Southern men take fast start on the road

The last time Southern men’s basketball had a team start Southwestern Athletic Conference play this fast, Roman Banks was playing point guard for Northwestern State and Michael Jordan was still in search of his first NBA championship.

Much has changed since 1990, the year Southern enjoyed a 25-6 campaign that included a 12-0 start to SWAC action. But today’s Jaguars are looking like they soon could have a place among the great Southern teams celebrated in the hallways of the F.G. Clark Activity Center and on banners that hang from the rafters.

Southern (12-6, 6-0) will look to extend its best SWAC start in 23 years when the Jaguars face Alabama State (5-13, 3-2) at 5 p.m. Saturday to begin a three-game road swing. A visit to Alabama A&M on Monday comes next.

“That’s something I hope the fans and the alumni and everyone affiliated with the university and the program can be excited about,” said Banks, in his second season as Southern’s coach. “But for me and the team, we have to look beyond that right now. Hopefully, we can use some of this energy to finish strong.”

The Jaguars began to grab attention with a victory at Texas A&M in their penultimate game of the nonconference season. That upset started an eight-game winning streak that has propelled Southern to the top of the SWAC standings.

After inching by Texas Southern and Prairie View to start conference play, the Jaguars have won each of their past four games by double figures. Three of the wins were by 30-plus points.

Now comes the annual swing through Alabama, followed by a trip to Alcorn State a week from Saturday.

“I’m excited about that start, but my main focus is the finish line,” Banks said. “There’s bigger fish to fry.”

Red-hot junior Malcolm Miller may be the biggest reason Southern has something special cooking. Miller ranks second in the conference at 17.1 points per game, but he has scored at a league-best 23.3-point clip in SWAC play, with five games of 20-plus points.

The conference has named a Player of the Week twice since the SWAC season began. Both times, Miller took the honor.

If opponents begin to focus too much of their attention on Miller, Banks hopes that guard Derick Beltran and center Javan Mitchell can make them pay.

Mitchell had 17 points — 15 in the first half — in the 88-54 victory against Mississippi Valley State on Monday night, and Beltran averages 15.3 points.

It also appears that senior point guard Jameel Grace again could be a factor. Grace got his first action Monday since suffering a sprained shoulder against Texas Southern in the SWAC opener.

His minutes will increase on the road trip, but Banks said he wants to work Grace back slowly. So freshman Christopher Hyder is likely to remain in the starting lineup for now.

“We’ll probably bring (Grace) off the bench and let him get a few games under his belt,” Banks said.

“We obviously need his leadership, but I want to make sure he has his confidence back along with feeling good about his injury.”

Alabama State could test a Southern defense that has held five of its six SWAC opponents below 60 points. The Hornets rank third in the league in field goal percentage, second in assists and fourth in 3-point percentage.