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2015-16 SWAC Post-Mortem

August 24, 2016 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments
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The competition for title of the best program in the Southwestern Athletic Conference continues to be hot, and that was only enhanced in 2015-16.

In one corner you have Texas Southern, which once again owned the SWAC in the regular season, finishing three games ahead of its nearest competition. The Tigers won their second straight regular season championship, boasted the league’s breakout player in freakishly athletic freshman Derrick Griffin, and now have won three regular season titles and two conference tourneys over the last four years. Mike Davis has established a league power, one that reloads talent on a regular basis.

On the other hand, Southern under Roman Banks has gone 67-23 in the SWAC in his five years in Baton Rouge, never finishing lower than fourth in the conference even while working through some Academic Progress Rate sanctions from before his time. That ledger includes a regular season title and two SWAC Tournament crowns. Most importantly, the Jaguars hold current bragging rights after defeating Texas Southern in the SWAC tourney this year and winning the league’s most recent NCAA Tournament bid.

The two schools have taken over the league, much the way they did from 1988-95 when Southern and TSU were collectively marauding to six regular season titles and six NCAA tourneys, with neither finishing lower than fourth in that time. The dominance is not so much that others can’t compete when at their best, as demonstrated by Southern’s fourth-place showing the regular season and Alcorn State’s ascendance to second in the league this year. There’s little doubt, though, that right now the Jaguars and Tigers are currently the most effective at frequently finding talent.

Texas Southern was the class of the SWAC in the regular season behind Griffin, who in his first year of eligibility was one of the conference’s best in two sports. As a 6-foot-7 wide receiver, Griffin caught 36 passes for 709 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman before switching over to the hardwood. There, he was a double-double machine, tying for 13th in the country with 19 of them despite missing the Tigers’ first six games. He averaged 13.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game and was named SWAC Player of the Year as a freshman.

Southern had the best non-conference season of any SWAC team this year, though, defeating Mississippi State, Tulane and Wyoming all on the road. The Jaguars found their form again in the SWAC Tournament and played in the NCAA tourney, losing a close play-in game to Holy Cross.

As a group, the SWAC struggled out of conference as usual, finishing 31st of 32 in conference RPI. Two years after furnishing three 20-win teams, the league had just two this year, though one of them-Jackson State-reached that mark by recording the conference’s first postseason win since 1993.

Final Standings:

SWAC Overall
Texas Southern 16-2 18-15
Alcorn State 13-5 15-15
Jackson State 12-6 20-16
Southern 11-7 22-13
Alabama State 9-9 14-17
Prairie View A&M 7-11 7-24
Alabama A&M 6-12 11-18
Arkansas-Pine Bluff 6-12 8-25
Mississippi Valley State 6-12 8-27
Grambling State 4-14 7-24

Conference Tournament
For those who enjoy watching high seeds fall, the SWAC Tournament rarely disappoints, and this year’s event in Houston was no exception. Lower seeds pulled off a win in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, and the result was a No. 4 seed winning the whole thing.

The first-and biggest-stunner came in the first game of the quarterfinals. Seventh-seeded Mississippi Valley State needed to beat No. 10 Grambling 87-73 in a first round game just to get to the quarters, but the Delta Devils then upended 2 seed Alcorn State 64-61. Marcus Romain scored 22 points and MVSU avenged a pair of close losses to the Braves in the regular season. Later that night, top seed Texas Southern also received a scare before finally holding off No. 8 Alabama A&M 77-69.

The final two quarterfinals were decisive wins for No. 3 Jackson State (69-51 over 6 seed Prairie View) and fourth-seeded Southern (83-63 over Alabama State), but the semifinals provided more drama. Jackson State hit 10 three-pointers to hold off stubborn Mississippi Valley 74-68, but Southern provided more fireworks by upsetting Texas Southern 81-73. Five players scored in double figures for the Jaguars, while the Tigers were done in by 19 turnovers.

