Southwestern Athletic Conference Preview 2017-18

- Matt Cox

*Prologue*

Before we get into the actual previews, it's important to level set on one thing: the SWACk is WHACk...

Per kenpom.com's game-by-game prediction model, you can see below how the opening weekend will likely shake out for most of the squads in this bottom-feeder conference...

 See section in red rectangle blown up in picture below...

See section in red rectangle blown up in picture below...

I know, scary isn't it...

Let's quickly put this into perspective: If you felt like throwing money away by dabbling a $10 Moneyline parlay on Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M - arguably the best and 3rd best teams in the league - you could take home a cool $25K if every player on the Zags and the Utes shotgunned 15 beers each an hour before tip-off and then forgot their shoes on the bus forcing them to play on roller skates (and at that point, I'd probably just wait to live bet Gonzaga at the hyper-discounted price).

Ok sorry, I'm done bashing the SWAC - let's begin...


Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Donte Clark, R Sr., Texas Southern
Coach of the Year: Mike Davis, Texas Southern
Newcomer of the Year: Donte Clark, R Sr., Texas Southern


Team Previews


1. Texas Southern

Key Returners: Demontrae Jefferson, Kevin Scott, Lamont Walker
Key Losses: Zach Lofton, Marvin Jones, Derrick Griffin
Key Newcomers: Donte Clark (UMASS grad transfer)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: 16 - seed (automatic bid)

Outlook: The Tigers recent dominance of the SWAC persisted in 2017 as Texas Southern rolled through league, finishing 16-2 for the third consecutive season which earned them yet another SWAC title. Mike Davis, the former head honcho at Indiana who was oh-so-close to hanging up a 6th banner in Assembly Hall back in 2002, has settled in nicely to his niche in the SWAC - he's able to leverage his marquee name to "out-schedule" other SWAC coaches in the non-conference by setting up dates with top tier programs many of which make it to national television. This exposure helps get way more eyeballs on the Texas Southern hoops program than any other of the SWAC competitors. As a result, Davis has wiped the floor with recruiting by SWAC standards and this offseason was no exception. 

Davis swiped grad transfer Donte Clark from UMASS, an uber-versatile wing talent that led the Minutemen in scoring two years ago. He'll be the most talented player on the floor in every conference game this season and with Zach Lofton no longer around to orchestrate the offense this year, expect Clark to get ample opportunities to put up big time numbers against the watered down competition.

He'll be joined by two jitterbugs in the backcourt, 5'7 Trae Jefferson and 5'9 Kevin Scott. Scott is the more polished long range shooter, but Jefferson is the more dynamic playmaker and penetrator and is an absolute blur with the ball in his hands.  He has a tendency to force the action at times, but there's no denying that he's bonafide weapon at the lead guard spot with his ability to beat perimeter defenders off-the-bounce in 1-v-1 whenever he wants.

The loss of Derrick Griffin was a huge blow to the 2017 squad last season who were nowhere near as dominant on the offensive glass as they were the year prior with Griffin fully healthy. However, a formidable forward in Lamont Walker - preseason 2nd team all-SWAC selection - and a behemoth in Auburn transfer Trayvon Reed could propel the Tigers to regain their alpha status when it comes to swallowing up any and all missed shots on both ends of the floor.

Bottom Line: In a league in which most coaches over extend perimeter pressure - which in turn limits 3-point shot opportunities - no coach emphasizes this point more than Davis. The Tigers have surrendered the fewest 3-point attempts in the SWAC for three consecutive seasons, which has translated to a low 3-point FG % defense as well. In other words, teams are not getting looks from the outside and when they do, those shots typically aren't going in. And when you factor in what appears to be a bolstered interior unit able to shut down anything at the rim, SWAC opponents will have to settle for mid range jumpers to beat the Tigers - something I don't see happening more than once or twice in 2018...


2. Alcorn State

Key Returners: Reginal Johnson, A.J. Mosby
Key Losses: DeAndre Davis, Marquis Vance
Key Newcomers: Harold Givens (JUCO)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Hey, Alcorn State is finally postseason eligible! What lovely timing for the Braves and one of the more underrated head coaches in the league in Montez Robinson. Robinson pulled all the right strings last year with a roster that didn't amount to much when the season kicked off, but the Braves maintained their familiar spot position in the upper-tier of the SWAC standings. And you better believe they have their 2018 calendars marked for the looming dates with incumbent champion Texas Southern after losing three excruciatingly close games against the Tigers last year.

