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OUTLOOK: Last March the Southwestern Athletic Conference almost became a household name when the Southern Jaguars nearly pulled off an upset of No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. Although they would eventually fall, 64-58, the Jaguars certainly did the league proud. This year they will be hard pressed to repeat as the SWAC's NCAA Tournament representative with a few of teams improving and those who were already in the mix, returning enough talent to compete.
The quest for the conference crown was a three-team race a year ago and those same three teams should be ready to go again. Southern was one of those squads, finishing 15-3 in league play, while owning a 23-10 overall record. Though leading scorer Derick Beltran is gone, Southern will still be trotting out Malcolm Miller, an explosive force off the bench last year, each night. Texas Southern (16-2) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (15-3) also dominated in league play, with the Tigers actually taking home the regular season crown. Three starters are back for Texas Southern, led by Ray Penn, who should help the squad again be the intimidating defensive unit it was last year. There are also three starters back for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which is just three years removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance. Davon Haynes (11.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is the most important piece that returns as he is on a short list of Player of the Year candidates.
After those three no other team finished with a record above .500 in league play or overall. That should change this year.
Alabama A&M won just 11 games all of last season but the five starters that were on the floor are all back. Having experience like that is key in a league where quick turnarounds are common. Experience alone means nothing but the Bulldogs won't have to worry too much about that as double-double machine Demarquelle Tabb (14.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and two other double-figure scorers are among the group. Even though Mississippi Valley State only won five games last season it has a bulk of its talent back and will also be in the second season under head coach Chico Potts. Stability at the top and Matt Smith (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) improving will get the Delta Devils back in the fray. Alcorn State's LeAntwan Luckett and Jackson State's Derrell Taylor will keep both of their teams competitive as well.
The bottom part of the league even has some hope. Grambling State finished with a zero in the win column last year. A huge turnaround can't be expected but with SWAC Freshman of the Year Terry Rose leading the way, some improvement has to be expected. Then there is Prairie View A&M and Alabama State, which have a pair of starters back in the fold.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Southern
PREDICTED OREDER OF FINISH: 1. Alabama A&M 2. Southern 3. Arkansas-Pine Bluff 4. Texas Southern 5. Mississippi Valley State 6. Jackson State 7. Alcorn State 8. Grambling State 9. Prairie View A&M 10. Alabama State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
ALABAMA A&M: This squad will go as high as Tabb carries them. If the senior swingman takes another step forward, not only as a player but as a leader, the Bulldogs could very well be dancing come March. Though he is just 6-foot-5 Tabb is a deadly force on the interior with his ability to finish at the rim and rip down rebounds at a torrid pace. Last season Tabb had 14 double-doubles while throwing up a 20-10 three times. There is no reason to believe he can't become a consistent 20-10 performer this year. Helping Tabb from the outside will be sharpshooter Jeremy Crutcher (12.0 ppg, 4.9 apg). The 5-8 guard led the Bulldogs in three-point shooting last year netting 38.3 percent of his shots from distance. Crutcher also ran the offense rather effectively ranking second in the SWAC in assists. Of course the Bulldogs also have three other starters back giving the team its full starting rotation from a year ago. That is a luxury no other team in the conference has. Brandon Ellis (10.7 ppg) is a third double-figure scorer that was a consistent starter for A&M last year.
SOUTHERN: It is tough to put a value on the experience of not only playing in the NCAA Tournament but going toe-to-toe with a national power. The Jaguars will find out this year just how much they gained from the experience. Odds are the returns will bring about another strong season. As the only team in the league to win 20 games last season the Jaguars clearly already know how to win. In his two seasons at the helm Banks took a team that was just 4-26 in 2011 to a 40-24 record over the last two years. Banks may be destined for bigger things soon but for now keeping the upward trajectory of the program is the goal. Miller (15.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), now a senior, did not start in a single game last year but now his efficient and lethal shooting touch should break into the starting lineup. Miller will need help though. Javan Mitchell (9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) was the only player other than Beltran to start in all 33 games the Jaguars played. He needs to be a more productive scorer and rebounder now. Cameron Monroe (2.0 ppg) is technically a returning starter (32 starts) but he will be in a different role as he will be asked to provide more than just minutes.
