MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Southern men’s basketball coach Roman Banks has heard the compliments when shaking hands after Southern’s first two games.
The latest came Sunday, after a 78-75 loss at Middle Tennessee, when Kermit Davis, a former LSU assistant, told him: “Great job, you’ve got your guys playing like a mid-major team.”
Those words echoed what Banks heard Friday night, after a 63-56 loss at No. 17 Marquette, when an assistant told him, “Y’all aren’t the average team. Everybody gets ready for you now.”
Banks, of course, would prefer a breakthrough win, a statement win, a signature win. But respect is respect, a commodity prized because the salute is earned and never merely given.
“Southern is looked at a little different now,” Banks said. “I do know that.”
And here’s a difference from within the program as well: Being close in road games at teams that were in the NCAA tournament last season — while those feats rightfully will impress those inside and outside the conference — didn’t satisfy Southern.
The conversation about Southern’s program could be different and more satisfying had SU won either or both of those games. And, by the way, the Jaguars were in that same NCAA tournament, too, when they challenged top-seeded Gonzaga before falling 64-58 in March.
“We feel like we played well, but we lost two games we thought we had a chance to win. And they’re a little down now,” Banks said. “We’ve got to shake that.”
Neiko Hunter scored 20 points and Kerry Hammonds II added 19, including two key late free throws as Middle Tennessee held off Southern.
Middle Tennessee used a 26-16 run to tie the game with 5:25 remaining. The Blue Raiders then tried to put the game out of reach multiple times in the last three minutes, but Southern wouldn’t go down easy, pulling within two on a 3-pointer by Tre Lynch.
After a pair of free throws by Tweety Knight, Lynch hit another triple to make the score 76-75 with 10 seconds to play.
Hammonds II hit two more free throws, and Lynch missed the potential game-tying 3-pointer as time expired.
Malcolm Miller led Southern with 20 points, while Lynch had 14.
“I won’t say I’m happy,” Banks said. “But I can feel a little satisfied. I think we’re heading in the right direction. These teams are unbelievably good. They’re high-level teams.”
As Southern did in the loss at Marquette, when the Jaguars were down 14 points seven minutes into the game before clawing back, SU was confronted by an early deficit.
This time, Southern trailed 15-2 six minutes into the game. But this time, Southern did more than just get within striking distance. SU took a 35-31 halftime lead on Javan Mitchell’s dunk and pushed that lead to 45-33 on Miller’s 3-pointer three minutes into the second half.
“The game was just about exactly what I expected,” Davis said. “We played a quality opponent that is really, really well coached, that has won a bunch of games. And I think that we just played an NCAA tournament team.”
Middle Tennessee benefited from a staggering 55 free throws, making 36.
“You have to be really good playing on the road down the stretch,” Banks said. “We made some really bad fouls. I have to get these guys used to these new (hand-checking) rule. It’s really hurt us these first two games.”
Southern hosts Tulane at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“We have started to find an identity for ourself,” Banks said. “Going through this right now has been really, really good for us.”