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OUTLOOK: It may be time for a shakeup in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Over the last two seasons, Southern University and Texas Southern have dominated the league, with the latter winning the regular-season title and the former claiming the SWAC Tournament crown in 2013. Then last season, the two teams traded roles.
The prevailing thought as the 2014-15 campaign gets set to begin is that a new team could grab the mantle, and Alabama State could be that squad. It may seem odd for a team that was picked to finish last in this preview a year ago, but the Hornets far outplayed their preseason projections, finishing 19-13 overall and 12-6 in conference. They were the only team besides Southern and Texas Southern to finish the season with an overall record above .500. Obviously, what they did last season doesn't guarantee a league title this time around, but there is plenty of returning talent to think it is a realistic goal. Led by do-it-all guard Jamel Waters, the Hornets return five starters and a few important reserves from last season.
Plenty of other teams will be in contention for the SWAC championship as well. Arkansas-Pine Bluff went 11-7 in league play last season and has a potent backcourt anchored by Marcel Mosley and Tevin Hammond. Prairie View A&M also is hoping to make significant strides, led by a strong backcourt duo of its own in Montrael Scott and John Brisco. Alcorn State could be an intriguing pick as well, with excellent scoring and strength up front, thanks to LeAntwan Luckett, Octavius Brown and Marquis Vance. Southern still can't be ignored, if only because 2014 SWAC Coach of the Year Roman Banks has proven in just two seasons that he is the best mentor in the league.
Unlike Southern, Texas Southern is in for a fall from grace. The team may have gone 12-6 in conference play last season, but that was with SWAC Player of the Year Aaric Murray. Murray is one of four starters missing for the Tigers this time around.
The bottom of the conference will likely be inhabited by Grambling State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alabama A&M.
Grambling State has some nice pieces in A'Torri Shine and Terry Rose, but even with those two, it won just three conference games last season. Jackson State can play defense fairly well, but scoring could be a real issue. The Delta Devils are just three seasons removed from a NCAA Tournament bid, but this team is nowhere near as deep or experienced. Finally, Alabama A&M's best returning scorer is Justin Colvin, who averaged only 3.4 points per game in 2013-14.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Alabama State
PREDICTED OREDER OF FINISH: 1. Alabama State 2. Arkansas-Pine Bluff 3. Prairie View A&M 4. Alcorn State 5. Southern 6. Texas Southern 7. Grambling State 8. Jackson State 9. Mississippi Valley State 10. Alabama A&M
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
ALABAMA STATE: Lewis Jackson knows what it takes to win this league. He has won two regular-season SWAC titles (2008, 2009), and twice cut down the nets as champion at the end of the conference tournament (2009, 2011). The Hornets' coach has to like his chances this season, and the primary reason is the return of Waters, who is easily the top playmaker in the conference. He led the SWAC in assists (194) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6) last season, while topping the Hornets in scoring (14.1 ppg). He is an aggressive defender as well, having logged 1.8 steals per game. If Waters has a weak point, it is his shooting, as he connected on just 38.7 percent of his attempts from the floor. DeMarcus Robinson (11.5 ppg) is an excellent counterpart in the backcourt, although he needs to be more efficient as well, following a 36.6 percent shooting performance. Up front, Maurice Strong (8.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Brandon Graham (9 ppg, 5 rpg) and Luther Page (6.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) can score and crash the boards -- and those are just the returning starters. Bobby Brown (9.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is also back to supply production at both ends of the floor.
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF: No team in the SWAC scored less or put forward a worse effort on the boards than UAPB last season, with the team scoring 63.1 points per game, while tallying only 30.5 rebounds per contest. However, the Golden Lions still finished 11-7 in league play by winning nine of their last 13 games. The hope is that they can carry that momentum into the new season. They will have to turn a corner offensively to do so, and that begins with Mosley and Hammond. Mosley led the club in scoring (13.6 ppg), while shooting 44.3 percent from the field. Hammond shot below 40 percent, but managed to net 13.1 points per game to go along with his team-leading 4.7 assists per tilt. The duo certainly helped make up for the team's overall lack of offensive punch, as they each collected more than two steals per game. The backcourt will get an additional boost from Ghiavonni Robinson (6.2 ppg), who should improve in his sophomore season. Obviously, the backcourt is in good hands. What will make or break this team is what it gets from the frontcourt, as Daniel Broughton (8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Davon Haynes (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) are no longer eating up space down low.