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF: The Lions took full advantage of their league schedule last season with a 15-3 mark against fellow SWAC squads. Another year like that doesn't seem likely and could spell a major drop off for George Ivory's squad. After all the Lions were just 1-11 in non-conference tilts. However, the Lions still have three starters returning from last year. Haynes (11.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) has a lot of the pressure for this season on his shoulders. A year ago he had the help of Terrell Kennedy (13.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Lazabian Jackson (11.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) but those two are gone. That means Haynes is automatically the go-to scoring option. Considering the Lions had a negative scoring differential last season (-3.9), an absence of most of their offensive punch could be crippling. That is unless Tevin Hammond (7.4 ppg, 4.2 apg, 2.3 spg) and Daniel Broughton (7.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) are able to replace Jackson and Kennedy's production, or at least come close to it. Hammond's ability in distributing and playing defense will also be critical.
TEXAS SOUTHERN: Like Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas Southern was an impressive squad in league play but a disaster against the rest of the country. The Tigers won the regular season crown with a record of 16-2 in league action. However, they had just a single win in 13 tries away from the friendly confines of SWAC play. The strength for the Tigers last season, other than their efforts against the conference, was the efficient offensive production they had. Texas Southern led the SWAC in points (70.3 ppg), assists (14.1 apg) and field goal percentage (.440). That unit lost two of its most productive pieces, including leading scorer Omar Strong (17.0 ppg). Now point guard Ray Penn (12.2 ppg, 5.7 apg), who led the SWAC in assists, will need to look for his shot a bit more often. It is a task Penn should be able to complete though he needs to improve as a shooter, after hitting just 36.8 percent of his shots from the field. Otherwise more shots from Penn could actually be a bad thing. Lawrence Johnson-Danner (8.5 ppg) was a sometimes starter last year and his ability to put the ball in the basket should be another important part of Mike Davis' offensive strategy. Aaron Clayborn (7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) will be given a similar task, while also needing to be a leader on the glass.
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE: Although Potts had some legal issues over the summer he is expected to get the Delta Devils back on track. This is a program that just two years ago went 21-13 and entered the NCAA Tournament for the second time in five seasons. Potts' task was made that much harder due to the transfer of leading scorer Davon Usher (18.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) to Delaware. However, it is not on the offensive side of things that Potts most needs to improve, though works needs to be done there as well. In actuality it is on defense that the Delta Devils need the most improvement. The Delta Devils were lit up for 73.9 points per game last season which is not a recipe for success considering they shot at a miserable 37 percent from the field as a team. A second year under Potts and some experience for the three starters that are returning is what points to a turnaround. Matt Smith (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is the top scoring option as the only player back who averaged in double figures last year. Darryl Marshall (7.9 ppg) is the second-best scoring option. After those two the pickings for scoring are limited, with no other player above six points per game.
JACKSON STATE: It is difficult to expect big things from a team that is being led by a first-year head coach. Wayne Brent is taking over control of the Tigers program after Tevester Anderson retired a year ago. Anderson led the Tigers to two regular season SWAC titles and an NCAA Tournament appearance in his 10 years at the helm. However, Jackson State was just 18-42 in his last two years. That included an 11-18 mark a year ago. There isn't much left for Brent to work with on the Tigers' roster as four starters are gone so this will be a season of rebuilding. Any chance the Tigers have of competing rides on the development of Derrell Taylor (5.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Jeff Stubbs (8.3 ppg). The duo started a combined 20 games last season and showed signs of promise while taking a backseat to upperclassmen. Now is the time for each to take over. Taylor is a junior guard, who has connected on better than 50 percent of his career field goal attempts though he is not a threat from 3- point range. Stubbs is the top returning scorer and as a senior brings experience. Brent managed to get a few important transfer pieces as well with Julysses Noble (Arkansas) and Brandon West (New Mexico) having spend time at more high-profile locations.
