Southern looking to bring SWAC some NCAA comfort

Glory days
SWACIn this digital age, where it's possible for things to be "so 10 minutes ago," anything that occurred last century is considered ancient history.

So consider for a moment that there are kids playing high school ball now who weren't alive the last time a SWAC school won a game at the NCAA Tournament. It's a bit grainy and washed out now, but there's videotape available of Southern's 1993 shock thrashing of Georgia Tech, a 13-over-4 upset for the ages. In the 13 years since that 15-point win, no team from this league has broken through, including a collective 0-3 mark in the opening round "play-in" games.

Here in the pixel-crisp present, however, the same school that employed a "shoot every eight seconds" philosophy in the early 1990s emerged to have the best SWAC season in what seems like ages. In 2005-06, Baton Rouge's Southern University and A&M College finished 19-13 (15-3 SWAC) and earned a 131 RPI -- the league's best figure since the distant past that is 1999, when a 23-win Alcorn State team finished at 114. That Braves team also gave the conference its most recent non-No. 16 seed (a No. 15).

And the twists of fate that produced Southern's surge might seem like pure SWAC sci-fi. Last April, Southern head coach Michael Grant interviewed for the vacant Youngstown State job, and he told YSU that
he had several juco players ready to transfer if he was hired immediately (he wasn't). Grant, who had a year remaining on his contract at SU, was disciplined and then dismissed for his forward-thinking comments. The school then was able to nab Rob Spivery from Alabama State, where he'd spent the last nine seasons rebuilding that program from scratch.

"Once we started to work with the team in the fall, we saw that we had some decent talent to work with," Spivery said. "I knew once I saw what we had, from coaching in the SWAC for nine years, that we could
be pretty good. Fortunately for all involved, it all just came together."

Indeed, it didn't take long for Spivery to work some coaching magic on a school that hadn't enjoyed a winning record since 2000, that had endured four coaching changes in six seasons. Sweet-shooting senior
Chris Alexander was switched from part-time point to full-time two guard, freeing him up to be the focal point of the offense. The new coach instituted a deliberate, defense-first system that had worked to bring
Alabama State two SWAC banners in the previous five years.

"We didn't have too much success at the beginning of the year with our tough schedule," said Spivery, who went 1-9 in the nonconference portion of the campaign, a stretch dotted with heavyweights from the Big
12 and SEC. "But once we got into the conference, we just took off from there."

When league play began, the Jaguars caught fire. They won their first five SWAC games and eight of their first nine. Over the stretch run, the Jaguars took 10 of their last 11 (the lone loss being a four-point
decision in Spivery's return to Alabama State's Acadome). It was a relatively easy cruise to the conference championship, crushing upstart No. 7 seed Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the championship to return to the NCAA Tournament in triumphant fashion. The Jaguars ended the year as the best-shooting team in the SWAC, hitting 43.8 percent of their shots, and featured a nationally ranked defense, allowing .905 points per defensive possession (21st in D-I).

Spivery certainly has obstacles in his quest to repeat. Alexander (15.7 ppg) and leading rebounder Peter Cipriano (10.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg) are gone now, and two regular starters and only 36 percent of the team's scoring will return in 2006-07.

"It's going to be a different makeup," Spivery said. "We won't have that many experienced players coming back, but we have a good nucleus. We had four guys sitting out last season that practiced with us every
day, and we have some size and shooting in that mix. I think we've recruited some pretty good players, to go along with the guys we have coming back. Whether we will be as good as we were last year, whether or not we get that same level of chemistry, remains to be seen."

Despite all the modesty, however, Spivery's system-ball squads tend to be chronic overachievers. Last year's Jaguars were a consensus fifth-place pick, and while they usually were picked to finish near the middle of the pack, four of his last five Alabama State teams played in the SWAC title game. For example, his 2000-01 Hornets were chosen to finish fourth, but they ended up winning 22 games and representing the league in the NCAA Tournament.

If Spivery's new crop of Jaguars can find some way to lift the SWAC into the NCAA second round, that's going to make for one sweet highlights DVD.

Summer indicators
Good sign: After last year's summer of SWAC uncertainly (no fewer than four head coaching jobs were vacant for weeks and months at a time), this is starting to look like an era of SWAC stability. The only
coaching change since March occurred at Prairie View A&M, where assistant Byron Rimm II took over for interim head coach Darrell Hawkins.

With so many teams coming out of last season with non-losing league records, things might be pleasantly stable for the immediate future. Only two coaches enter this season in anything resembling "hot seat"
situations: Texas Southern's Ronnie Courtney has seen his win total sag from 14 to 11 to eight over the past three seasons, and Samuel West at Alcorn State heads into 2006-07 with a 26-60 mark in three years. In
both cases, it's a matter of athletic directors and fans remaining patient.

