Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Conference Calling's 2013-14 College Basketball Previews: #31 SWAC

Dickens would have loved the Southwestern Athletic Conference's 2012-13 season. Best of times, worst of times and all that.

Two of the SWAC's top three finishers (Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff) were ineligible for the postseason tournament, leaving Southern to waltz its way to the Big Dance. Once there, the Jaguars nearly pulled the upset of upsets, taking top-seeded Gonzaga to the final minute before succumbing.

The latest APR results came out in June, and the SWAC once again took it raw. Four programs were banned, including repeats for Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley State. Grambling hopped on the short bus, although the Tigers need to be more focused on winning A game more than any postseason reservations.

Alabama State got its postseason APR ban overturned, which is about the extent of the good news the Hornets received this offseason.

TSU lost the league Player of the Year (guard Omar Strong) and Defensive POY (forward Fred Sturdivant) to graduation and MVSU watched league scoring champ Davon Usher bolt for Delaware after the APR ban came down. On the arrivals board, Jackson State activates a pair of notable transfers in Julysses Nobles (ex-Arkansas) and 6'11" B.J. West (New Mexico State). Plus, Texas Southern becomes the final stop on La Salle West Virginia journeyman Aaric Murray's magical college basketball mystery tour.

Finally, in the most EPIC news of all, the SWAC miraculously rises out of the cellar in TBI's conference rankings! The league office will erupt in mad champagne-spraying celebration...right...about...now.

Best. Intern. Crop. Ever.
So now that we know the SWAC's out of the cellar, let's look at why. Who wins and gets to pass around those chicks right there before going to the tournament and getting blitzed by some one-seed that didn't play in the West Coast Conference?

Answers after the jump.

(All statistics and rankings per StatSheet.com unless otherwise noted.)

1. Texas Southern

--Strong and Sturdivant are gone, but don't cry for Mike Davis. He seems to have found a level at which he can not just succeed, but dominate. The current recruiting classes were in grade school when Davis took Indiana to the Final Four, but it doesn't change the fact that he's been there/done that.

Last season's Tigers lost 13 of their first 14 games, but look at the margins. Two points against Oakland. Five at Colorado, three at Houston. Kansas State only won by nine, and that was in the Octagon of Doom.

As a shooter, former Oklahoma State guard Ray Penn looked in the SWAC just like he did in the Big 12: ridiculously inefficient. However, he put it together as a point guard in a way he never could at OSU. His assist rate was 34.2%, in the top 50 nationwide, and his 5.7 APG led the SWAC. His turnover percentage was a career low 20.5 and his A/T ratio crested at 2.0.

Penn also showed out in some of those big games, scoring 24 against K-State and dropping a double-double on Houston. He'll get highly capable support from senior Lawrence Johnson-Danner, who should get back to being a full-time starter, like he was three years ago. The 6'4" LJD does need to take advantage of his size and take more forays to the basket. Last season's .111 FTA/FGA ratio was pathetic for a man of his build.

Johnson-Danner and senior forward Aaron Clayborn were both 55% effective shooters last season, and Clayborn was second on the team with 5.4 RPG.

Now, about Aaric Murray. After bolting La Salle and essentially being thrown out at West Virginia, he's got one more chance to make himself a viable pro prospect, and he's doing it in a place that isn't exactly a magnet for NBA scouts. He's a career 12 PPG/7 RPG/2 BPG producer at much higher levels than this. He's got former NBA player and coach John Lucas in one ear and Mike Davis in the other, and as long as he's not paralyzed by over-mentoring, he could own this league.

Junior Madarious Gibbs should be a worthy successor to Penn next season and a fine backup this year. Expect productive minutes from freshman wing Vicktor Arnick and juco swingman Jose Rodriguez. Rodriguez put up a 48/44/79 shooting line at Gulf Coast Community College.

As a team, TSU took 44% of its shots from three-point range. It's all fun as long as the shots are falling. Replacing the inefficient Strong with a potentially steadier performance from players like Johnson-Danner and Rodriguez should keep the Tigers close to the conference lead.

