Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Conference Calling's 31 in 31: 2012-13 SWAC Preview

Texas Southern's new coach Mike Davis.
The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9.


It's difficult to preview a league like the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Transfers in and out, among players and coaches, create a major lack of stability in SWAC programs.

The league is to college basketball what the Sun Belt and MAC are to college football, the schools who take overmatched teams to major-conference home courts, absorb ugly losses and limp home smiling with a large paycheck. The 10 SWAC schools had a record of 7-96 in games against Division I non-conference opponents.

Still, the league plays Division I basketball and has an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, so it merits a spot in the Conference Calling preview series. Its epic struggles against D-I opposition, though, mean that the SWAC gets to kick off the series as the No. 31 conference in America (yes, out of 31...sorry, SWAC fans).

1. Texas Southern
--Coach Tony Harvey bailed in July, well after the coaching carousel is supposed to stop spinning. TSU, to its credit, scored a replacement who passes for a rock star in SWAC circles: former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis, he of the 2002 NCAA runner-up finish.

Davis inherits a squad that led the SWAC in scoring defense, led by one of the league's top individual defenders, 6'7" forward Fred Sturdivant. Sturdivant led the team in rebounds, steals and blocks last season, also ranking in the league's top 15 in each.

The offense is led by 5'9" point guard Omar Strong, who led the league in true shooting percentage (TS%) and finished second in effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Those are both insane feats for a player who attempted 262 three-point shots last season. Strong hung 30 points on Mississippi Valley State in the conference tournament final.

Strong and Sturdivant were both second-team All-SWAC selections last year, even though Sturdivant only started three games. Both should be in the mix for first-team honors this season.

More backcourt scoring may come from 5'11" guard Ray Penn, a transfer from Oklahoma State. Penn averaged 6.7 points per game over his two seasons in Stillwater. Penn was one of the top 10 point guard recruits in the nation back in 2009, so he may be very difficult to keep out of the starting lineup, whether ahead of Strong or alongside him.

The team's biggest weakness may be a lack of size, as no player taller than Sturdivant returns. If 6'9", 270-pound Egypt native Aly Mohamed is ready to play immediately, he'll help a lot. Mohamed was one of ESPN's top 30 Texas prospects and had been a verbal commitment to Rice before backing out and switching to TSU. Two-star recruits are big news in the SWAC, especially when they're big two-star recruits.

UPDATE: No postseason for TSU this year, and there was damn near a death penalty sighting, per the AP.

2. Prairie View A&M
--The Panthers' leading returning scorer is sixth man Jourdan DeMuynck, who checked in at 10.1 per game last season. That sounds iffy until one considers that just about everyone else returns, including three other players who averaged 8.4 or better.

A&M was second-to-last in the nation in offensive efficiency, but 18th in tempo, simply giving them more chances to score than the average team. If only the team could have hit more than 54% from the foul line, they would have lapped the SWAC field in scoring offense.

Eight of PV's top 10 minute men return, and coach Byron Rimm also added a recruiting class featuring four juco transfers, all 6'6" or taller. No one in the SWAC will be able to match the Panthers in length. Expect 6'11" center Jules Montgomery to challenge for the league's rebounding crown if he gets enough minutes.

3. Alcorn State
--There may not be a contest for best backcourt in the SWAC, as Alcorn returns three 10-PPG guards. Seniors Twann Oakley and Anthony Nieves combined for 21.2 PPG last season, although Nieves missed the first half of the season.

The big returnee, however, is senior Marquiz Baker. Baker averaged 15.9 PPG in 2010-11, but lost last season to a foot injury after only four games.

The Braves also add Rivals 2011 Top 100 recruit LeAntwan Luckett, a 6'5" guard who joins the similarly sized Oakley and Nieves to give coach Luther Riley a rotation of large guards with strong scoring ability.

There's a large recruiting class coming in, both figuratively and literally. Three guys 6'10" or taller figure in Riley's seven-man haul. Alcorn does lack a reliable distributor, as reserve guard Martrevious Sanders is the only returnee with a positive assist/turnover ratio.

