It has been some time since the Southwestern Athletic Conference has had a true heavyweight program, but Southern University may be on the verge of changing that.
Not since Davey Whitney won three regular season titles in four years from 1999-2002 in the second stint of his brilliant career at Alcorn State has the SWAC had a consistent year-in, year-out team to beat. Under coach Roman Banks, though, Southern has won a SWAC tourney title and a regular season title in the last two years. The latter came this season, when the Jaguars won the league by three games despite returning just two starters from the team that nearly shocked Gonzaga in the round of 64 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Southern had perhaps the SWAC’s second-best player (Malcolm Miller), but also the league’s Newcomer of the Year (Calvin Godfrey) and Freshman of the Year (Tre’lun Banks, son of the coach). The Jaguars were not eligible for the NCAA Tournament due to APR sanctions, but Southern has quickly become a program that reloads, not rebuilds. The transformation from 4-26 the year prior to Banks’ arrival to now has turned heads, and he was a candidate for an assistant position at Texas A&M this offseason before choosing to stay in Baton Rouge.
The SWAC can use all the positive press it can manufacture. The league finished 32nd of 32 leagues in the RPI this year, and the number of guarantee games its teams play on the road will always hurt the league in overall records and in perception. The APR woes of a number of schools-four were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament last year-also are a black eye.
But while Southern has a chance to become the flagship program, the rest of the conference is not as bad as many may think. Three SWAC teams finished with at least 19 wins, a modest milestone, but one which the conference hasn’t seen since 2001-02. Texas Southern under Mike Davis has been almost neck-and-neck with Southern the last two years, and the Tigers earned the SWAC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas-Pine Bluff has rounded into a frequent first-division club, while Alabama State was a pleasant surprise and returns almost everyone next year from a team that qualified for the CIT.
Even the league’s bottom feeders had their moments-Prairie View A&M and Mississippi Valley State finished eighth and ninth, respectively, yet both defeated Southern. The SWAC has some stability in the coaching ranks right now, so even if Southern continues to be the league’s top program, the challengers should continue to improve the next couple years.
|Mississippi Valley State||5-13||9-23|
With four of its members (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling, Mississippi Valley State, Southern) ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, the SWAC was originally going to play a six-team tourney in Houston, but that plan took a twist just a few weeks before the event. The league voted to invite all 10 teams, and was allowed by the NCAA to award its automatic NCAA tourney bid to the highest-finishing eligible team in the case that one of the four ineligible schools won the tourney. An unusual situation in the NCAA, no doubt, though the practice of awarding tournament berths to non-champions is not unprecedented-the NAIA awards conferences of 10 or more members two automatic berths to its national basketball tournaments, and a number of those leagues award their second bids to the league tournament runner-up.
Any fear that some in the SWAC may have had that one of its four ineligible teams would win the tourney was eliminated by the quarterfinals. That included top seed Southern, which in stunning fashion was blown out by No. 8 Prairie View A&M 64-46, which needed to defeat No. 9 Mississippi Valley 79-63 in a first round game just to advance to the quarterfinals. The Panthers entered the tournament with just an 8-22 record, including seven consecutive losses, but spanked the Jaguars by shooting 50% from the field while Southern clanked 12 of 14 free throw tries.
The other ‘ineligibles’ also went out quickly. No. 10 seed Grambling actually won the tourney’s first game, surprising No. 7 Jackson State 84-75, but Grambling’s Tigers were eliminated by the Texas Southern Tigers 79-54 in the quarterfinals. Fourth-seeded Pine Bluff also was gone early, falling to No. 5 Alabama A&M 69-50. The other quarterfinal saw No. 3 Alabama State move on with a 64-51 win over No. 6 Alcorn State.
