SU men can’t expect free ride

For what it’s worth, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Southern men as a No. 16 seed in his latest NCAA tournament projections. He has them playing Indiana — if they can beat Charleston Southern in a play-in game.

But none of that happens if the Jaguars don’t win the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament next week in Garland, Texas.

Southern, seeking its second NCAA berth in the past 20 years, is the No. 1 seed in the SWAC and a prohibitive favorite.

Here are some potential obstacles the Jaguars must avoid before they can be fitted for their dancing shoes.

Knocking off the rust: By the time the Jaguars take the court March 15 in the SWAC tournament, they will have gone 12 days without playing a game.

There are two reasons for the long layoff.

The first is that the SWAC tournament, originally planned to fall on the heels of the regular season, was pushed back to accommodate several schools in the conference that have midterm exams this week. The second is that the men’s bracket required some reshuffling because three of its teams — Texas Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley — are not eligible for postseason play, pushing the first games of the tournament back a day and leaving Southern the only team with a bye.

Avoiding Cinderella: If anybody other than Southern wins this tournament, they will show up in Dayton, Ohio, for NCAA play-in action as a media darling.

Jackson State is the No. 2 seed in the tournament after going .500 in one of the nation’s less-heralded conferences.

Alcorn State is the only team in the tournament that beat Southern during the regular season, and the Braves enter the postseason having lost six of their past seven games.

Texas Southern won the regular season but is ineligible for the tournament because of NCAA probation. Arkansas-Pine Bluff shared second place with Southern but is out of the postseason because of APR-related penalties.

What’s more, Southern, with a bye in the seven-team field, needs to win only its opener against the Alabama A&M-Grambling winner to reach the SWAC final.

But wild things have a habit of happening this time of year.

Shaking off the doldrums: The last time Southern played a game in the SWAC tournament, even the most veteran of these Jaguars were picking out their date for senior prom.

Southern missed the tournament in 2010 and 2011 because it failed to qualify and again in 2012 because of ARP-related penalties. Nobody on this roster has played in one.

Inexperience hasn’t hurt the Jaguars thus far.

With only four returnees from last year, they spent most of the SWAC season as the league’s team to beat, finished the home portion of its schedule 12-0 and reached 20 regular-season wins for the first time since the late 1990s.

They’ll have to keep that up if they want to dance on.