4. Jackson State
--SWAC Freshman of the Year Kelsey Howard returns for JSU, seeking to lead the Tigers back from an ugly 7-24 season. Howard dropped 27 points in a win over SMU last December and averaged 14.6 per game.

Coach Tevester Anderson needs more scoring to support Howard and backcourt mate Christian Williams (11 PPG), and he may get it in January. Former Ole Miss guard Dundrecous Nelson, who was kicked out of school after an unfortunately timed call to Domino's, is set to join the Tigers in the second semester, according to JSU reporter Travis Downey of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Nelson averaged 11.6 PPG for the Rebels last season before his dismissal.

Jackson State needs some frontcourt production from 6'8" senior Davon Jones and 6'6", 260-pound junior Willie Readus to provide some offensive balance. The two are solid rebounders, but some scoring would be a nice bonus.

5. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
--APB lost the league's second-leading scorer and Defensive Player of the Year, Savalace Townsend, who kicked in 16 PPG last season. Still, three other solid scorers return.

Forwards Daniel Broughton and Mitchell Anderson and guard Lazabian Jackson all averaged at least 9.8 PPG in 2011-12. Broughton and Anderson form what could easily be the SWAC's top forward duo.

The downside of Broughton is that he's a bull in a china shop defensively. He committed 125 fouls (3.8 per game) and was disqualified a whopping 10 times. Broughton should have been relied upon for more than 24 minutes per game last season. If he can curtail the hacking, he's an All-SWAC candidate.

Anderson is the returning scoring and rebounding leader, as well as a candidate to replace Townsend as DPOY. If he's going to be the team's top offensive option, however, improving his 59 percent foul shooting is essential.

The Golden Lions struggled outside the arc on both ends last season, finishing ninth in three-point offense and defense. In that light, Townsend's loss hurts even more. Center Terrell Kennedy, a 6'6", 250-pound senior coming back from a redshirt year, may be the team's best shooter. He's made 15 of 40 (37.5%) from deep in his career.

APR issues have made APB ineligible for the NCAA Tournament.

6. Southern
--Coach Roman Banks has a first-team All-SWAC candidate in guard Derick Beltran. The Florida native averaged 13.2 PPG last season and was among the league's most reliable free throw shooters. Unfortunately, in the flow of the offense, his efficiency (45.3 eFG%, 51.5 TS%) left something to be desired.

Beltran was ably supported by point guard Jameel Grace, who finished second in the league in steals and third in assists last season. Grace may be the best point guard in the conference if he can make himself into a more reliable shooter.

Like some other league teams, size is hard for the Jaguars to come by. Banks desperately needs 6'9" Madut Bol (yes, he's the son of Manute) to emerge as a contributor inside. Madut has never averaged more than 16 minutes per game, and his playing time dropped from his sophomore year to his junior season.

Southern was among the league's best defensive teams last season, but got pummeled on the glass. That trend could easily continue, and if it does, Beltran and Grace will see substantially fewer opportunities to create offense.

7. Alabama A&M
--This Bulldog team may be the true wild card in the SWAC race. A group of sophomores gutted out a 7-21 season in 2011-12, and the hope in Huntsville is that the experience has hardened those players.

Swingman Demarquelle Tabb may be the league's best all-around player. The 6'5" 210-pounder ranked second in the league in rebounding last season, third in blocks and first in field-goal percentage. He was the league's most efficient offensive rebounder and fifth in defensive rebounding percentage.

Point guard Jeremy Crutcher, all 5'8" of him, returns to set up the offense. He ranked fourth in the league in assists last season while also ranking ninth in steals. The gambling for steals had its downside, though, as Crutcher averaged 3.1 fouls per game, sixth in the league. Tabb wasn't far behind, so A&M's leaders need to pick their spots to go for the big play.

Jerome Hunter (6'10", 230) averaged eight rebounds per 40 minutes last year and shot 52 percent from the floor, albeit with limited opportunities. If he can stay on the floor for 25-plus minutes per game, he can give the Bulldogs a much-needed frontcourt presence.

