The Southwestern Athletic Conference has for some time been devoid of a signature basketball program. It now may have one. Or two.
Last year we documented the SWAC’s search for a true heavyweight program, a team to beat every season. We presented Southern, after the Jaguars had won a conference tourney championship and a regular season title in the previous two years.
We could just as easily now tout Texas Southern to take the Jaguars’ place. The Tigers have now won two straight SWAC tournament titles to make two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. TSU also won the regular season championship this year to sweep both titles and lay its claim as the league’s top program. And the Tigers also have a regular season title from 2012-13, giving them two regular season and two tourney championships in the last three years.
The truth likely is that both are on the mountain top ahead of the rest of the SWAC. Both Roman Banks at Southern and Mike Davis at Texas Southern have proven they can rebuild rosters quickly, particularly in the case of Davis taking advantage of transfers from higher profile schools. The former Indiana and UAB coach has established TSU in the SWAC and outside too, as the Tigers chopped down some big names last year and put big-time scares into others. It also should be noted that Texas Southern and Southern met in the SWAC tourney final, and two of the three games between the teams went right down to the wire.
Both schools are much needed in a conference that still climbs a big hill in NCAA Division I. The SWAC is not as bad as many think, but good luck convincing others of that. The battle it faces can be summed up by any number of statistics, but perhaps none is better than this: of 50 non-conference games played against the RPI top 125 (per CBSSports.com RPI numbers), one of those were at home. Four more of those games were at neutral sites. The remaining 45 were on the road. Extend that to the top 200, and just four of 74 games against such teams were at home, with six more at neutral sites.
The takeaway is this: it is impossible to get a realistic read on the true quality of a league like the SWAC when it is playing at home about 5% of the time against teams anywhere close to the top half of Division I. In quality, the conference may well be in the mid-20s in the conference RPI in any given year, but its schedules result in its consistently being at or near the bottom among D-I leagues.
|Prairie View A&M||12-6||15-18|
|Mississippi Valley State||5-13||6-26|
The SWAC Tournament featured a unique scenario, with two of its top teams participating despite being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to APR sanctions. Alabama State (Number 2 seed) and Southern (No. 3 seed) were allowed to participate in the tourney despite their sanctions, and if either would’ve won the tourney the conference’s automatic bid would go to the team that advanced the furthest.
This left the real possibility that a team could clinch the automatic bid before even playing in the championship game, and that’s exactly what happened. Southern edged Alabama State 68-66 in the first semifinal game, meaning the second semi between top seed Texas Southern and No. 4 Prairie View A&M was for the automatic bid. TSU took care of the Panthers 90-77, wrapping up its second straight NCAA bid and setting up a slightly anticlimactic championship game. The Tigers won that one 62-58, coming from behind in the final minute. Southern’s Tre Lynch missed a potential game-winning three-pointer with three seconds left, and Chris Thomas hit two free throws to put the game away.
Normally teeming with upsets, this year’s SWAC tourney had only a single lower seed winner in eight games, and that was the minor upset by Southern over Alabama State in the semis. No. 8 Alcorn State topped 9 seed Grambling State 66-52 in the first round game, and all four top seeds won their quarterfinal games. TSU rolled past Alcorn State 95-74, Alabama State outran No. 7 Mississippi Valley State 93-81, Southern held off No. 6 Alabama A&M 64-60 and Prairie View outlasted No. 5 Jackson State 62-56.
The tournament MVP award went to TSU’s Madarious Gibbs, but a special mention also should go to the Tigers’ Malcolm Riley. The junior forward scored 62 points and grabbed 31 rebounds over three games, recording three straight double-doubles.
Player of the Year: Madarious Gibbs, G, Sr., Texas Southern
Defensive Player of the Year: Reggis Onwukamuche, C, Sr., Prairie View
Freshman of the Year: Steve Rogers, G, Alabama State
Newcomer of the Year: Ladarius Tabb, G, Jr., Alabama A&M
Coach of the Year: Mike Davis, Texas Southern
Madarious Gibbs, G, Sr., Texas Southern
LeAntwan Luckett, F, Jr., Alcorn State
Marquis Vance, F, So., Alcorn State
Jamel Waters, G, Jr., Alabama State
Nick West, C, Jr., Alabama A&M
- Texas Southern stunned Michigan State on the road and also won at Kansas State, scoring the SWAC a pair of wins over BCS schools. The win over Michigan State was the first by a SWAC team over a ranked team since 1994.
- TSU’s win capped a spurt of three big wins in four days for the SWAC in December. Before the Tigers’ upset, Arkansas-Pine Bluff topped Houston in overtime three days earlier and Jackson State blew out Southern Mississippi the following night. Not surprisingly, all three games were on the road.
- TSU’s Gibbs ranked second in NCAA Division I in minutes played per game (38.2), just behind Saint Joseph’s forward Deandre Bembry. Arkansas-Pine Bluff guard Tevin Hammond also tied for seventh in the nation in steals per game (2.44).
- Prairie View and Southern also ranked in the top 10 nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense. The Panthers ranked No. 7 at 29.2%, while the Jaguars were three spots behind in 10th at 29.9%.
- Buoyed by its appearance in the SWAC tourney final the year before, Prairie View made a nice move up the league standings, from 6-12 and eighth place the year before to 12-6 and fourth this year.
What we expected, and it happened: Alabama State and Southern were strong, both posting winning records and combining for 27 SWAC wins.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Southern was good, but not quite the team expected, in part because of NCAA APR sanctions resulting in the transfer of some key players.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: We thought Texas Southern would have a significant drop-off after making the NCAA Tournament in 2014. Instead, Mike Davis reloaded with transfers and the Tigers may have been even better.
Teams on the rise: Alabama A&M. Nearly everyone returns for the Bulldogs, and Ladarius Tabb may be the SWAC’s most unstoppable player next year.
Team on the decline: Alabama State. The Hornets return one of the league’s very best guards in Waters but lost most of their interior power.
Next Season Conference Outlook
By this time, it almost doesn’t matter who they lose-discussion of the SWAC race begins with Southern and Texas Southern. The Jaguars have loads of talent in the backcourt with offensive weapon Adrian Rodgers, versatile Trelun Banks and slick point guard Christopher Hyder. Six-foot-9 forward Jarred Sam was also a revelation as a freshman and should only get better. Texas Southern loses SWAC MVP Gibbs but still has Riley, who really stepped up in March, as well as former big-time recruit Chris Thomas. Jose Rodriguez (11.4 ppg in 2013-14) also is back after an injury.
Alabama State should stay around the first division, but it’s hard to pick the Hornets as an alternative at the top. Alabama A&M and Alcorn State both are hyper-experienced and have some of the SWAC’s best players (Tabb at A&M, Luckett and Vance at Alcorn). It hasn’t clicked yet for the Braves, though; those two all-SWAC players netted just a 6-26 record.
Pine Bluff will be a tough out again, while Prairie View loses a lot of talent-four starters. Jackson State could make a move, while Mississippi Valley State and Grambling are still building.