SU men enter as SWAC faves

Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Southern men's basketball coach Roman Banks talks with his team during a game against Alabama A&M. Southern continued to negotiate a new contract with Banks on Thursday as Texas A&M added an assistant to its staff. Show caption
Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Southern men's basketball coach Roman Banks talks with his team during a game against Alabama A&M. Southern continued to negotiate a new contract with Banks on Thursday as Texas A&M added an assistant to its staff.

The Southern men’s basketball team will not have to play its fist game at the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, which runs March 13 to 16 in Garland, Texas, until the event’s penultimate day.

The Jaguars also won’t have to contend with two of the three teams that beat them during the SWAC’s regular season, because first-place Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which tied Southern for second, are ineligible for the postseason.

All that said, the Southern men haven’t played in the SWAC tournament since 2009, and the Jaguars haven’t won a game there since winning the league title in 2006.

“It’s just having an opportunity to go to a tournament, something none of these guys have done,” coach Roman Banks said. “To get back to being able to go to the tournament is very good for our program. It definitely gives us something to build on, but we don’t bring the tournament experience in. That’s the thing that concerns me.”

Southern (21-9, 15-3) would appear to be the significant favorite to leave the Curtis Culwell Center with the SWAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Three of the conference’s 10 teams are not in the mix: Texas Southern (17-14, 16-2) because of NCAA probation and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (16-14, 15-3) and Mississippi Valley (5-23, 5-13) because of APR-related penalties.

The absences of TSU and UAPB leave fourth-place Jackson State (10-17, 9-9) as the No. 2 seed.

Southern is the only team in the field with a quarterfinal bye and needs only one win to play in the final, set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16 on ESPN2.

The Jaguars open at 8 p.m. Friday, March 15 against the winner of the game between No. 6 seed Alabama A&M (10-19, 6-12) and No. 7 Grambling (0-27, 0-18) two days earlier. Whichever opponent Southern sees first, it will be a team the Jaguars beat twice during the regular season.

In fact, Southern enters with a 2-0 mark against every team in the field except No. 3 seed Alcorn State, which split the season series. But Banks said the Jaguars, who were a marked team after blazing to an 8-0 SWAC start, must play with great intensity given the target on their back.

“I don’t think we always did a great job of handling that through the season,” he said.

Banks also has concerns about having to go 12 days without playing a game. But he hopes the rest can help senior guard Derick Beltran, who played in Saturday’s rout of Prairie View after suffering a knee injury in a loss at Texas Southern two nights earlier.

“I just don’t want to lose our sharpness that we had down the stretch,” Banks said.

Southern has played three games at the SWAC tournament since winning it in 2006 and lost all three. Opening-round losses in 2008 and ’09 were by a single point.

Southern did not qualify for the tournament in 2010 or ’11 and last year was ineligible because of APR issues.

“To be able to give those guys a chance to go play in the tournament, it’s very satisfying,” Banks said. “Tournament experience is going to be a key for us. We don’t have that.”