8. Alabama State
--Hornets coach Lewis Jackson, not to be confused with the former Purdue point guard, has to replace four starters, including a pair of double-figure scorers. Senior forward Philip Crawford (6'7", 210) returns to lead the rebuilding effort, and that's one more starter than some schools are bringing back (looking at you, Mississippi Valley).

Crawford was one of the league's top 10 rebounders and top 15 scorers, so don't be surprised to see him in All-SWAC discussion. He can explode when given the chance, as evidenced by the 27-point, 11-rebound beating he put on Alcorn in February.

The line of players looking to share the court with Crawford starts with senior guard Ryan Watts. The six-foot Watts had his best game the same night Crawford did, dropping 19 against Alcorn State on February 18. He shot 6-for-11 that night, but those evenings were few and far between. Watts shot a ghastly 32.5 percent from the floor, and that should be unacceptable.

It wasn't just Watts, though. State's entire team was a gang that couldn't shoot straight last season. The team was ninth in the SWAC in FG% (.378) and FT% (.584) plus eighth in three-point percentage (.306). They can't play Alcorn every night, so Jackson has to come up with some other ideas to get the ball in the hole.

6'10" juco transfer Eric Tucker should provide a defensive presence. Tucker blocked three shots per game at Northeast Community College (Norfolk, Neb.), which ranked 10th in the country.

9. Grambling State
--Quincy Roberts and his 22.7 PPG were a hot ticket by Grambling's standards, but Roberts thought he was hotter than he really was. In declaring for the NBA Draft, Roberts ensured that his new/old school would have no returning double-figure scorers.

The main thing the Tigers have going for them is 7-foot Peter Roberson. The 250-pound senior couldn't throw a shot in the Gulf of Mexico (.388 FG% last season), but put him on the glass and he's a warrior. Roberson was fourth in the league in rebounding, and the worst thing that can be said about his board skills is that he ranked 11th in offensive rebounding percentage.

Roberson even put up a triple-double against Arkansas last November (12 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks), so his success isn't just a function of low-level competition. Guys his size are a rare gift in the SWAC, so new coach Joseph Price would be well-served to get Roberson taking 500 shots a day, Larry Bird-style.

Price must also find a point guard who can maximize Roberson inside. Junior Brandon Dorsett, sophomore David Copeland and freshman Tivius Guthrie are all potential candidates. Guthrie is one of ESPN's top 100 point guard prospects, so if he's on campus and in uniform, expect him to get a long look.

10. Mississippi Valley State
--Coach Sean Woods absconded for Morehead State, and everything but the ice cube trays left with him. Guard Brent Arrington followed Woods. The rest of the starting lineup (and a big chunk of the bench) graduated.

Literally the only returning player from last season's roster is 6'6" sophomore Blake Ralling, who averaged one point in five minutes per game. The group of newcomers who will make up the entire rotation have to first summon up the motivation, since APR issues have MVSU banned from making a return trip to the NCAA tournament, even if the players can compete.

6'6" juco transfer Davon Usher carded nine points and seven assists per night at Polk State in Florida. Point guard Cameron Dobbs (Albany, NY) was a 22-PPG scorer in high school. Guard Cordarius Samples (Birmingham, Ala.) could be a defensive presence, averaging 1.3 steals per game his senior year in high school.

Beyond that, you literally can't tell the Delta Devils without a program. MVSU joins Pine Bluff on the banned list for the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but Southern and Texas Southern can provide some inspiration, having both recovered very well from similar academic issues.

