Player of the Year: Jacoby Ross, Alabama St.
Coach of the Year: Johnny Jones, Texas Southern
Newcomer of the Year: Chris Howell, Jackson St.
Freshman of the Year: Jayden Saddler, Southern
1. Texas Southern
Key Returners: Derrick Bruce, Trayvon Reed
Key Losses: Donte Clark, Trae Jefferson
Key Newcomers: Jalyn Patterson (LSU transfer), Jeremy Combs (LSU transfer), Devocio Butler (Colorado St. transfer)
Outlook: Johnny Jones – a man with a well-established track record of attracting high profile recruits, but not always realizing the potential of that talent – takes over as the new head honcho in Houston. That brief primer on Jones’ background should sound eerily familiar. His predecessor, Mike Davis, always had a magnetic pull on the recruiting trail and now embarks on his quest to re-climb the coaching ranks back to national prominence. If we could travel ahead in time 3 to 4 years from now, I could see myself copy / pasting this intro for Texas Southern’s preview and simply replacing Mike Davis with Johnny Jones and Johnny Jones with [insert coach looking to revitalize his career].
From a recruiting standpoint, TXSO’s location in Houston gives it a leg up on most of the other SWAC schools with less desirable geographical locations, but having a guy like Davis or Jones at the helm who are deeply integrated in the grassroots, JUCO and transfer talent markets is a major competitive advantage. Jones has never been known for his X&O prowess, but the dude can absolutely reel in talent. He also has some familiarity with the region after first making a name for himself at north Texas from 2001 to 2012.
Jones’ big catches this offseason will augment an already talented inside-out pairing of Derrick Bruce and Trayvon Reed, both of whom hail from Power-6 programs. Jones added two big fish to the talent pool in Jalyn Patterson and Jeremy Combs. Patterson rejoins his former coach after playing for Jones for two seasons from 2015-2017. Patterson proved that he’s a flexible guard, capable of playing off-the-ball (much like he did with Ben Simmons) or owning a larger share of the ball handlings responsibilities. With the departure of jitterbug Trae Jefferson this summer – who handed out his fair share of assists to the sharpshooting Bruce – Patterson will likely get a crack at taking ownership of the full-time point guard spot. The SWAC is consistently one of the worst shooting leagues in America, but Bruce and two incumbent supporting off-guards in Cainin McClelland and Robert Lewis, should form a lethal shooting brigade.
Combs will likely replace Donte Clark at the 2nd forward spot next to Reed, who’s a stronger and more physical presence than Clark at the 4. Despite the large discrepancy in how they’re built and how they play, Combs should have near the same impact as Clark. Combs averaged 14 and 10 in the C-USA back in 2016, so if he can stay healthy, he could be a force to be reckoned with in the SWAC.
With such a large talent advantage over the rest of the league, we saw Mike Davis take his hands off the wheel so to speak offensively last year. Per Synergy, TXSO posted the highest isolation rate in the entire country last season as Davis let his superior talent loose and free to attack slower, less athletic and overall weaker defenders at their discretion.
Bottom Line: Given Jones’ ‘laissez faire’ approach to coaching offense at LSU, I’d expect to see a similar movie on that side of the ball this year. But unlike Davis, Jones needs to forge his own path on defense. Despite being flushed with premier athletes last year, a shaky defense pulled the Tigers back down to the rest of the SWAC pack. Even with a 7’2 giant in Reed roaming the paint, Texas Southern finished in the bottom half of the league in overall defense last season after boasting the top defensive unit in the SWAC the year prior.
This is further proof that simply throwing out the biggest and most athletic guys doesn’t always translate to defensive success. Davis even tried working in some zone, something he NEVER did in 2016-17 - he played zone on 20% of all defensive possessions last year, compared to 2% the year before. All that said, I’m still betting on the talent to trump all in 2019, but will concede that I’m much less confident in picking these Tigers than I was this time last year.
2. Grambling St.
Key Returners: Ivy Smith, Anthony Gaston, DeVante Jackson, Axel Mpoyo
Key Losses: Shirmane Thomas, Jason Perry-Murray, Diontae Jones
Key Newcomers: Lasani Johnson, Shaq Athie, Dallas Polk-Hillard, Prince Moss, Zavier Peart
Outlook: In a league that’s typically overlooked and ignored by the mainstream media, Grambling certainly did their part to get the SWAC some more exposure. While Texas Southern’s comically brutal non-conference schedule usually generates most of the early season notoriety for the SWAC, Grambling invaded the headlines with an improbable outright win AT Georgia Tech. The oddsmakers handicapped Georgia Tech as 25 point favorites, solidifying the Tigers’ stunner in Atlanta was one of the biggest upsets of the 2018 season.
