College basketball preview: Talented Texas Southern poised to lead SWAC
The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.
These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
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Let’s continue on with a look at the Southwest Athletic Conference.
The 2015-16 SWAC belonged to Texas Southern throughout the regular season, but as happens all too often in small conferences, the Tigers fell short of their one way to get to the Big Dance: winning the conference tournament.
After going 16-2 in regular-season conference play, Texas Southern was upended by Southern in the conference semifinals. That ended the NCAA tournament hopes of the regular-season champs, who had a very strange year after starting 1-11 in non-conference action before winning 17 of their next 19.
After taking down the Tigers, fourth-seeded Southern moved on to the SWAC Championship Game, where it met No. 3 seed Jackson State. That battle was a very entertaining one, with Jaguars guard Adrian Rodgers hitting a jumper with 17 seconds left to lift Southern to a 54-53 win and trip to the NCAA tournament.
That trip did not last long, however, as the Jaguars received a 16 seed and a First Four matchup with Holy Cross, which they lost 59-55 after shooting just 15 percent from 3-point territory.
As for the regular-season champion Texas Southern, its postseason also ended as suddenly as it began. The Tigers earned a trip to the NIT — not a bad achievement for a SWAC school — but were bounced by No. 1 seed and eventual runner-up Valparaiso.
After winning last season’s SWAC Player of the Year award, Texas Southern power forward Derrick Griffin is an easy choice for the preseason recognition.
The 6-foot-7 forward is one of the more interesting figures around the country, as he has been named All-SWAC in both football and basketball. He did it as a wide receiver in 2015 after leading the SWAC in touchdown catches and then broke out as a two-sport star in his first season of basketball action that same year.
However, he was dismissed from the football team in September, leaving only basketball in his arsenal for now.
Griffin was the only SWAC player to average a double-double last season, posting averages of 13.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. He also added 2.3 blocks per contest while shooting 66.2 percent from the field. In other words, the Houston native was a pretty perfect big man for the Tigers.
In a common pitfall for talented big men, Griffin’s biggest flaw was at the charity stripe, where he shot just 52.5 percent in over five free-throw attempts per game. However, if he can put in work to improve that up to a more respectable figure in the mid-60s, he could put up some frightening numbers this season.
In addition to being picked to repeat as the conference’s player of the year, he was also tabbed for back-to-back defensive player of the year honors. The outstanding athlete puts his size and leaping ability to great use, as his 2.3 blocks per game were tied for 26th in the nation. Of those tied or ahead of him, however, only one was shorter (6-foot-6 Amdy Fall from St. Francis Brooklyn), showcasing the impressiveness of his athleticism.
With many of Griffin's top teammates last year since departed, Texas Southern made sure to have adequate pieces imported in their places.
One of those is 6-foot-3 guard Zach Lofton, who averaged double figures in his lone year at Illinois State before transferring to Minnesota, where he never got in the game, and then again to Texas Southern. He figures to factor in greatly and could very well be the team's leading scorer.
Meanwhile, 5-foot-8 senior Delani Robinson could give the Tigers a much-needed ball-handler while also contributing some points. Two years ago for Pacific, he averaged 9.1 points and 2.5 assists per game. Interestingly, he shot better from 3-point territory than overall from the field, but an outside shooting threat might be just what the Tigers need with Griffin making his home in the paint.
As for in-house upgrades, point guard Ty Bynum should see an increased role for his senior year. He played 26 games last year — 24 of which came off the bench — and averaged just 3.4 points per game. However, he picked his shots wisely, shooting 45.7 percent from the field.
It’s a bit of a cop-out to call the team picked to finish in the top three a sleeper, but there should be a large gap between the top three teams (Texas Southern, Jackson State and Southern) and the field. As such, both Jackson State and Southern will be briefly profiled.
Jackson State — also, like Texas Southern, nicknamed the Tigers — boasts a talented one-two punch. Guard Paris Collins and forward Chace Franklin were the only teammates on the preseason All-SWAC first team.
The Tigers lose leading scorer Raeford Worsham but bring back Collins and Franklin, each of whom were within a point per game of the top. Collins averaged 13 points, 6.2 rebounds and nearly two steals per game, while the 6-foot-5 Franklin scored 12.3 points per contest while adding 5.2 rebounds.
However, it is worth noting that those two shot abysmally from the field (each under 37 percent). As a team, in fact, Jackson State was among the nation’s worst, ranking 305th with a paltry 40.7 field-goal percentage, and that includes Worsham’s impressive 51.5 percent mark. That will certainly have to change if it wants to make another run to the conference championship game or beyond.
As for the defending SWAC tournament champion Southern, it takes a huge loss with the graduation of talented guard Adrian Rodgers. Beyond hitting the game-winner in the tournament championship game, Rodgers averaged 16.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game to lead the team.
With him gone, senior Tre’lun Banks will be looked at to fill the void. The 6-foot-1 guard was the only other Jaguars player to average double-digit scoring last year, posting 12.4 points per game.
Point guard Christopher Hyder is another player vital to Southern’s success, as the point guard averaged 9.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last year. He has little to no shooting ability, but he does a good job leading the offense.
Freshman to watch
Alcorn State forward Tyler Carter is an intriguing player to keep an eye on this season. He should be a nice stretch forward with the ability to space the floor on offense and crash the boards on defense.
The Braves could be able to pair him with Octavius Brown for a nice duo of bigs who can also make teams pay from outside.
On Dec. 31 when Alcorn State announced the signing of Carter, his high school coach Charles Allen had some kind words to say, per the Alcorn State website:
"Tyler Carter is a 6-foot-6 wing/small forward with a high skill level. He has the ability to score from outside with a smooth jump shot from the 3-point range but also possesses the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket against bigger and slower defenders who may try and guard him. His height allows us to utilize him in the post when teams try to throw a smaller guard on him and he can score with a solid range of post moves and footwork."
"Tyler's work ethic is a quality that is refreshing and welcomed as his role on our team has been one of a leadership position in which our players respond to his encouragement and drive by elevating their own level of play."
Those are certainly attributes that any team would be thrilled to have aboard.
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