PRAIRIE VIEW A&M: The Panthers made an astonishing run to the SWAC title game last season. As just the eighth seed in the league tournament, it was unlikely they would shake off their poor performance in the regular season (11-23 overall, 6-12 SWAC) and contend, but that is exactly what they did, making it all the way to the final before falling to Texas Southern. It was easily the most exciting stretch for the program in quite some time. Since 1980, the Panthers have had a winning record just once, finishing 17-12 in 2003. There is a strong possibility that they will add to the total this season, assuming things fall into place. Continued strong play in the backcourt is the key. Scott and Brisco need to perform as well as they did a season ago, if not better. Scott led the team in scoring (14.9 ppg) and shot a league-leading 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. Brisco (12.2 ppg) was the second-best scorer on the team and a crafty defender as well, coming up with 1.4 steals per game. Tre Hagood (6.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) isn't much of a scorer, but he can distribute. While the backcourt is loaded, the frontcourt, which wasn't all that impressive last season, lost a key piece in Demondre Chapman (11.6 ppg, club- best 5.6 rpg). Perhaps senior Reggis Onwukamuche, who stands at 6-foot-10, could give the Panthers a lift, although he only averaged 10 minutes of floor time in 31 outings last season.
ALCORN STATE: Luther Riley has done a nice job at the helm for the Braves. In 2011 he took over a program that had won fewer than 10 games in six of the previous eight seasons. Each of Riley's three years have seen double-digit victories, including last season's 12-19 mark, which was the program's best finish since 2003. The Braves were also competitive in league play last season, finishing with as many wins as losses (9-9). For Alcorn State to take the next step it needs to be a more efficient on offense, as the Braves ranked last in the league in assists (9.1 apg) last season, while scoring only 64 points per game. Luckett (16 ppg) is the squad's primary scoring option and an opportunistic defender. Last season, he was the only player for the Braves to average more than one steal per game (1.4). Scoring in the frontcourt should be supplied by Brown (13.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Vance (10 ppg, 5.1 rpg). However, they didn't get much help on the glass, with the Braves recording only 30.9 rebounds per game. Devante Hampton (5.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg) is another returning starter with a chance to play even more than the 24 minutes per game he logged last season.
SOUTHERN: When the 2013-14 regular season came to an end, the Tigers were an easy bet to make the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament. However, a 64-46 loss to eighth-seeded Prairie View A&M, which they had defeated, 91-59, just weeks before, in the SWAC Tournament did not allow Southern to make back-to- back trips to the Big Dance. Obviously it was a disappointment, but Southern still finished at 19-13 overall and owned a league-best 15-3 mark against its SWAC rivals. Such prolific efforts have been the hallmark of Roman Banks' tenure as head coach, with the team having win totals of 17, 23 and 19 in the past three seasons, respectively. Banks will have to put his coaching skills on display this season however, as the Tigers lost three starters, including leading scorers Calvin Godfrey (13.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Malcolm Miller (12.7 ppg, 5.2 apg). In fact, there is not a single returning double-digit scorer. Tre Lynch (9.5 ppg) was a spark plug off the bench last season, and he will be thrust into the limelight. Trelun Banks (8.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) gives Banks a reliable point guard, after earning SWAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2013-14. Aside from getting new scoring sources, the Tigers also have to find some answers on the boards, after a campaign in which they ranked 20th in the country in rebounds (38.6 rpg) with Godfrey on the roster.