ALCORN STATE: For the Braves the postseason has been a dream for quite some time. Alcorn State finished last season 10-24, with losses in seven of its last seven games, to post its 11th-straight losing season. Perhaps the only consolation is that the Braves did manage to get to double digits in wins, something they have failed to do in six of the last nine years. Luther Riley has had 10 wins in each of his first two years at the helm but needs to start making the move upward. With just a single starter returning that is tough to imagine in 2013-14. However, if Riley could choose one starter to be bring back Luckett would certainly be a fine choice. The 6-4 forward was second on the team in scoring (13.4 ppg) and one of the squad's better rebounders. He will step into the leader role this year with Marquiz Baker, last year's top scorer, no longer on campus. What Riley will get out of the reserves from last year is less certain. Anthony Evans (5.4 ppg) and Devonte Hampton (5.4 ppg) were each the best scorers off the bench, though neither was particularly efficient. Continued success on defense for the Braves, who limited teams to less than 40 percent shooting, is a must as well.
GRAMBLING STATE: Rose is it. He's the only hope/bright spot or whatever you would like to call it for Grambling State. A year ago the Tigers did not win a single game. They ranked dead last in the nation in scoring (49.7 ppg) while also scraping the bottom of the barrel in rebounding (31.3 pg) and field goal percentage (.361). Defense wasn't a strength either as each night the Tigers were hammered to the tune of 76.4 points per game. All of that came despite Rose playing as well if not better than any other rookie in the SWAC. The 6-4 swingman led the team in scoring by a wide margin (14.1 ppg) en route to earning the Freshman of the Year award. With a year under his belt, Rose could be even better. To do more than just scrape together a few victories the Tigers need help immediately and desperately. The list of players who will be filling around Rose isn't exactly promising, considering nine of the 13 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Three starters are gone, leaving Steven Danridge (3.8 ppg) and Brauhnye' Turner (1.3 ppg) as the most experienced performers.
PRAIRIE VIEW A&M: Under Byronn Rimm the Panthers have been consistent. However that consistency hasn't been a real positive as the squad has won double-digit games in five straight seasons but never more than 17. A year ago the total was 15 compared to 19 losses as the Panthers had a losing record for a third straight campaign. The strength of this year's club is the depth it has returning. Three starters left, including top scorers Jourdon DeMuynck (15.7 ppg) and Carl Blair (10.0 ppg) but there are a number of contributors from last year's team that played important roles off the bench. Demondre Chapman (6.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg) is perhaps the most important of those reserves as he is the second-best returning scorer for the program. Louis Munks averaged seven points per game in just four contests a year ago but is back this year. He was the second leading scorer for the Panthers in 2012. It's not just reserves on the roster though. There is one starter back for the Panthers this season in Jules Montgomery (7.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg), who will anchor the Panthers in the frontcourt. Montgomery is the top returning scorer and rebounder and ended last season averaging nine points and 8.6 rebounds per game over the last five.
ALABAMA STATE: Last year was the worst season for Lewis Jackson at Alabama State since his second year on the job. The Hornets were only able to earn 10 victories, though they held their own in league play with a mark of 8-10. Building off of that campaign will be tough considering seven players have left the team including the top three scorers from a year ago in Joshua Freelove (13.6 ppg), Philip Crawford (12.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Shawntez Patterson (7.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg). It wasn't like Alabama State was a potent offensive unit with those three. The Hornets only scored 61.8 points per game while shooting just over 40 percent from the field. Jamel Waters (5.5 ppg, 3.1 apg) would seem to be the go-to scoring option this year if only by default. He is the top returning scorer and as the second-best player on the team in assists last year will likely have the ball in his hands on most possessions for the Hornets. Luther Page (4.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) played in all 32 games last season so he at least has plenty of in-game experience. Bobby Brown (5.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) is also a 30-game player from last season.