The SWAC has a tradition of being a league of great teacher-coaches, first and foremost. There's Vann Pettaway, who's patrolled Alabama A&M's sidelines for 20 years, claiming a league title in the school's
seventh D-I season (2005). In Davey Whitney's 26 years at Alcorn State, the Braves won three field-of-52 play-in games; Whitney later earned the NCAA's inaugural "Hall of Champions Journey Award" for his
work. Back in the late 80s, Ben Jobe led Southern to three straight titles and engineered a historic March upset in 1993.

Now, perhaps, a new generation of great SWAC head coaches is coming into focus. Keep an eye out for Lewis Jackson at Alabama State, who cut his coaching teeth on Spivery's bench during two championship
seasons in 2001 and 2004. After eight years of running up a 123-109 record at Southern Miss, James Green at Mississippi Valley State found ways to eke a .500 league record with a rag-tag squad in his first season
at Itta Bena. Given enough wins and championships, these two could be receiving lifetime achievement awards themselves in two or three decades.

Safe bet: Forget the RPIs and power rankings. The bottom line is that SWAC will be perceived as the worst conference in Division I college basketball until one of its member schools prevails in an NCAA
Tournament game.

For one thing, parity has killed this conference. No single team has stepped up and taken control of the league, like Alcorn State and Southern did in the 80s and early 90s. Since 1993, eight different schools have represented the SWAC in the NCAA Tournament (only Arkansas-Pine Bluff and football power Grambling have missed out), and nobody's been able to do it twice in a row. And no team has been able to find any consistency: Only one school (Alabama A&M) has managed to string together three straight 17-win campaigns over that 13-year stretch, and none of those seasons resulted in a trip to the Big Dance.

All it will take to get the conference back on the map is just one program to set a new standard for basketball excellence for the other nine to aspire to. If a SWAC school took basketball as seriously as it does football and marching bands, they could break through on the national stage in a big way. As it stands now, most athletic departments elect to send their team out on the road in November and December to pick up hundreds of thousands of dollars in guarantee-game checks while wearing the players and coaches out for the league
season. There have to be better ways to raise money than that.

An increase in respect won't require a leaguewide initiative -- all it takes is one school, just as it was during the Braves' and Jaguars' SWAC dynasties. Any volunteers?

Red flag: A lonely 1998 SWAC championship banner dangles in Prairie View A&M's Baby Dome, but the rest of the school's hoops history has been a gigantic red flag. Over the long term, the Panthers' 5-24
record last year was the fifth out of the last 10 seasons that yielded seven or fewer overall wins. This season will see Prairie View's third different head coach in the past three years -- after going 2-16 in SWAC play in 2005-06, interim head man Hawkins' trial run was over.

Statistics showed that last year's Panthers were among the very worst teams in Division I. They finished dead-last in the SWAC in field-goal percentage (40.4 percent), free-throw percentage (59.6 percent), points per shot (.94), offensive efficiency (.846 points per possession) and defensive efficiency (1.057 points allowed per defensive possession). Despite pounding on the Savannah State Walking Punchlines 71-43 in
mid-December, PVAM managed to finish behind Sav-State in the RPI (dead-last, at No. 334).

But this was not a case of damned lies and statistics. The Panthers looked awful in person too, trotting out lineups that often topped out at 6-4. Rimm sought to do something about the size issue immediately, and tapped the local juco market for immediate beef. In total, he'll oversee a complete roster purge that will bring in over 10 new faces.

Worth watching
If you're one of the lucky few who receive ESPNU (call your local cable or satellite operator if you don't), you might have stumbled upon a SWAC game whilst looking for something to watch on a cold, football-free Sunday afternoon in February. If you did, you got to experience a little something called SWAC Style.

In general, defenses have an easier time when they know who's going to shoot the ball. Oftentimes in the SWAC last season, everyone in the building knew who it was going to be. Six league members featured a
player who took 75 or more shots than anyone else on the team, and many possessions in league games came down to one-on-one isolations between a team's best scorer and the opposition's best defender. Not to say this is bad or unentertaining: The two-man game is a predominant style of the playground, the And-1 Mixtape tour, as well as the NBA of the past two decades.

The largest spread happened at Jackson State, where junior guard Trey Johnson put it up 560 times -- a whopping 310 shots more than any other Tiger -- on his way to 23.5 ppg and a toe-dangle in the NBA
draft waters. Johnson spent most of the season in a scoring battle with Grambling's Brion Rush, who during one game poured in 53 (against Southern on Feb. 4, while jacking up 40 shots). Rush hoisted 129 more shots than his closest teammate, and ended up winning the crown with 25.8 ppg. As for their teams, both Grambling and Jackson State were eliminated in the SWAC semis.