TEXAS SOUTHERN: Offensively speaking, Texas Southern was the best team in the SWAC last season. The Tigers led the conference in scoring (76 ppg), assists (14 pg) and field goal percentage (.462). They also ranked second in rebounds (36.6 ppg). Maintaining that type of production will be extremely difficult since SWAC Player of the Year Aaric Murray (21.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.5 bpg) is gone. Murray isn't the only starter that needs to be replaced, with D.D. Scarver (12.6 ppg), D'Angelo Scott (7.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Lawrence Johnson- Danner (7.3 ppg) having vacated as well. That put quite a bit of pressure on Madarious Gibbs, who connected on 50.5 percent of his shots from the floor and led the team in minutes (34.6 pg) and assists (5.2 apg) last season. Jose Rodriguez (11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) started 19 games last season and played in all 34. He should be a more consistent starter as the top returning scorer on the roster.
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE: Chico Potts took a program that went 21-13 and made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, to only 14 wins in the next two seasons. The absolute free fall cost Potts his job, as Andre Payne has been handed the reins. Payne might as well be starting from scratch, as he has just one returning starter from a team that won five conference games last season and finished with losses in nine its final 10 contests. The Delta Devils played at an accelerated tempo under Potts, but it remains to be seen if Price will continue that strategy. It certainly didn't work very well last season, as the squad ranked second in the SWAC in scoring (71.7 ppg), but they also let up 80.7 points per game on nearly 50 percent shooting. DeAngelo Priar (10.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Jeffrey Simmons (10.6 ppg) are the top returning performers. Priar started 28 games, but needs to improve on his shooting (.387), while Simmons needs to prove that he can be an effective scorer with added playing time.
JACKSON STATE: There are not a lot of positives for head coach Wayne Brent to build on in his second season. His first didn't provide much of a change, as the Tigers finished 11-20 overall a year after posting an 11-18 mark. They actually took a step backward in league play, going from 9-9 in 2012-13 to 7-11 in 2013-14. Brent's squad didn't provide much excitement on offense, scoring 65.8 points per game on 41.7 percent shooting. The Tigers did a decent job on defense, with opponents netting 68.7 points per game. The defensive success may continue, but the Tigers really need to find scorers. Both Julysses Nobles (15.7 ppg) and Brandon West (12.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg) are gone, leaving no double-digit scorers on the roster. Javeres Brent (8.9 ppg) has the ability and opportunity to produce at a higher rate, but he must hit more than 33 percent of his shots, as he did last season. Treshawn Bolden (5.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Dontaveon Robinson (3.3 ppg) combined for 46 starts last season, but neither was allowed many scoring chances. That should change as the Tigers attempt to find an identity on offense.
GRAMBLING STATE: Winning five games is rarely seen as a positive, but for the Tigers, posting such a win total was just that. After all, they had won only four games combined the previous two seasons, including a winless 2012-13 campaign. Even with the improvement, head coach Joseph Price was let go. He was given only two seasons to turn things around, so his replacement, Shawn Walker, may have less job security than might be expected. Brent really needs to get his team to defend better, after the Tigers allowed nearly 80 points per game and a 51.2 percent success rate on field goal attempts last season. Brent is lucky to have one of last season's better players back in the mix, with A'Torri Shine (13.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) ready to elevate his production. Of course, things would be a lot easier if Antwan Scott (15.7 ppg, 3.7 apg) had not transferred to Colorado State. Remond Brown (8.9 ppg) played in 19 games last season and will team with Shine in the backcourt. Richard Freeman (2.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg) is the best returning option up front, although 6-foot-9 freshman Kyle Williams could compete for playing time right away.
ALABAMA A&M: The Bulldogs finished 14-16 overall, 10-8 in conference, and made it to the SWAC Tournament semifinals last season. Willie Hayes has now topped his win total in back-to-back seasons after a 7-21 start to his tenure at Alabama A&M. Unfortunately, the hope for a continued rise is resting on a lot of unknown talent on the roster. Only one starter returns from last season, with Jeremy Crutcher (12.2 ppg), Brandon Ellis (8.6 ppg), Justan Banks (4.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Jerome Hunter (2.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg) no longer around. Tyler Davis started 16 games last season, but only averaged 3.3 points per outing. Nicholas West played in 22 games and posted six points per, so he could become the top offensive option. No other player on the roster averaged more than four points per game last season, with Justin Colvin (3.4 ppg) a possible candidate to get additional scoring chances as well. All told, prospects are not bright for the Bulldogs, who shot the worst percentage from the floor among all SWAC teams last season (.410).