The Southern men’s basketball team couldn’t face a much more challenging way to begin its season.
The Jaguars open Friday night at Marquette, which went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last season, is ranked No. 17 in the country and has the nation’s second-longest homecourt winning streak at 25 games.
On top of that, Southern won’t have the services of center Javan Mitchell, who is awaiting medical clearance after being diagnosed with an enlarged heart.
“He hasn’t officially been released yet, so I don’t anticipate having him on this trip,” said coach Roman Banks, whose team plays at Middle Tennessee on Sunday before returning home.
Banks said Mitchell’s absence is significant, especially against the Golden Eagles senior forward tandem of Davante Gardner (6-foot-8, 290 pounds) and Jamil Wilson (6-7, 230).
“You’re talking about one of the guys that we have back that had experience and a person who’s very integral in what we do,” Banks said.
Southern likely will start Frank Snow (6-10, 230) in Mitchell’s place and pair him inside with junior-college transfer Calvin Godfrey (6-9, 210), who’s returning home to Milwaukee.
“The only problem with that is we become so small with the next rotation, and that concerns me a lot,” Banks said.
The rest of the starting lineup likely will have Malcolm Miller, the Southwestern Athletic Conference preseason player of the year, at small forward and Cameron Monroe and Chris Hyder in the backcourt.
“This is not a regular opener,” Hyder said. “It’s a big one.”
Marquette has made eight consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, the past five under former UNO coach Buzz Williams.
“They’re a top-20 program, year in and year out,” Banks said. “They play at a high level. They’re going to put a lot of pressure on us in that building, and it’s going to be interesting for the team being that we have so many new parts to see if we can respond to the pressure pretty well.”
Miller, who came off the bench in all 33 games last season, chose to start after Banks asked him whether he’d be more comfortable starting or coming off the bench.
“Hopefully he can lead some this year,” Banks said. “Malcolm is not really a leader; he just likes playing. I just wanted to make sure he was as comfortable as possible.”
Miller said he was surprised but happy that Banks let him make the choice, and his reasoning should have been music to his coach’s ears.
“Even though I didn’t have any problem with coming off the bench, I like starting, and I haven’t started since my high school days,” he said. “What convinced me is it’s my senior year and I want to be more of a leader than somebody who just comes off the bench and gets us going. I want to help us get going from the beginning. I want to push myself to be more consistent, and I think by starting I can be a better leader for my team.”
Hyder is a new starter at point guard, but he played in all 33 games last season and started eight.
“It helped me a lot because I had to learn faster,” Hyder said. “I had to pick up everything quicker because (Jameel Grace) got hurt, so it put the ball in my hands early. It helped me more mentally because I had to get focused and grow up kind of fast because my teammates were depending on me.”
Southern is hoping Mitchell gets final medical clearance soon. He was cleared initially, but the medical staff decided to get a second opinion. In the meantime, the rest of the Jaguars will gauge themselves against a team that Big East Conference coaches picked to win their league.
“I just want to see if we can handle the pressure of playing a big school in front of a big crowd and see if we can go in there and get the job done,” Miller said. “Like Coach tells us, it’s going to tell us where our basketball team is at. I think it’s a big opportunity for us to go out there and show everybody what we’re about.”