2. Alabama A&M

--The Hornets return three double-figure scorers, one of them a guy who came teasingly close to being a double-figure rebounder as well. That much returning production is a luxury in a league like the SWAC.

Player of the Year candidate Demarquelle Tabb stacked up 14 dub-dubs en route to leading the league in rebounding. All three of his seasons in Huntsville have ended with him in the SWAC's top six rebounders and top three shot-blockers. Coach Willie Hayes would love to see more consistent foul shooting from a guy who seemingly lives at the line (career .575 FTA/FGA ratio).

Point guard Jeremy Crutcher has made steady improvement over his three years, watching his eFG% climb from 35.2 to 39.9 to 47.0. Despite being only 5'8", he's willing to attack the basket first and wait for a good three-point look later. Oh, and he finished second to Ray Penn with 4.9 APG. He and Tabb can provide a good counterpoint to TSU's Penn and Murray. Hayes' big concern may be getting Crutcher a break after he averaged 35 MPG last season.

Senior Brandon Ellis became a 10-PPG scorer, but his efficiency regressed a bit from his sophomore year. Junior Green Hill can both back up and play alongside Crutcher. Judging by Crutcher's workload, Hill did a lot more of the latter. He'll see plenty of minutes because he's one of the only consistent free throw shooters on the team (78% last season).

Low-post size comes from 7'1" Justan Banks and 6'8" Jerome Hunter. Banks could be a breakout performer if he gets full-time minutes. His offensive efficiency was a good eight points better than anyone else on his team, and his rebounding and block percentages all compared very well to Tabb's team-leading figures. Freshman Xavier Williams is a 6'9" athlete out of Birmingham who blocked three shots a game as a high school senior.

Like so many other teams at this level, AAMU needs to improve its collective shooting (less than 40% FG and 30% 3-pointers). If Tabb improves his foul shooting to about 70%, look for him to threaten for a scoring title to go with his rebounding crown.

3. Southern

--For those who believe that a great sixth man can propel a team beyond its usual limits, we give you Southern's Malcolm Miller. Despite never starting a game as a sophomore, Miller led the SWAC in offensive efficiency, eFG%, TS% and 3P% while also finishing top-5 in FG% and PPG. That's all. If he had shot to his usual percentages, Southern would have become the first 16-seed to knock off a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament.

Three starters are departed, but the Jaguars still have a strong duo in Miller and forward Javan Mitchell. Mitchell started every game after transferring in from Louisiana-Lafayette and finished third on the team in both scoring and rebounding.

Beyond those two, though, the Jags are reassembling on the fly. Sophomore point guard Christopher Hyder has the ability to stuff the sheet, as he proved against Pine Bluff last January (5 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 steals). He finished top-12 in the league in assists and steals per game while playing only 19 minutes a night. Senior Yondarius Johnson (6.4 PPG) will be a primary backcourt option off the bench.

Up front, the Jaguars need sophomore Damien Goodwin to provide support for Mitchell. Former Grambling big man Frank Snow (6'10", 235) joins up from Pearl River CC after a 10/9 season. More quality depth will have to emerge, especially if the Jags are going to be as suffocating defensively as they were last year (top-5 nationwide with 36.7 dFG% and 28.8 d3P%). Once it does, however, Southern will be dangerous again in March.

4. Arkansas-Pine Bluff

--Ho hum, another year with no tournament to play for. UAPB appears to be making strides in rectifying its APR issues, but has still not reached the benchmark to permit postseason play. It's a shame, because the Golden Lions could make some noise if allowed.

Forwards Davon Haynes and Daniel Broughton were All-SWAC selections last season, with Haynes putting up nearly 12/7 per game. He put up three dub-dubs, including one against San Diego State, and also scored 20 against his home-state Michigan State Spartans. Broughton averaged 7.2/4.2, peaking with a pair of double-doubles in January.

Point guard Tevin Hammond may have been a more deserving all-league selection than Broughton, seeing as how he came fourth in the SWAC in assists and second in steals. Turnovers were his enemy, however, as he averaged three per game. Reducing the miscues and improving his 30% three-point shooting will help him in that all-conference bid.