The title game was a suspense-packed grinder. Jackson State overcame an eight-point second-half deficit and appeared in control after a 9-0 run capped by a Yettra Specks three-pointer made it 48-42 with less than five minutes left. Southern rallied, though, and the final 2:18 saw two ties and three lead changes. JSU’s Raeford Worsham scored to put the Tigers up a point with 33 seconds left, but SU’s Adrian Rodgers had the last word with a jumper with 17 seconds left, and the Jaguars withstood two final shots for a 54-53 win.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Derrick Griffin, C, Fr., Texas Southern
Defensive Player of the Year: Derrick Griffin, C, Fr., Texas Southern
Newcomer of the Year: Derrick Griffin, C, Fr., Texas Southern
Freshman of the Year: Nigel Ribeiro, G, Grambling State
Coach of the Year:
 Mike Davis, Texas Southern

All-Conference Team
Derrick Griffin, C, Fr., Texas Southern
Adrian Rodgers, F, Sr., Southern
Ladarius Tabb, F, Sr., Alabama A&M
Chris Thomas, F, Sr., Texas Southern
Jamel Waters, G, Sr., Alabama State

Season Highlights

  • Three SWAC teams (Southern, Texas Southern, Jackson State) qualified for postseason tournaments, and Jackson State defeated Sam Houston State 81-77 in overtime in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. The Tigers’ win was the first in the postseason by a SWAC team since the Tigers knocked off Connecticut in the 1993 NIT and Southern upset Georgia Tech in the NCAA Tournament that same year.
  • Because they spend almost all of November and December heavily disadvantaged on the road, SWAC teams rarely rarely finish near the top in the NCAA national rankings. TSU’s Griffin ranked third in the country in field goal percentage (66.2%), though, and also tied for 13th in double doubles. Southern’s Christopher Hyder was fourth nationally in total steals (85) and seventh steals per game (2.4), while Mississippi Valley State also was eighth in the nation in three-point field goal percentage defense, allowing foes to shoot just 30.3% from the half-moon line.
  • The SWAC didn’t pick up quite as many prominent non-conference scalps as the year before, but the league did post wins over Virginia Tech (by Alabama State), Mississippi State and Wyoming (Southern), Tulane (Southern and Alabama A&M) and Southern Mississippi (Jackson State).
  • SWAC rosters were frequently populated by players named Chris Thomas, with Alabama A&M, Southern and Texas Southern all having players of the name. Collectively, the trio averaged 24.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, led by TSU’s Thomas with 15.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in earning first team all-SWAC honors.

What we expected, and it happened: Texas Southern and Southern were again the class of the SWAC, with the Tigers winning the league’s regular season crown by three games and the Jaguars claiming the conference tournament and their second NCAA Tournament bid in four years.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Southern disrupted that narrative for a while, though. After some impressive non-conference wins, the Jaguars had some struggles in the SWAC and finished fourth in the conference standings.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Alcorn State made a huge move, from ninth in the league to second. The Braves improved their SWAC win total from four to 13 and became an immediate contender under rookie head coach Martez Robinson.

Teams on the rise: Alcorn State, Jackson State. The Braves finally put it all together last year and under Robinson look to have the toughness to remain challengers in the future, even as much of a senior-dominated team departs. Likewise, Wayne Brent has done a quality job with the Tigers, who are experienced, shoot well from deep and are primed for a very nice year.

Team on the decline: Alabama A&M. Hard to tab any SWAC school with this tag, considering how easily they can be beaten down by ridiculous non-conference schedules. We’ll put the Bulldogs here, though, considering they struggled to 6-12 in the conference and 11-18 overall, and now lose Ladarius Tabb and Nicholas West, who provided almost literally half of their scoring.

2016-17 SWAC Outlook
There are no secrets: Southern and Texas Southern will be the favorites again next year. The Jaguars are the surer bet given a deeper returning cast coming back, including soon-to-be four-year starter Tre’lun Banks and Jared Sam. The Tigers will reload again, though, and are almost an instant contender for as long as Griffin plays. It should be noted that TSU loses more than 75% of its scoring and nearly 70% of its rebounding from a year ago, but at this point its impossible to doubt Mike Davis.

Another group of Tigers could also mount a threat. Jackson State was a solid third in the SWAC a year ago, beat Southern once in the regular season and was two points away from beating the Jags again to get to the NCAA Tournament. JSU shoots the three as well as any team in the league and also attacks the offensive glass. It’s not inconceivable that Wayne Brent’s team could be the top challenger to Southern, and maybe even the favorite by the time January rolls around.

Other storylines to watch will be if Alcorn State can sustain the push to the top it made a year ago, whether Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Prairie View can get back to more customary positions as tough outs, if Mississippi Valley State can build on its strong SWAC tourney run, and if Grambling-which had in Nigel Ribeiro the best freshman not named Derrick Griffin a year ago-can get out of the cellar for the first time in six years.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
E-mail: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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