Under the originally planned 6-team format, SWAC regular season second-place co-finishers Texas Southern and Alabama State would’ve been seeded 1 and 2 and wouldn’t have met until the tournament final. Instead, they were now paired up in a semifinal game, and TSU shot 50% to stop the Hornets 73-61. The second semifinal featured No. 5 Alabama A&M and No. 8 Prairie View, and the Panthers advanced to the championship game for the second straight year, this time as a major surprise from their 8 seed, with a 55-49 win.
Just as it did the year before, an underdog Prairie View team put a serious scare into a much higher-seeded opponent in the final. The Panthers led 38-31 at halftime, but Texas Southern shot 64.7% in the second half and Aaric Murray finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds as TSU earned a 78-73 win and its first NCAA Tournament bid in 11 years.
Player of the Year: Aaric Murray, C, Sr., Texas Southern
Newcomer of the Year: Calvin Godfrey, F, Jr., Southern
Freshman of the Year: Tre’lun Banks, G, Southern
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaric Murray, C, Sr., Texas Southern
Coach of the Year: Roman Banks, Southern
Calvin Godfrey, F, Jr., Southern
LeAntwan Luckett, F, So., Alcorn State
Malcolm Miller, F, Sr., Southern
Aaric Murray, C, Sr., Texas Southern
Antwan Scott, G, Jr., Grambling State
- Southern followed up its NCAA Tournament berth and near upset of No. 1 seed Gonzaga in 2013 by winning the SWAC regular season title.
- Texas Southern won the SWAC tourney and advanced to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2003. The Tigers have lost in play-in games their last two appearances, though, after losing to Cal Poly this year, and haven’t been in the round of 64 since just missing an upset of then-defending champion Arkansas in 1995.
- Alabama State improved from 10 wins last year to 19 this year and qualified for the College Insider Tournament.
- Grambling broke a 32-game losing streak with an 83-75 win over NAIA member Central Baptist (Ark.). The Tigers went on to win five games, a modest total but their best showing in three years.
What we expected, and it happened: Southern and Texas Southern were picked to be the SWAC’s two best teams, and they were exactly that. Southern won the regular season title; TSU won the postseason tournament.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Jackson State looked ready to challenge for the top of the league after a good run in November and December but was a mild disappointment in SWAC play. The Tigers defeated Air Force, Evansville and NCAAs participant Louisiana-Lafayette in the non-conference schedule while also narrowly missing against a number of other name opponents. In league play, though, JSU finished seventh, and then bowed meekly out of the SWAC tourney to Grambling.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Alabama State was much improved. The Hornets tied for second in the SWAC regular season and jumped from 10-22 to 19-13 overall, earning a bid to the College Insider Tournament.
Teams on the rise: Alabama State fits in this category, but the Hornets won’t be eligible for the 2015 NCAA Tournament due to APR sanctions. A number of SWAC teams are young and have a chance to improve quite a bit next year, but we’ll go with Southern here. The Jaguars have the look of a SWAC power in the making.
Team on the decline: Texas Southern. This is the easy call for next year anyway as the Tigers lose the most dominant player in the SWAC in Murray, plus five other contributing seniors. Mike Davis has done a nice job at TSU but will have a different team next year.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Southern once again loses three starters, just like last year. Still, it’s hard to bet against the Jaguars based on Roman Banks’ success and when they return a first team all-SWAC player (Godfrey) and a potential one (Tre’lun Banks), as well as some excellent size inside.
Alabama State would likely have been the consensus pick to win the title next year, but it’s impossible to gauge how the Hornets will do without the carrot of an NCAA bid. One team that could take the title from Southern is Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which should return four of five starters.
Texas Southern will not fall far long term, but the Tigers lose too much and it would be a major surprise if they keep their pace of the past two years. Alcorn State is a team to watch, a young squad with five of its six leading scorers returning.
The rest have work to do and look to be at least a year away. Jackson State looks headed in the right direction, while Mississippi Valley State, Prairie View and Grambling all look to be still building. Alabama A&M is rebuilding after losing six seniors from its rotation.