Forward Jaylon Floyd is the next most experienced returnee after playing 10.7 MPG last season. His highlight was recording 22 rebounds in three straight non-conference games against Arizona State, Oregon and Michigan State.

Juco swingman JoVaughn Love and freshman guard Ghiovanni Robinson will get chances to line up next to Hammond. Robinson scored 23 per game as a senior, while Pine Bluff native Love averaged 15/7 with two steals and three blocks at Seminole CC. If the 6'8" Love can take a starting spot, he may lead the team in scoring.

A similar pair arrives to help in the post, as freshman David Terrell (6'9", 235) and juco Sterling Smoak (6'9", 225) will support Haynes and Broughton. Terrell averaged 8/8 with four blocks for Fort Bend (Tex.) Travis HS, a school that came to fame thanks to Terrell's teammates Andrew and Aaron Harrison. You've heard of them.

APB and its opponents both shot about 40% from the floor last season, so while the games weren't pretty, Pine Bluff was usually in a position to win at the end. The most-missed Lion may be defensive terror Lazabian Jackson, because it's currently unclear whether any of the newcomers can succeed on both ends the way he did. If anyone does, Pine Bluff will threaten for the regular-season title again. That and a dollar will get the team a couple of McNuggets.

5. Jackson State

--New JSU head coach Wayne Brent will be forced to start at least one freshman, since he's only got four upperclassmen on his entire roster. It's appropriate that a highly successful high school coach takes over this team, since it's barely removed from being a prep team itself.

The primary focus as the season begins is former Arkansas point guard Julysses Nobles. Nobles was a strong starter who improved his offensive efficiency each season in Fayetteville. A career 37% shooter from three, he'll likely start out the season bombing away while he figures out which of the freshmen are worth passing to. Ideally, he'll continue the improvement that he made as a ballhandler over his Arkansas tenure, where his TO% gradually dropped to just over 20 in 2011-12.

Another transfer, former New Mexico State big man Brandon "B.J." West (6'11", 240), never saw substantial minutes in Las Cruces, but when he did play, he did big-man things. West recorded 12.1/29.4 rebounding percentages as a sophomore, along with a block percentage above 10. Freshmen Janarius Middleton, Treshawn Boldin and Marquis Todd form the only other bulk on the roster. Boldin played for Wayne Brent at Callaway HS, while Middleton (18.2 PPG/14.4 RPG) was a first-team All-State selection by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Guard Jeff Stubbs and forward Derell Taylor are the only returnees. Taylor would have been a double-figure scorer had he shot as often as Stubbs, recording a team-leading 107.9 OE figure and 52.5 eFG%. Stubbs hoisted 15 shots per 40 minutes, starting the season with a nice 16-point outing against Baylor. Unfortunately, he never scored in double figures again until conference play began.

The entire backcourt hails from Jackson, with both Stubbs and Nobles being local products. Freshmen Marcus Love, Javeres Brent and Dontaveon Robinson are also Jackson natives, with Provine HS teammates Brent and Robinson falling to Wayne Brent's Callaway team in the Mississippi Class 5A state championship game.

By the time conference play arrives, Nobles should have a good familiarity with his new teammates. Defenses like Southern Miss, Colorado and Memphis should slow the Tigers down substantially, but SWAC defenses won't be quite such an obstacle. No one else in the SWAC has as experienced a floor general, so this prediction should be more floor than ceiling.

6. Alcorn State

--The Braves will rise and fall with junior wing LeAntwan Luckett. Last season was a major mixed bag for Luckett, volume production attained in a very inefficient manner. He ended the season as a 39% effective shooter, a figure that needs to improve for this prediction to hold water.

Five other returnees made starts last season, but they combined for fewer than 20 PPG. Guard Anthony Evans started the year with eight straight double-figure games, but by season's end wasn't even getting double-figure minutes. Wing Devonte Hampton was a solid 40% three-point shooter as a freshman, while classmate Tyrel Hunt (4.1 PPG) made the most of his limited mid-range opportunities.

