GARLAND, Texas — The Southern men’s basketball team enters Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament play Friday night needing only two wins to make its eighth NCAA tournament appearance.
The Jaguars (21-9), two years removed from the worst season in program history, have won 20 games for the first time since 1999.
But that Southern went 15-3 in SWAC play and finished the regular season 12-0 at home wouldn’t have mattered much had coach Roman Banks not gotten his players on track in the classroom first.
“It’s kind of amazing when you look at where we came from and how we did it, the strain and stress we were under,” Banks said.
Banks returned to Southern, where he was an assistant for six years early in his career, as the school’s once-proud basketball program faced its most trying times. After winning the SWAC and making the NCAA tournament in 2006, the Jaguars averaged 22.8 losses during their final five seasons under Rob Spivery, who was fired after Southern finished the 2010-11 season 4-26.
But the biggest, most immediate job Banks faced wasn’t turning things around on the court. Because of low Academic Progress Rate scores during the final four years of the Spivery era, the team was docked two scholarships and practice time while receiving a one-year postseason ban.
Banks said the roster he inherited in the spring of 2011 had only one player who was academically eligible.
“If we don’t get those guys eligible, then we never get this chance to go to the (SWAC) tournament,” Banks said.
The heavy lifting began in summer school, months after Banks came aboard. He held nightly, mandatory study halls for his players and made sure either he or one of his assistants was present. Players met at the F.G. Clark Activity Center each morning and were walked to class by one of the coaches.
If the player didn’t sit in one of the first three rows, the coach would make a note and report it to Banks.
“We didn’t do anything basketball-wise that summer,” Banks said. “We just did all academics — whatever we had to do because it was more important to make sure we were headed in the right direction academically.”
That team finished second in the SWAC, a remarkable turnaround that — if not for the postseason ban — would have made Southern a contender in the conference tournament. Meanwhile, Southern had a perfect APR score during Banks’ first fall semester. The APR, used by the NCAA to measure eligibility and retention, is calculated by adding the number of points accrued each semester by scholarship athletes.
“We had the APR thing going on, so I feel there was a lot of weight on Coach Banks’ shoulders,” senior point guard Jameel Grace said. “He not only was trying to get us better on the court but off the court as well.”
Grace missed out on the postseason his first three college seasons, the first two because Southern did not qualify for eight-team SWAC tournaments. He started to wonder whether he’d ever taste March madness.
“I had doubts,” he said. “I wasn’t sure we’d be left out because of the APR or if we just weren’t going to be good enough as far as the team goes.”
The APR question was answered last spring, when the NCAA granted a request by Southern that gave low-resource institutions a chance to pursue future APR scores with a clean slate and restored the Jaguars’ postseason eligibility.
Nothing is promised a Southern team that beat Texas A&M late in nonconference play and won 11 league games by double figures. But the Jaguars know they will go dancing for the first time in seven years if they win two more games.
They know they have a chance.