The Braves frontcourt was depleted this summer with Deandre Davis and Marquis Vance leaving town, but a bunch of talent returns at the guard and wing spots. The notable names here are Avery Patterson, Maurice Howard and A.J. Mosby. Howard may be the team's best returning outside shooter, Patterson's primary value is on the defensive end as a perimeter stopper and Mosby is the offensive engine that makes this squad go. Despite standing 6'3, Mosby resembles a wing in the undersized SWAC and can score the basketball from all three levels on the floor, showing no true weakness in his well-rounded offensive game.

Up-front, the Braves will mesh a proven commodity (Reginal Johnson) with "a great unknown" (Harold Givens) this year at the 4 and 5 positions, respectively. Reginal Johnson, the former Mr. Basketball in the state of Louisiana, is one of the few instances of an impact player in the SWAC who paid his dues as an underclassmen and patiently waited for his turn to shine. Now entering his fourth season in a Brave uniform, Johnson is the undisputed leader on a squad that looks poised to contend with the big bad Tigers of Texas Southern in 2018.

Bottom Line: What has to happen for Alcorn St. to clip Mike Davis off his throne this year? It's quite simple really - Protect the defensive glass. This responsibility will fall in the hands of New Mexico State transfer Harold Givens, who must act an anchor on the backend of the extended perimeter defensive front for the Braves. Givens rarely saw the floor at his former school, but all signs indicate that he possesses the skill set and athleticism to be an impact force in the paint in his first season in the SWAC.


3. Prairie View A&M

Key Returners: Zach Hamilton, Troy Thompson
Key Losses: Tevin Bellinger, Ja'Donta Blakey
Key Newcomers: Gary Blackston (JUCO), Devin Campbell (JUCO)

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Byron Smith conducted what was one of the bigger turnarounds in the league last year in his first season at the helm in Prairie View. He'll trot out a squad in 2018 that features some proven seniors and some experienced newcomers from the JUCO ranks to lead the change. The strength of the core rotation lies on the wing with a pair of precise 3-point marksmen in Zachary Hamilton and Troy Thompson. The combined shooting accuracy of this duo is pivotal for a team that lives and dies by the 3-ball - with a relatively high percentage of those shots falling last year, the Panthers found themselves on the right side of the .500 mark at 10-8 in league play. While Thompson is more one-dimensional, Hamilton consistently chips in on the defensive glass and has a more comprehensive skill set on the offensive end of the floor.

From a stylistic perspective, Smith deploys rampant backcourt pressure which was spearheaded last year by Tevin Bellinger and  Ja'Donta Blakley. And while the hyper aggressive nature of Smith's backcourt defensive pressure had some adverse effects - specifically the excessive fouling -  the Bellinger / Blakey duo was elite at forcing steals. With both now gone, the newcomer JUCO pieces will have to copy cat that level of disruption on the defensive end to keep Prairie View's defensive turnover rate among the best in the league. My guess is that Gary Blackmon earns the starting nod as the de-facto point, while Thompson and Hamilton slide down a spot to the 2 and 3 positions after playing mostly at the 3 and 4 last season. 

This shift will allow Smith to showcase two formidable frontline weapons in Shay'rone Jett and J.D. Wallace who stand 6'8 and 6'9 respectively. And while moving to a bigger lineup could contradict the perimeter-based defensive pressure, this lineup will let Smith feature his five best players on the floor more frequently.

Bottom Line: With one of the biggest frontlines in the entire SWAC and two reliable scoring weapons on the wing, the Panthers should have no issue cracking the upper half of the league standings for the 2nd year in a row - but challenging Texas Southern will require an unlikely explosion from the unfamiliar faces in the backcourt. And knowing how much Smith relied on his bench last year, anyone of the unmentioned rotational pieces shown in the roster picture above could emerge unexpectedly and lift the ceiling of the Panthers in 2018.


4. Jackson St.

Key Returners: Paris Collins, Chace Franklin
Key Losses: Yettra Specks, Edric Dennis
Key Newcomers: Julian Daughtry, Brian Halmus

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Similar to Prairie View A&M above, Jackson St. is an old, rugged team with plus size all along the perimeter. After a solid 20-win campaign in 2016, the Tigers took a step back last year as a result of a slew of injuries that forced head coach Wayne Brent to adjust on the fly to a roster depleted with some key pieces. That said, a 10-8 record is nothing to snuff at and with key contributors now back to full strength, Jackson St. could absolutely contend for the conference title.

The question is can Jackson St. get back to getting consistent stops on the defensive end now with a recouped rotation. The Tigers fell from 1st in the SWAC in steal rate to 7th last year as Brent reeled back the perimeter pressure. Chace Franklin is back after missing the entirety of last season and both Charles Taylor and Paris Collins also missed time as well for significant stretches. That trio will join a solid JUCO addition in Julian Daughtry to form what should look much more like a typical Brent team with extended defensive pressure at the 1-4 spots.

The frontcourt will be anchored by an athletic Maurice Rivers, who carries out one of Brent's core teaching principles - shoring up the boards. He's not an overly gifted scorer, but his consistent production on the glass is more than enough for Brent. Treshawn Bolden is the real wildcard who rejoins the mix after being sidelined for the bulk of last season - he was a fixture in the starting lineup two seasons ago and his physical presence should be a nice plug into the heart of the Tigers defense.

Bottom Line: This shapes up to be a super old and experienced team, despite the relative lack of depth behind the key cogs in the rotation. Brent should be commended for the coaching job he did last season having to pull a bunch of levers to keep the Tigers afloat through the many injuries. The 2018 squad should have a chip on their shoulder with many of the marquee names anxious to make a push for the big dance after being handicapped on the sidelines last year.


5. Southern

Key Returners: Jared Sam, Chris Thomas
Key Losses: Shawn Prudhomme
Key Newcomers: Richard Lee (UT Martin transfer), Shaquille Benson, Jamar Sandifer, Eddie Reese, Branden Sheppard

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Southern is fresh off it's worst in-conference performance since the throw away season in 2011 - mind you, 10-8 is a record about half of the SWAC programs would die for in most years. After that debauchery in 2011, Roman Banks assumed the head coaching throne and held the Jags steady as a constant among the upper-tier SWAC squads for 5-straight seasons. His sustained success is rather impressive, given he had been acting in a dual capacity during that stretch as the athletic director and head basketball coach. This summer, Banks  decided to focus his undivided attention on his responsibilities as AD, leaving the door open for Morris Scott to prove his worth in what feels like a 1-year tryout as interim head coach.

Scott will inherit a roster with a decent amount of continuity from last season, which should make the nuanced nature of his transition go much smoother. With that said, the loss of Shawn Prudhomme should not be overlooked - Southern loves to attack individual defenders from the perimeter 1-v-1, which is precisely what the sturdy Prudhomme did so well. To support that stylistic tendency with data, the Jags scored just 20% of their points from behind the 3-point line last season, the 7th lowest percentage in the entire country. And the year before that, only 5 teams in the nation had a lower percentage of all field goals assisted, illustrating the reliance on mono-e-mono slashing. Chris Thomas is the alpha of the backcourt and Richard Lee (grad transfer from UT Martin) was a late pickup for the Jags who should feel right at home with this individual freedom to drive at will.

Bottom Line: The interior-focused mindset of the Jags is embodied not just by the guards, but also by their bread-and-butter low-post weapon in Jared Sam. Sam is an absolute load on the block and no one - and I do mean no one - is better at drawing contact deep in the paint than Sam. It probably helps when you often draw undersized bigs at the 5 spot in SWAC play, but expect the Jags to feed Sam early and often this year given only a handful of teams have viable options to defend him without support.


6. Alabama St.

Key Returners: Rodney Simeon, Reginald Gee, Demetrius Houston
Key Losses: Tony Armstrong, Torloft Thomas, Corvon Butler
Key Newcomers: Jacoby Ross

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: It's back to the drawing board for Lewis Jackson in Montgomery - the Hornets were "stung" by a handful of untimely injuries last year, which sparked a downward spiral down the SWAC standings. The impact of the injuries certainly contributed to one of the worst offenses in D1 basketball last year, but the Hornets did manage to stay true to one of Jackson's long standing principles of always crashing the offensive glass as the Hornets hauled in a league leading 35% of their own misses. And yes, there were ample opportunities to grab misses with the amount of bricks that were laid last year, but historically, Jackson has always tried to send multiple bodies to the rim on every shot.

So after losing two pivotal front court pieces, Demetrius Houston will have to lead the brigade on the boards this year. A ex-Mississippi State transfer, Houston posted excellent per minute stats in limited action last year as a backup to Tony Armstrong and Torloft Thomas, so he and a relatively undersized forward in Mikel Tyson will join forces as the core frontline duo this season. 

In order to ease the burden off of the interior unit - who constantly have to haul in their teammates' misses to get easy stick back opportunities - it'd be nice if the guards and wings could actually knock down some outside shots this year. The three-pronged perimeter attack of Rodney Simeon, Reginald Gee and Terrance LeFlore were inefficient from all over the floor last season, which must improve as they each will see their usage rise this season. 

Bottom Line: It will be interesting to see if Jackson continues to trot out the little muscle he has on this roster to maintain the Hornets' identity as two-way rebounding aficionados. He certainly has some high-caliber guard depth to perhaps shift to a 4-out, 1-in attack with the 6'5 Simeon at the 4 which may  help limit some of the shooting and turnover woes seen last season.

 

7. Alabama A&M

Key Returners: Dooley Petty
Key Losses: Rakiya Battle, Quinterian McConico
Key Newcomers: Amari Goulborne, Arthur Johnson, Jalen Reeder

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Let’s start with the bad. Alabama A&M finished dead stinkin’ last in kenpom.com’s overall adjusted efficiency margin last season. I guess when you consider that kenpom projected to finish 347th to start the year, perhaps the 2017 season was on par with expectations? The Bulldogs did manage to squeak out two courtesy victories against other inferior SWAC opponents and almost stole a 3rd but fell painfully short in a triple OT marathon showdown with Alabama State (I know you all remember that instant classic). And the cherry on top of it all is an APR ban, which wipes away any hopes and dreams of Alabama A&M playing in the SWAC tournament come March.

A ray of hope lies at the end of the tunnel for Bulldogs fans – albeit, it’s probably a long and grimy tunnel, similar to the sewage pipe Andy Dufresne crawled through in Shawshank Redemption. A&M somehow managed to pry away Donnie Marsh from the vice grip of Mike Davis, who has had Marsh by his side for over a decade - even before making the move to Texas Southern. By all accounts that I’ve read, Marsh is a well-respected coach and basketball lifer who should almost certainly have the program trending in the right direction within the next few years. The question is, how much momentum can he begin to build in 2018.

Marsh will lean on the inside-out pairing of De’Ederick "Dooley" Petty and Mohamed Sherif who will undoubtedly be the go-to-guys on the offensive end of the floor. Now entering his sophomore campaign, Petty projects to be the cornerstone of the Bulldogs for the foreseeable future – if he can continue to improve incrementally over his final three years of eligibility, it’s likely a player of the year trophy winds up on his mantle someday. Sherif is a highly active versatile big who will have to take on a large chunk of the rebounding production provided by Quinterian McConico last season – and then some… Not to get negative again, but Alabama A&M ranked 3rd to last in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, so hopefully Sherif understands the magnitude of his role this season.

Bottom Line: Outside of Tracey Burnett, the rest of the returners may be surpassed by a wave of JUCO newcomers as Marsh will likely try and mold the guys he recruited for his system. The roster outside of Petty and Sherif has question marks littered everywhere, but I’m banking on the coaching brilliance and league familiarity than Marsh will bring to the table.

 

8. Arkansas Pine Bluff

Key Returners: Trent Steen
Key Losses: Jaquan Lynch, Deshon Bayless
Key Newcomers: None

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: As life goes for most SWAC opponents, if you can’t force your team to cough up the basketball, life becomes really difficult in a hurry – but no squad felt this frustration worse than the Golden Lions did last season, who were HYPER reliant on their frantic zone pressure schemes to confuse opposing ball handlers. Shown below are the only teams in division 1 basketball last year who played zone 70% of the time or more - you'll see only Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and Holy Cross are more partial to their zone schemes than Pine Bluff.

And much like the slightly more popular Press Virginia, the “in-your-jock” ball hawking resulted in an astronomically high rate of fouling.

Whenever the Golden Lions failed to force a turnover and had to take the ball out of their own basket and try to score, well things didn’t pan out that well… You are currently reading the preview of the absolute worst team in college basketball at putting the orange ball in the round hoop – well, at least they were last year. You’d think that practicing and scrimmaging against each other constantly in practice would help the guards get accustomed to defensive pressure, which in turn, would manifest itself in reasonably good decision making with the basketball – Welp, Pine Bluff laughed at that theory as they themselves coughed up the rock at *covers eyes* the highest rate in the entire country last season.

Bottom Line: So looking ahead this year, it’s hard to see any reason why the aforementioned scars will be healed. The combination of Joe’Randle Tolliver and Kennedy McKinney will assume “the lion’s share” (ha) of the ball handling this year and they posted a combined 27% turnover rate last season (not great!). Charles Jackson is the only polished offensive player who rained in a cool 45% of his trey bombs a year ago. The frontline of Trent Steen and Travon Harper don’t offer much else than length and athleticism, which means it could be another painful offensive season for the Golden Lions.

 

9. Grambling State

Key Returners: Nigel Riberio, Ivy Smith
Key Losses: Averyl Ugba
Key Newcomers: Shaq Athie, Shirmaine Thomas

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: For a rare moment in program history, Grambling found itself as an equal to arch rival Southern as both schools finished 10-8 to close out the 2017 conference slate. And while the battle of the bands will always take the cake as the marquee showdown in this conflict, it's undeniably more fun when both programs are competitive on the hardwood. But after an APR ban was slapped on the Tigers this offseason, Grambling could be headed back to the basement of the SWAC in 2018...

If the postseason APR ban under former head coach Shawn Walker wasn’t enough, gasoline was poured on the fire in the form of the Tigers dominant post presence, Avery Ugba, suddenly disappearing from the school roster – It’s impossible to figure out when or why he vanished from the school website, but thanks to Jordan Majewski's diligent reporting over at sportsaction, it appears Ugba wound up at Austin Peay. That leaves a crater-size hole in the middle for new head coach Donte Jackson to patch up. With all due respect to Diontae Jones, a strong and physical player in his own right, it looks like the offense will have to be sparked by the backcourt.

Jackson does have a formidable co-lead guard system with Nigel Riberio and Ivy Smith, who will be heavily relied upon on both ends of the floor. Only three teams in the entire country forced more turnovers than Grambling did a season ago and Riberio had a big hand in that. He and Tennessee Tech transfer Shirmaine Thomas will need to wreak all kinds of havoc on opposing guards in hopes of igniting instant offense off steals. 

Bottom Line: Outside of transition buckets, it's hard to see the Tigers scoring efficiently in any half-court setting. There isn't a ton to be excited about this year, especially since a top-8 finish in standings won't earn them a trip to the conference tournament championship with the APR ban lingering over the program this season. 

 

10. Mississippi Valley State

Key Returners: Amos Given, Lorenzo Hunt
Key Losses: Darrell Riley, Kylan Phillips, Marcus Romain, Isaac Williams
Key Newcomers: Dante Scott, Jon Mitchell, Cameron Johnson, Chris Kendrick, Cam Irvin, Kyle Small

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Congratulations to Mississippi Valley State for winning the award for Mr. Irrelevant in the 2017-18 3MW preview season. To be frank, any one of the bottom-4 teams in this league could’ve claimed this esteemed accomplishment, but I’m trusting the advanced analytics of Ken Pomeroy – who's algorithim predict the Delta Devils to finish dead last this season – to guide me in this decision.

While the common perception is that every SWAC team plays 100 mph all the time, the Delta Devils are the only data point that backs up that notion (refer to the "AdjT" column which referenced "adjusted tempo").

The savvy SWAC coaches typically approach the non-conference and conference portions of the schedule as two completely different seasons. While many of the true SWAC styles are characterized as fast and chaotic, this brand of basketball is just not feasible dangerous playing against superior talent. Slowing down the pace to limit possessions and minimize the impact of the talent gap is just a standard operating procedure for all underdogs going toe-to-toe with Goliath. But when SWACtion cranks up around New Years, all bets are off and everyone resorts back to their true identity.

Bottom Line: Ok sorry for that quick sneak peek into the brains of SWAC head coaches, but you can’t find that inside access anywhere else. Where was I… oh yea, this is one of the worst team in college basketball -  but that could be said about any of the bottom four teams in the SWAC this year.