Post duo Stephane Raquil and Josh Nicholas return for their senior seasons, with the 7'0" Nicholas being an intriguing prospect for full-time minutes. Nicholas averaged 3.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in only 14 MPG. His tempo-free percentages were among the SWAC's best. Freshmen Isaiah Hill (6'11", 270) and Decarlos Holmes (6'9", 230) will provide bench muscle.

Newcomers on the wings include juco shooter Trey Brown and freshman Marquis Vance. Brown was a 35% deep shooter at East Mississippi CC.

The Braves' defense was among the SWAC's best, but it wasn't enough to overcome an offense that was among the worst. A substantial improvement in that offense will be essential to any rise in the standings.

7. Prairie View A&M

--Prairie View returns what should be--but strangely isn't--the best big man in the SWAC. Beyond that, there's an army of unproven former juco transfers from which coach Byron Rimm II must build a team.

At 6'11" and 220 pounds, senior Jules Montgomery has the vertical advantage over just about every opponent, but he spends his time camping out in the mid-range area. Hoop-Math.com shows only 25% of Montgomery's shots being near the rim. He made less than 40% of his total shots and took only 38 foul shots on the season. If Rimm locked him in the weight room all summer, Montgomery could be the SWAC's answer to Godzilla. Otherwise, he'll go back to fading into the background.

GAAAAAAHHH! Should have let him out once in a while.

Speaking of the background, senior guard Louis Munks was forced there last year by a broken leg in the Panthers' fourth game. A 9.6-PPG man in 2011-12, a healthy Munks should be the first scoring option.

The point guard position could be up in the air even after the season begins. 6'3" junior Montrael Scott has usually played off the ball, but could get a shot. Juco transfers Tre Hagood and John Brisco enter with sparkling credentials after both ranked in the NJCAA top 10 in steals and top 25 in assists. Hagood turned down overtures from Ole Miss to attend PV.

Forward Demondre Chapman has been a reliable wing scorer, shooting over 50% in each of the past two seasons. 6'10" 255-pounder Josh Eleby started 19 games last season and averaged 5.9 PPG as Rimm looked for the interior muscle that Montgomery couldn't provide. Eleby's rebounding percentages were underwhelming (7.8/10.5), but his 6.1 B% was sixth in the SWAC.

6'6" freshman guard Rashaan Surles brings a rep for dangerous three-point shooting, and that will be needed for a team that made only 26% from deep last year (2nd-worst in the nation).

9. Grambling State

--49.7 PPG. 75.8 points per 100 possessions. 43.3% true shooting. The numbers will make your eyes bleed. It's little wonder that the Tigers made it through a season completely winless.

Grambling returns SWAC Freshman of the Year Terry Rose and not much else worth talking about. Rose was among the league's 10 most efficient shooters, and it wasn't uncommon for him to account for nearly half of Grambling's points in a game. Can he rise up for 18 to 20 per game?

For support, second-year coach Joseph Price will lean on a quartet of upperclassmen. 260-pound Steven Danridge should take over at center, and the Tigers need a lot more rebounding and shot-blocking from him. Junior forward Demetri Wheeler shot 43% from the field, which makes him a highly reliable option in this offense.

Point guard David Copeland had almost twice as many turnovers as made field goals (56 to 29). Backup Brandon Dorsett badly regressed as a shooter, dropping below 30% from the floor, although his ballhandling improved.

We still need to see GSU win a game, but Rose should get them over the hump at least a couple of times, most likely over...

9. Alabama State

--Transfers leaped off Alabama State's roster like desperate people clutching flotsam from the Titanic, to the point where there is no longer a single senior listed on the team roster. Is it better to have a roster full of unproven players that might come together or a group of veterans who were proven to be bad?

Forward Luther Page and guard Jamel Waters are the most significant returnees, and they combined for less than 10 PPG last season. Waters did flash the knack for forcing turnovers (his 4.1 S% ranked among the top 100 nationally) and shot nearly 40% in limited looks. The 6'6" Page was a 10% offensive rebounder, second-best mark among ASU's regulars. Another 6'6" player, Bobby Brown, is the only other returnee who got significant time.

