) and Incarnate Word (36).

“Being picked second was a little surprising to me, considering that we lost four starting seniors to graduation,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “I think it says a lot about the respect our program and institution have earned over the years. Our guys are excited and will be prepared to defend the title.”

Sam Houston State returns six players off last season’s championship squad that advanced to the NIT. The Bearkats brought in transfers Dainan Swoope, Demarkus Lampley, Mark Tikhonenko and Terryonte Thomas to bring experience and depth and play alongside returners Kai Mitchell, Zach Nutall, Chad Bowie, Xavier Bryant, Bubba Furlong and RJ Smith.

Sam Houston State also signed freshman Pierce Hellums from Concordia Lutheran High School in Tomball to improve the roster.

Mitchell was selected to the preseason All-Southland Conference first team Wednesday. The Hutchinson Community College transfer earned Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year and third-team all-conference honors last season after he averaged 12.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in 33 games, 32 of which he started.

The Bearkats have reached 20 wins in five of the last six seasons and have qualified for the Southland Conference Tournament 16 years in a row, including all nine seasons under Hooten.