The Southern men’s basketball team improved eight places in the Southwestern Athletic Conference standings last season, moving from 10th place in 2010-11 to second place under coach Roman Banks, who inherited a program in 2011-12 coming off three straight 20-loss seasons.
But the Jaguars were left on the sideline for the SWAC tournament because of substandard Academic Progress Rating scores under the previous regime.
All of that is behind them now as they head to Texas Southern, the co-conference leader, on Thursday night for their penultimate game of the regular season.
Southern has long since secured the No. 1 seed in this year’s conference tournament and, with TSU and Arkansas-Pine Bluff ineligible for the postseason, will be heavily favored to win the event March 12-16 and head off to its first NCAA tournament since 2006.
More on that later.
Other important business is in the immediate future as Southern (20-8, 14-2) and Texas Southern (15-14, 14-2) lock up in showdown that will give the winner at least a share of the regular-season title.
“Just to have a chance for this program in a short year and a half’s time to be involved in one of the biggest games in the conference, it’s huge,” Banks said. “In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have image being in a game of this magnitude this early.”
Southern has been the team at the top of the league standings virtually the entire season, but Texas Southern rides a 10-game winning streak and has won 14 of 15 since losing at SU on the opening night of SWAC play. The Tigers are 7-0 at home.
Southern has lights-out shooters Malcolm Miller and Derick Beltan, who average more than 32 points per game between them.
But TSU has Omar Strong (second in the SWAC in scoring) and Raymond Penn (first in the league in assists) on the outside and Fred Sturdivant (first in the league in field-goal percentage and blocks, second in rebounding) on the inside.
Southern leads the conference in scoring defense and ranks second in scoring offense. Texas Southern leads the league in scoring offense and ranks second in scoring defense.
Unfortunately for SWAC basketball fans, they will not see a matchup of these teams in the conference tournament.
Texas Southern, whose NCAA probation includes a 2013 postseason ban, is one of three SWAC teams out of the postseason mix this year.
UAPB, which sits only one-half game behind Southern and Texas Southern and owns a win over both, and Mississippi Valley are ineligible because of APR-related issues.
As the conference’s top seed, the Jaguars will receive a first-round bye in the SWAC tournament and need only a victory over the No. 6 or No. 7 seed to reach the championship game. A jumble of teams are fighting for the No. 2 seed, but none of them is better than 8-8 in the league.
So the stage is set for Southern to put an exclamation point on one of its finer regular seasons..