Southern draws Gonzaga in NCAA opener

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --  Southern basketball players Madut Bol, left, Damien Goodwin, center, and Brandon Moore cheer when their NCAA tournament seed was announced Sunday, March 17, 2013, at TJ Ribs in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Southern basketball players Madut Bol, left, Damien Goodwin, center, and Brandon Moore cheer when their NCAA tournament seed was announced Sunday, March 17, 2013, at TJ Ribs in Baton Rouge.

Southern lands No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament,  2nd-round matchup with top-ranked Gonzaga in Salt Lake City

As the charter bus carrying the Southern men’s basketball team headed back to Baton Rouge on Sunday, coach Roman Banks spent just about every minute of the seven-hour ride from Garland, Texas, replying to the text messages he received after leading the Jaguars to victory the day before.

Banks said 561 text messages had collected in his cell phone.

“If the only thing I said was thank you, I replied to all of them,” he said.

If the Jaguars win the next game they play, Banks may need days—- not hours — to acknowledge everyone who wants to congratulate him.

A day after nipping Prairie View in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship game, Southern learned Sunday that its opponent in the NCAA tournament will be Gonzaga, which finished the regular season ranked first in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls.

As the No. 16 seed in the West Region, Southern (23-9) faces No. 1 seed Gonzaga (31-2) at approximately 3:10 p.m. Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.

Banks said he hadn’t seen much of the Zags this season because his focus has been on winning the SWAC. He said that would all change in the next couple of days.

“We’ll try to come up with a plan that gives us a chance to win,” he said.

Gonzaga made a name for itself as a bracket-busting Cinderella in years past, but it has a top seed this year for the first time. The Bulldogs swept through the West Coast Conference tournament after going 16-0 in the league during the regular season.

No team seeded 16th has beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament.

“We’re going to go out there and do our best,” senior point guard Jameel Grace said. “We’re going to make everybody proud.”

The Jaguars had not had much time to celebrate Saturday’s dramatic 45-44 victory to secure Southern’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2006 and eighth overall.

Their bus cruised straight from the parking lot of their Garland hotel Sunday morning to the parking lot of TJ Ribs, where players and coaches joined fans for a Selection Show party.

Two years removed from the worst season in school history, Southern looks to build on a 2012-13 that included a 15-3 mark in SWAC play and an upset of Texas A&M to highlight a road-heavy nonconference schedule.

Banks said the number of road games the Jaguars played early in the season may have helped them avoid a “First Four” play-in game. Southern had been projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as one of four No. 16 seeds that would begin the NCAA tournament in those games.

“Our conference sometimes doesn’t have the real high RPI and we get penalized, but I think (the selection committee) looked at the body of work,” Banks said. “That’s a testament to these guys going out on the road and playing.”

Southern’s eighth trip to the tournament comes two years after Banks inherited a team that had suffered through three straight 20-loss seasons.

The Jaguars surged from last in the SWAC to second last season but were unable to participate in the conference tournament because of an APR-related postseason ban.

Banks, a Northwestern State alumnus who spent the early part of his coaching career as a Southern assistant, has helped restore pride at a school where he has family ties. Banks’ father, Cleophus, played for SU in the 1960s. His brother, Carlos Sample, played for the Jaguars in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Sample, now the Scotlandville High basketball coach, attended Sunday’s watch party in Southern garb. Banks said he spoke to his father by phone Sunday morning.

“Stay focused and work hard on the next one,” Banks said he told him. “Anything is possible.”