In this section: each team's top non-conference game, weighted for visibility and possibility of a win.
Alabama A&M: Dec. 1 vs. Tennessee State
--Win chance may not be great, but two solid factors weigh in here. 1) TSU was Missisippi Valley's only non-conference victim last season; and 2) it's at home, a rare condition in this league. Plus, Robert Covington is a legit NBA prospect.
Alabama State: Dec. 10 at Detroit
--Similar to A&M, the win chance is small, and being on the road doesn't help that any. Still, games against high-profile players like Ray McCallum can help harden a team for the SWAC schedule.
Alcorn State: Nov. 27 at Mississippi State
--If there was a FEMA tournament for programs that have been declared absolute disaster areas, Mississippi State would be a top seed. The "upset" could happen here.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff: Nov. 24 vs. Washington State
--The Golden Lions kick off a Pac-12 mini-tour by facing a WSU team with little proven talent outside of big man Brock Motum.
Grambling State: Nov. 17 at Houston
--The Cougars were hoping to have two stud freshmen in uniform, but Chicken Knowles will have to stay in the freezer for a year. Danuel House will do his best to soldier on against Grambling.
Jackson State: Nov. 11 at Baylor
--Absolute beatdown ahoy, but Baylor's athletes should uncork some vicious dunks by the end of the night, so there's that.
Mississippi Valley State: Nov. 9 at Ole Miss
--The Devils aren't beating anyone on their out-of-conference slate, which includes LSU, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Northwestern. So, why not highlight the bloodletting with the shortest trip?
Prairie View A&M: Nov. 15 at Texas A&M
--The Aggies will be preparing for their first season in a new conference, and this game won't register on their radar. Still, an upset is a big undertaking.
Southern: Nov. 11 at Nebraska
--The Huskers' first game under new coach Tim Miles. Rotations may not be set, and the best candidate for point guard, Deverell Biggs, may or may not be redshirting.
Texas Southern: Dec. 8 at Houston
--Similar situation to Grambling, but should be a slightly more competitive game. And there's always that intra-city rivalry thing for extra motivation.

Omar Strong vs. Arkansas
F Mitchell Anderson, Arkansas-Pine Bluff (6'7", 190, Sr.)
--Third-team All-SWAC last season (11.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG), and unlike teammate Daniel Broughton, he can play defense (very well) without mauling people.
G Marquiz Baker, Alcorn State (6'2", 195, Sr.)
--15.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG in 2010-11, but only a 33% FG shooter. You'll notice that, in the SWAC, this is not terribly unusual.
G Derick Beltran, Southern (6'4", 190, Sr.)
--13.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG last season; plays on a guard-dominated team with perhaps the best playmaker in the league.
G Omar Strong, Texas Southern (5'9", 176, Sr.)
--13.3 PPG and strangely efficient about it, too (see above). If he maintains the efficiency and slightly ups the quantity of his offensive chances, this is your likely SWAC Player of the Year.
G/F Demarquelle Tabb, Alabama A&M (6'5", 210, Jr.)
--10.6 PPG and 7.6 RPG last season; not a huge man, but still somehow impossible for league opponents to keep off the glass. He did rip seven boards against Alabama, though. One of only three SWAC players to shoot better than 50% from the floor last season.

F Daniel Broughton, Arkansas-Pine Bluff (6'8", 225, Jr.)
--He can do better than 10.7 PPG/6.1 RPG if he can just stop hacking people. POY dark horse if he can play 28 to 32 minutes per game.
G Jameel Grace, Southern (6'0", 180, Sr.)
--9.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.9 SPG last year; the league's returning leader in the latter two.
G Kelsey Howard, Jackson State (6'3", 190, Soph.)
--At 14.6 PPG last season, Howard is the league's top returning scorer. Many other sources have him as SWAC POY, but I'd prefer to see a little more shooting efficiency first.
C Peter Roberson, Grambling State (7'0", 250, Sr.)
--Size is hard to find in the SWAC, and Roberson is the most fearsome post defender the league has to offer. 7.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 2.5 BPG last year, and if his offense improves, look out.
F Fred Sturdivant, Texas Southern (6'7", 185, Sr.)
--Raw numbers aren't sexy (6.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG), but he's efficient and athletic. Especially dangerous on the defensive end, where he and Anderson are the only two returnees over one steal and one block per game last season.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Omar Strong, Texas Southern
COACH OF THE YEAR: Tevester Anderson, Jackson State
--JSU can win the league if Anderson gets Willie Readus to play up to his substantial frame. Getting near the top after finishing eighth last season is worthy of hardware in almost any league.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Cameron Dobbs, Mississippi Valley State
--Dobbs should have every opportunity to run his team from day one. He may have to beat out Ray Penn for this award.

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