Head coach Donte Jackson and his resilient bunch were far from done - even after faltering to an 0-3 start in SWAC play, the Tigers ripped off a 11 straight wins en route to a league best 13-5 record.
There’s nothing more anticlimactic then concluding that fun introduction with a friendly reminder that Grambling was ineligible for postseason play last year, which abruptly halted the historic season dead in its tracks.
What fueled Grambling’s rise was a tricky and ever-evolving defense that utilized a multitude of different looks to fool opposing offenses. Jackson will often extend pressure well beyond the timeline and let his stable of athletes hunt down the ball. Once the ball crosses half-court, they’ll typically drop back into a 2-3 zone with the two guards at the top shading toward the wings in anticipation of intercepting basic point to wing passes. For those who aren’t accustomed to reading multiple schemes and protecting the ball against unstructured defensive pressure, it can be a major headache to deal with. While I was already sold after watching the Georgia Tech game, I also tuned in to their showdown at Grand Canyon a week later, when the Tigers took the Lopes out of rhythm in the first half (yes, GCU won by 30, but it was not slam dunk blowout the whole way through).
Whenever Grambling can generate a live ball turnover, it’s off to the races going the other way. In a transition-intensive league, the Tigers floored it as hard as anyone last year. Ivy Smith is the engine that ignites the Tigers’ up-tempo offensive attack – he’s thrives in space out in the open floor and has a shifty crossover that allows him to create space in the half-court. I’d like to see him settle for fewer mid-range jumpers, but his small frame limits his potential as a finisher at the rim.
Smith’s aversion to looking for his shot beyond the 3-point line is a fitting resemblance to that of his teammates. Surrounded by stronger and longer wings and forwards, almost every member of Smith’s supporting cast does their scoring damage inside the arc, either as a rim attacker or glass cleaner. Not one player last year attempted more 3s than 2s, which explains how only three teams in the country took a fewer percentage of shots from long distance. This stylistic trait would make most hoop stat heads cringe, but it seemed to work out just fine last year.
Smith, along with his bigger backcourt partner Anthony Gaston, are two of the SWAC’s most dangerous defensive thieves, and must continue to shoulder a heavy load on offense. If DeVante Jackson can stay healthy, he could blossom into a mismatch nightmare and help Smith and Gaston put points on the board as a reliable 3rd fiddle on offense.
Bottom Line: *puts on Devil’s Advocate cap* Ok, I must confess that there’s a small part of me that sees some regression in Grambling’s future. For starters, the analytics would tell you Grambling wasn’t even the best team in the SWAC last year as both Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M finished higher in kenpom.com’s overall rankings and were far more efficient on the offensive side of the ball. Jackson deserves all the credit for consistently finding ways to win throughout conference play last year, but I think the talent for Texas Southern will be too much for Grambling to match this season.
3. Prairie View A&M
Key Returners: Gary Blackston, Dennis Jones
Key Losses: Zachary Hamilton, J.D. Wallace
Key Newcomers: Darius Williams, Antoine Lister, Taishaun Johnson (Kent St. transfer), Chancellor Ellis (New Mexico St. transfer), Elijah Holifield (St. John’s transfer), Tyler Singleton (Incarnate Word transfer), Gerard Andrus
Outlook: Byron Smith had himself a banner year 3 in Prairie View, Texas. After replacing a long-tenured Bryon Rimm back in 2016, Smith already has the Panthers knocking on the door of SWAC regular season title. PVAM came just one game shy of first place last year, finishing with a 12-6 record in a 3-way tie with Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. And with two senior stalwarts in Gary Blackston and Dennis Jones returning as co-pilots in the backcourt, the Panthers are a legitimate threat to take home their first conference crown in over 15 years.
Byron Smith places no boundaries on what Blackston can do when he has the ball. He’s a special shot-creator and shot-maker, and no one in the SWAC does more of either than Blackston. The rising senior posted a league high 33% usage rate during conference play last season, while Jones and Zachary Hamilton recorded the 7th and 15th highest usage rates, respectively – for large stretches of games, this triumvirate carried the offense all by themselves.
With Hamilton now gone, expect the dynamic duo of Blackston and Jones to dominate the offense even more so than last year. