NATCHITOCHES - Two-time defending Southland Conference basketball champion Northwestern State is the overwhelming favorite to win the newly created SLC East Division in polls of coaches and sports information directors released Wednesday by the conference office. The Demons, 26-8 last year with a first-round NCAA Tournament win over 15th-ranked Iowa, return nine letterwinners including starting guard Luke Rogers, the only NSU player listed Wednesday on the 10-man Preseason All-SLC Team chosen by the head coaches. With Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Central Arkansas joining the SLC this year, the 12 members have split into two divisions. The polls did not select an overall champion., but NSUs 15 first-place votes in the East Division polls matched the 15 by Sam Houston in the West Division while the Demons got 127 points to 125 for the Bearkats, last years regular-season runner-up and the SLC Tournament runner-up to NSU. "Its a pleasant surprise to be picked to win by our peers," said Demons coach Mike McConathy, about to start his eighth season at Northwestern when preseason workouts begin Friday night. "Most of the preseason publications and websites have looked at last years senior class and havent considered what we have on hand this season. Were very excited about the depth and talent on this team. "What we dont know yet is if this group has the toughness and competitiveness well need to play a tremendously challenging non-conference schedule in November and December, to prepare us for the conference season," said McConathy. "I believe we do. We have lots of experienced players who understand what it takes and we have some very eager new guys who want to measure up to the high standard that last years team set." Rogers and fellow seniors Jermaine Spencer and Keenan Jones, along with juniors Colby Bargeman and Demetrius Bell give NSU proven production among the nine returning lettermen. Adding the spoils of recruiting classes in the past couple of seasons, McConathy is quietly confident the Demons can challenge for a third straight SLC regular-season title and a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons. Sam Houston was the coaches pick to win the West Division while newcomer A&M-Corpus Christi tied the Bearkats in the poll of sports information directors. In the East Division, both polls tabbed Lamar as the runner-up, followed by Southeastern Louisiana, McNeese State, Nicholls State and Central Arkansas. Coaches made NSU a 62-54 point choice over Lamar while SIDs gave Northwestern a 65-55 nod over the Cardinals. Eight of the 12 coaches picked the Demons, with three choosing Lamar and one selecting McNeese. The SIDs gave seven first place votes to Northwestern, with three picking Lamar and two picking SLU. In the SLC West coaches poll, Sam Houston was trailed by A&M-Corpus Christi. Stephen F. Austin was third in both West polls, with Texas-Arlington fourth in the coaches rankings, Texas-San Antonio fifth and Texas State sixth. UTSA and UTA swapped positions in the SID poll. The top two divisional finishers automatically qualify for the 2007 OReilly Auto Parts SLC Tournament in suburban Houston next March. The next four teams with the best winning percentage in league play round out the eight-team field, with Central Arkansas ineligible for the tournament as it transitions into Division I membership.