That's not to say that this method can't produce positive results. Southern's star guard Alexander took 144 more shots than anyone else on the squad. But unfortunately, SWAC Style doesn't translate well to the rest of the world: In the first round against Duke, Alexander scored above his season average (19), but needed a season-high 19 shots to get there. The rest of the Jaguars team scored 35 points, and the Blue Devils cruised to a 70-54 victory.

And the SWAC's long 13-year wait continues.

Things to watch
Alabama A&MAlabama A&M: Last season, the T.M. Elmore Building hosted block parties that were much more entertaining than Dave Chappelle's (although not quite as funny for visiting guests). With six swickity-SWAC swats per game, the Bulldogs ranked 12th in all of Division I. Six-foot-10 blockmaster Mickell Gladness was single-handedly responsible for half of those, and Coach Pettaway is plenty glad he'll be around this upcoming season as a junior.

Alabama StateAlabama State: The Hornets were hot in January and February, streaking to seven straight SWAC victories. But weighed down by 40.9 percent
team shooting, first-year head coach Lewis Jackson's squad drooped to a 10-7 record and were quickly blasted out of the league tourney by Jackson State. Six-four Andrew Hayles (9.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg) came on
toward the end of the year and earned league freshman of the year honors; he's Bama State basketball's face of the future.

Alcorn StateAlcorn State: The Braves were the SWAC's streakiest team in 2005-06: they went oh-fer in nonconference play (0-9), won their first three SWAC games, and were sunk by two four-game losing streaks. The good news? Four returning starters (and 92 percent of last year's scoring output) will have another chance at building some consistency.

APBArkansas-Pine Bluff: There's no "D" in "UAPB," but there's one in "Golden Lions." Van Holt's bunch rode the most efficient defense in the league (yielding a mere .878 points allowed per possession) all the way to the league tournament title game. But despite the two O's in the nickname, the offense sputtered, only generating .865 points per possession: the eighth-worst figure in all of D-I basketball. With four starters returning, we'll see if this group can put O and D together. If so, they could be Golden.

GramblingGrambling: Brion Rush's freak toe injury in a Feb. 18 game against Jackson State (he was running the floor on defense when it happened) meant that Grambling received a crash course in playing without the now-graduated SWAC POY. The Tigers went 2-4 down the stretch -- including a tourney first-round win over MVSU -- as 6-6 Anthony Williams stepped up to pick up the slack, leading the team in points and boards in three of those games. Lucky for Grambling,
Williams is returning this season as a senior.

Jackson StateJackson State: JSU games were exercises in petit larceny last year: its 9.1 steals per contest qualified as the 24th-best mark in Division I. With undersized backcourt mates 5-11 Charlie White (1.9 spg) and 5-7 Catraiva Givens (1.2 spg) returning as juniors, SWAC opponents are well-advised to lock up all loose basketballs when these Tigers come to visit.

MVSUMississippi Valley State: The Delta Devils' 9-19 season (9-9 SWAC), and MVSU basketball in general, was put into proper life perspective when assistant coach Cecil Dowell died in a late-May car accident. He was 45.

PVAMPrairie View A&M: The house has been cleaned, but it's not as if the woeful 2005-06 Panthers didn't provide their loyal fans with at least a couple of thrills. Both conference wins came at home, against Grambling and Alabama State. In both tilts, PVAM was down with 10 minutes to go and came from behind to stave off defeat.

SouthernSouthern: It was definitely a good year for SU hoops -- alum Avery Johnson was named NBA Coach of the Year and guided Dallas to the NBA
Finals, and the Jaguars won the league for the first time in 13 seasons. If next year is as good or better, it'll probably be due in some part to 6-6 senior swingman Deforrest Riley-Smith, who averaged 10.9
ppg as a junior and grabbed 12 boards in the SWAC title game win. Riley-Smith is a rare double-transfer: He began at Penn State, transferred to Xavier (where he didn't play), and now he's a Jag.

Texas SouthernTexas Southern: The third of the SWAC's sets of Tigers slumped to a 6-12 league record (due in large part to their SWAC-worst 24.7 percent
turnover rate), but they did do a few things well. They were big, fast (76.3 possessions per 40 minutes, 13th in D-I) and athletic -- TSU rated 15th nationally in free-throw production (free throws made divided by field goals attempted) with 30.6. Expect bigger and better things with lanky 6-8 Christopher Moore (12.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg) returning as a senior.

If resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi is on target, it will be the year for Rob Spivery's old squad to do some dancing.

In his early (early, early) look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament field, Lunardi has Alabama State as the league's auto bid winner -- and landing in the play-in game in Dayton.

2007 Bracketology


* -- NCAA Tournament

Expect more balance this season, as eight of the league's top nine scorers are expected to return, with five different teams each having one of the top five.

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.