By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK : In the Southwestern Athletic Conference a lot changed in the off- season. Conference champion Mississippi Valley State lost its head coach and a bulk of its roster. Texas Southern brought on former Indiana and UAB head coach Mike Davis on an interim basis. Grambling State hired a new coach in Joseph Price, who was an assistant at Lamar and played at Notre Dame. All the turbulence has meant the conference is very much up for grabs among a number of teams trying to make an impact.
Jackson State may be in the best position to unseat MVSU with the return of four starters including SWAC Freshman of the Year Kelsey Howard. It would be a quick turnaround for the Tigers, who finished ninth in the SWAC last season. However, if Howard continues to grow and the other returning players do as well, the Tigers will be dangerous. Prairie View A&M also figures to be right in the thick of things with all five starters returning from a team that was second in scoring last season. Southern also can't be ignored after the Jaguars were one of only two teams to have an overall record above .500 last season (17-14), while finishing second in the conference (13-5). Alcorn State has size in the backcourt and will return productive scorer Marquiz Baker, who missed much of last season with a foot injury.
The rest of the conference looks poised to have a tough season with just a few teams having enough to have an outside shot at competing for the conference title. Arkansas-Pine Bluff could be a surprise thanks to its strong frontcourt led by Mitchell Anderson and Daniel Broughton, but losing guard Savalace Townsend will be tough to overcome. Davis has the experience Texas Southern wants and an emerging star in Omar Strong to build around, but it remains to be seen how long he will hold the job.
It will be a long drop for MSVSU with coach Sean Woods gone to Morehead State and all five of its starters gone. That leaves Chico Potts, one of Woods' assistant, without much to work with. Grambling State will also have a new man patrolling the bench in Price. He has an immensely daunting task ahead of him as he must turn around a team that went just 4-24 last season. Demarquelle Tabb is a very good all-around player but Alabama A&M doesn't have much surrounding him. As for Alabama State, losing four starters from a team that finished seventh in the conference is not exactly a recipe for success.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION : Southern
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH : 1. Southern 2. Prairie View A&M 3. Jackson State 4. Alcorn State 5. Texas Southern 6. Arkansas-Pine Bluff 7. Alabama A&M 8. Alabama State 9. Mississippi Valley State 10. Grambling State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS :
SOUTHERN : Talk about a turnaround. The Jaguars' 17 wins last season matched the total Southern had in the previous three seasons combined. It was also the first time the Jaguars had a record above .500 since 2006. All that success was fueled from the backcourt. That will again be the focus this season for head coach Roman Banks with the talented trio of Derick Beltran, Jameel Grace and Michael Celestin all back. Beltran (13.2 ppg. 3.5 rpg) is the best scorer after leading the team last season. Grace (9.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.2 apg) is a more rounded player and was solid at running the offense with a team-high in assists. Celestine (8.5 ppg) added a solid scoring threat off the bench but may see his time on the court increase this season. If the Jaguars are going to be serious about winning the conference they will need a big boost in production in the frontcourt. Quinton Doggett was the team's lone inside player last season and led the team in rebounding, but is gone. That is bad news for a team that ranked seventh in the conference on the boards (33.2 pg) last season and has no player returning that averaged more than Grace's 4.4 boards per game. The puts a lot of pressure on 6-9 center Madut Bol (3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg), who played in 31 games last season but averaged only 11.8 minutes per game.
PRAIRIE VIEW A&M : Head coach Byron Rimm really needs to get his team to improve in its offensive efficiency if the Panthers hope to earn the SWAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Prairie View A&M was seventh in the conference in field goal percentage (39.3) and a distant last in free throw percentage (54.1). Leaving that many points at the line didn't really cripple the Panthers, who finished second in scoring (63.0), but it certainly didn't help a team that went 10-8 in conference play and lost three of its final seven games by three points or less. What Rimm doesn't need to worry about is experience, as all five of the starters from last season's team are back. Jourdan DeMuynck (10.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) was the lead scorer off the bench on a team that had four different players average at least 8.4 points per game. Ryan Gesiakowski (9.5 ppg), Louis Monks (9.6 ppg) and Demondre Chapman (8.4 ppg) were the other steady scorers, while Jules Montgomery (5.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) was the most effective on the glass. Montgomery's contributions on the boards led a team that was the top rebounding squad in the SWAC (39.5 pg) a season ago.
JACKSON STATE : A 7-24 overall record and a tie for eighth place in the conference standings is certainly not what Tevester Anderson was hoping for last season. It was the first time since 2002 that the Tigers failed to finish with at least 10 wins and the first time since 2008 without a record above .500. Anderson and company may be able to turn that around immediately this season with the return of skilled sophomore Kelsey Howard. The 6-3 guard was phenomenal even in a weak season for Jackson State, averaging 14.6 points per game. However the Tigers can't just give the ball to Howard if they want to contend. Players like Christian Williams (11.0 ppg) and Willie Readus (5.7 ppg) will need to step up to provide other scoring options to fill the hole left by leading scorer Jenirro Bush (15.5 ppg). Where the Tigers really need a huge step up in production is in ball movement and rebounding. Jackson State was eighth in the conference on the boards (33.0 pg) and last in assists (8.3pg). In fact, Jackson State averaged fewer assists than all but one team in the nation a season ago. Forwards Readus (4.0 rpg), Davon Jones (3.1 rpg) and Sydney Coleman (3.8 rpg) will all be called on to improve the production on the boards, while Williams, a senior (2.4 apg), is the best choice to improve the offense's ability to move the ball.
ALCORN STATE : It's tough to call a 10-win team a success but in comparison to the last few seasons, the Braves' 10-22 overall mark was certainly an improvement. Before last season Alcorn State had not reached a double digit win total since 2007 and had just 19 wins total in the last four seasons. The relative success of last season was accomplished even though the Braves took a huge hit early in the season in losing Marquis Baker. The 6-2 guard averaged 14.7 points per game but was lost in the third game of the season with a foot injury. Baker averaged 15.9 points per game during the previous season and when healthy, gives Alcorn State one of the best offensive players in the conference. Baker joins an already physically imposing backcourt that is anchored by 6-4 Anthony Nieves and 6-5 Twann Oakley. Nieves (10.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg) was the team's leading scorer with Baker sidelined and showed real flashes of brilliance despite playing in only 14 games. Oakley (10.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg) is also a capable scorer although he missed the last few games of the season for the Braves. What remains to be seen, and what could push Alcorn State over the edge, is what kind of production it will get up front. Lead rebounder Ian Francis (6.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is back to anchor the Braves inside, but even with Francis returning Alcorn State needs a better effort on the boards, where it ranked last in the SWAC (29.1 pg) last season.
TEXAS SOUTHERN : Mike Davis has inherited a pretty good team at Texas Southern even if it is on an interim basis. The Tigers finished third in the SWAC last season with a 12-6 mark against conference competition and return three players from that squad. However this season the team faces a postseason ban handed down by the NCAA earlier this month. Most importantly among those returning starters is Omar Strong. The 5-9 senior guard drives the offense with his ability to create scoring opportunities for himself. Strong led the team in scoring last season (!3.3 ppg) on a squad devoid of multiple scoring threats. Fred Sturdivant (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is the second option to strong and is a solid performer in the paint, something that is hard to find in the SWAC. Sturdivant finishes well around the rim, connecting on 50.9 percent of his field goal attempts to lead a Texas Southern squad that led the SWAC (.413) in the category. Aaron Clayborn (4.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg) brings experience to the squad with his 26 starts last season, the most among any returning player on the roster. However, it is more likely players like Dexter Ellington (6.4 ppg) and Madarious Gibbs (6.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) will make larger impacts whether off the bench or in the starting lineup. Lawrence Johnson-Danner (5.6 ppg) is also a candidate to see his court time expand.
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF : Last season was another step in the right direction for the Golden Lions, who made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010. After that berth the Golden Lions went just 7-24, but last season was an improvement with the squad finishing 11-22 overall and an even 9-9 record in the conference. The Golden Lions were especially strong down the stretch with the squad winning nine of its final 12 games. With an end to the season like that, the future looks bright for George Ivory and company. The Golden Lions are one of the only teams in the conference where the frontcourt is a strength. Mitchell Anderson (11.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Daniel Broughton (10.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) can both fill it up and are aggressive on the glass on both sides. The Golden Lions will be even better up front with the return of Terrell Kennedy, who scored 9.1 points and brought in 4.3 rebounds per game as a reserve in 2011, but missed all of last season. The backcourt will need to quickly replace SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Savalace Townsend, who is a very tough loss, considering he also led the team in scoring last season. Lazabian Jackson (9.8 ppg, 3.0 apg) is the best returning guard and will be called on to help ease the loss.
ALABAMA A&M : It has been eight seasons since Alabama A&M has won a conference title and that drought doesn't look like it will end any time soon. The Bulldogs are a young team that won just seven games last season, which was the worst total for the program since joining the SWAC in 1999. If the Bulldogs are going to make a surprise run at the top of the conference they will need a ton from Demarquelle Tabb. The junior swingman (10.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) was ranked in the top 10 in five categories last season. He is an athletic player that can score and clean the glass effectively, while going in and out. After Tabb, the Bulldogs will rely on Jeremy Crutcher to run the point and act as a second scoring option. Crutcher (9.6 ppg, 3.9 apg) is the third-leading returning scorer and led the team in assists per game. Jerome Hunter (3.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg) at 6-10 is a more traditional big man and will need to produce especially with the expectation that he will see more time on the court. It will be difficult for the Bulldogs to repeat the offensive performance they had last season where they ranked second in the SWAC in scoring (63.0 ppg), as the loss of top scorer Casey Cantey (13.5 ppg) will be hard to replace.
ALABAMA STATE : In eight seasons under Lewis Jackson the Hornets have made a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, but last season was far from that level of success. The Hornets went just 12-19, the second lowest winning percentage (.387) of Jackson's tenure. Jackson will have a tough time turning things around with four starters from last season's team gone, including lead scorer Kenderek Washington (14.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg). Philip Crawford (10.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is the only returning starter and will be looked to carry the team while a number of reserves get used to increased playing time. Stephawn Brown (4.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is most likely to fit in immediately after he played in 31 games, including 16 starts last season, and other than Crawford, averaged the most minutes per game. Ryan Watts (6.1 ppg) also played in 31 games last season. Watts could step in to fill the distributor role left behind by Jeff Middlebrooks (4.4 apg) as no player on the roster averaged more than one assist per game. Even with the lack of experience on the team a change might be what the Hornets need after they ranked ninth in the conference in field goal percentage (37.8) and eighth in scoring (59.4 ppg) a year ago.
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE : The Delta Devils are in for a crushing wake-up call, at least on paper, this season. After ripping off 17 straight wins in SWAC play and then taking home the conference tournament title as well, the Devils lost head coach Sean Woods and all five of their starters. Those are some devastating losses for a team that is coming off its most wins (21) since 1996 and its first winning season since 2008. Chico Potts was given the job of mopping up and getting a group of largely untested players to a competitive level. Luke Pajkovic (2.8 ppg) might just be the best player returning after playing in 32 games last season, although just 8.3 minutes per game. It speaks to just how much this team will have to start over as those are both the highest marks of any player returning. Blake Ralling (1.0 ppg) also appeared in 24 games, but played even less with 4.9 minutes on average.
GRAMBLING STATE : Joseph Price is being tasked with cleaning up the mess at Grambling this season. The Tigers finished last in the SWAC with a record of 4-14 in conference play and a 4-24 mark overall. Understandably the Tigers were at the bottom of the conference in a number of categories including scoring (54.0 ppg, 10th), field goal percentage (35.7, 10th), assists (8.6 apg, ninth) and rebounds (32.4 pg, ninth). Those numbers don't look like they're going to improve since Quincy Roberts (22.8 ppg), who was phenomenal in just 21 games, decided to enter the NBA Draft rather than return. So Price will more than likely turn to center Peter Roberson (7.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg). The seven-footer could be a force in a league short on dominant frontcourt players and gives the Tigers an anchor on the inside both offensively and defensively. Bryant Purvis (3.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg), a 6-7 forward, is the other returning starter and could pair nicely in the frontcourt with Roberson. The Tigers are short on effective frontcourt players and will need a lot out of freshman Will Hornsby who played his high school ball in nearby Slidell and chose Grambling State over Vermont.