Having shaken its APR issues and put behind a string of 20-loss seasons, the Southern men’s basketball team heads into the NCAA tournament this week as one of the field’s more unlikely participants.
The Jaguars hadn’t even been part of their own conference tournament in four years.
Now they’ll get a crack at top-ranked Gonzaga at approximately 3:10 p.m. Thursday in Salt Lake City with a chance to become the first No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history to beat a No. 1.
No matter how the game shakes out, Southern will look back at 2012-13 with a clear view of how far the program has come.
No one knows better than Jameel Grace and Madut Bol, who will finish their Southern careers in a manner far different than they started.
“We’re just going to take advantage of the moment,” Grace said. “We’re going to cherish it.”
Southern has four seniors on its roster, but Grace and Bol are the only ones who have been with the Jaguars for four years.
They were there for five wins in 2009-10 and four more the following season.
Then came new coach Roman Banks, who orchestrated a remarkable on-court turnaround in his first season, leading Southern to a 17-14 finish last year and a second-place finish in the SWAC’s regular season.
But Banks was every bit as pivotal in helping rid Southern of the academic woes he inherited from the previous regime.
A year after Southern stayed home for the SWAC tournament because of APR-related penalties that left its ineligible for postseason play, Banks helped the Jaguars produce the kind of results in the classroom that led the NCAA to reinstate their postseason eligibility and basically award the program a clean slate.
That good news came just in time for Grace, the starting point guard, and Bol, a reserve forward, to enter their senior year with a shot at their first postseason.
Neither of the players competed in the SWAC tournament their first three seasons, the first two because Southern wasn’t good enough to qualify and then last year.
Fittingly, Southern had to sweat out winning the league title. Trailing by one late in Saturday’s championship game, Prairie View star Jourdan DeMuynck had a chance to win it for the Panthers after gathering a Grace miss and racing coast to coast. He got within feet of the Southern basket before colliding with Derick Beltran, who deflected DeMuynck’s pass attempt before the two rolled out of bounds.
“The gym got so loud, I didn’t know what the ref called,” Grace said. “I was lying on the ground, praying the game was over.”
With the 45-44 win, the Jaguars earned their first NCAA tournament berth in seven years.
And they kept alive the college careers of two seniors who, during their first two years in the program, probably couldn’t have envisioned this kind of ending.