Redshirt freshman Devonte' Neal played in only eight games, but blocked three shots in his 49 minutes. Look for a pair of newcomers to push Waters for the point guard position, or perhaps play alongside him. Freshman Terrence LeFlore set a new all-time scoring record for Wetumpka (Ala.) HS, breaking the mark set by, of all people, current ASU coach Lewis Jackson.

Juco guard DeMarcus Robinson was a 16-PPG man at Snead State (Ala.) CC. Robinson's teammate, 6'6" forward Brandon Graham, also came aboard. Further frontcourt support will come from a pair of Aiken (S.C.) Technical College imports, 6'6" PF Maurice Strong (14/10 last season) and 6'9" Nigerian center Robert Ojeah (1.2 BPG).

The newcomers need to score, since that's not been the strength of either Page or Waters. If someone can, ASU may climb above Grambling. They should hang in and at least stay ahead of...

10. Mississippi Valley State

--So, now that MVSU is no longer the House of Usher (Oh, go get some culture, dammit. Here, read this and get back to me), what do the Delta Devils have coming back? Less than we know, actually.

Guard Matt Smith was going to be the lead dog, but has left for a junior college according to VerbalCommits. Senior Darryl Marshall ended the year with five straight double-figure scoring games, shooting nearly 40%. That sounds bad, but considering he hit 33.7% for the season, it qualifies as a hot streak.

There are four other seniors on the roster, but none could drop in more than four PPG last season. Forward Ervin Thomas is the top returning rebounder at 5.2 per game. However, he stands only 6'5" and was a 40% true shooter.

Juco transfer Anthony McDonald (6'1", 180) and freshman James Currington III (6'6", 185) could make immediate impacts.

When you're projected to fall below a team that's coming off a winless season, it's bad. MV doesn't have a star like Terry Rose, so life is looking bleak.

"Wait, have I coached at Pine Bluff before?"

Alabama A&M: Dec. 14 at Ohio
--Scheduling Ohio the year after All-MAC guard D.J. Cooper graduates? Shrewd. Pulling the upset? Dare to dream, Dawgs.
Alabama State: Nov. 8 at Illinois
--The Hornets deserve every blowout they can get for scheduling later games against things called Mobile, Auburn-Montgomery and Thomas.
Alcorn State: Nov. 24 at Saint Mary's
--The Gaels will miss Matty Dellavedova, but not that much. ASU gets smacked by reality after three non-D-I opponents.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff: Nov. 24 at SMU
--No home games, so why not get a good look at what Larry Brown's concocting in Dallas?
Grambling State: ????
--The schedule hasn't even been released yet, but it's unlikely there are any games the Tigers can stay in.
Jackson State: Dec. 19 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
--USA international hero Elfrid Payton comes to JSU's house. He'll probably treat the Tigers like the Ivory Coast and leave with a win, but still.
Mississippi Valley State: ????
--No schedule here, either.
Prairie View A&M: Dec. 14 at UCLA
--If I'm a PV player, I'm taking advantage of the week off before the next game and cruising Los Angeles for an extra day or two.
Southern: Nov. 10 at Middle Tennessee
--Rare that one of these games pits two NCAA tournament teams against each other. The Blue Raiders still have the overall talent advantage, but they don't have a scorer like Malcolm Miller.
Texas Southern: Nov. 8 vs. Norfolk State (HBCU Tip-Off in Atlanta)
--The potential champions of the two worst conferences in America. Kinda like being the two handsomest fellows in the burn unit.


Malcolm Miller, Southern
Aaric Murray, Texas Southern
Ray Penn, Texas Southern
Terry Rose, Grambling State
DeMarquelle Tabb, Alabama A&M

Jeremy Crutcher, Alabama A&M
Davon Haynes, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
JoVaughn Love, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
LeAntwan Luckett, Alcorn State
Javan Mitchell, Southern

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Malcolm Miller, Southern
--Just because we're not sure Murray's head is screwed on straight. That, and Miller will be a starter this season.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Willie Hayes, Alabama A&M
--His team is more than DeMarquelle Tabb, now it's up to him to show us that.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Aaric Murray, Texas Southern
--It's a motley crew of jucos who are out to take this away from Murray.

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