Top SWAC spot secure, Southern men eye more

Hours after the Southern men’s basketball team completed a 58-49 victory over Alabama State on Saturday, Alabama A&M rallied to take a 72-65 win at Alcorn State.

Those results sewed up the No. 1 seed in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament for Southern even though four games remain in the regular season.

Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff join the Jaguars in a crowded chase for the regular-season title, but neither is eligible for postseason play because of low Academic Progress Rating scores. So even now, with the conference tournament nearly a month away, the Jaguars know where they will stand when they head to Garland, Texas, in search of their first NCAA tournament berth in seven years.

But as Southern (18-8, 12-2) prepares to face A&M (9-15, 5-8) on Monday in the second of three straight home games, coach Roman Banks said the Jaguars are focused on continuing to establish an identity and will enter the home stretch with much work to do.

“We’re still learning. We’re still developing,” he said. “If we can win our next game, that’s the only thing we need to be concerned about.”

After winning six games by double figures and surging to an 8-0 start in conference play, Southern is 4-2 in its past six outings and only twice has won by double figures. Opponents are seeing the Jaguars for the second time and have started to make adjustments.

In the victory over Alabama State that kept Southern unbeaten at home, the Jaguars exchanged leads with the Hornets until finally taking control in the final 10 minutes. But they never led by double figures.

Alabama State, which generally plays man-to-man defense, played a zone all night. That’s the same recipe Alcorn State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff used in handing Southern its only two losses of the SWAC season.

“Obviously, people are looking at the Pine Bluff and Alcorn games and starting to trend that way,” Banks said.

Teams also have made a point to limit Malcolm Mller’s production. A junior college transfer who is Southern’s sixth man, Miller earned SWAC Player of the Week honors the first two weeks of January and looked like the clear favorite for the Player of the Year award until recent weeks.

Miller scored 11 points Saturday in the first 13-plus minutes but only had two the rest of the way.

“There’s still a level of discovering ourselves we have to go through,” Banks said.

Even so, Southern is not only the No. 1 seed in the SWAC tournament, but the Jaguars have a half-game lead on Texas Southern (12-14, 11-2) for first in the league standings. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (12-14, 11-3) is a game back after losing Saturday at TSU.

“We go out and play game by game and let the standings take care of itself,” said senior point guard Jameel Grace, who had a season-high 24 points Saturday. “We try to win every game. If we win every game, only the best can happen for us.”

Banks said the fact that opponents have made adjustments against Southern is only one reason his team has found wins harder to come by. The other, he said, is that the opponents are getting better.

Alabama A&M would seem to fit in that category. The Bulldogs won for the second time in four games when they overcame a 36-26 halftime deficit at Alcorn to further muddle the middle of the SWAC standings. Brandon Ellis tied a season high with 25 points and made 5 of 7 3-pointers.

Eighth-place A&M trails fourth-place Alcorn by 11/2 games in the race for the SWAC tournament’s No. 2 seed.

“Those teams that got off to a slow start, they have really improved this second half,” Banks said. “There are no easy games for us. Everybody wants to come in and win. Everybody’s jockeying for position for the conference tournament.”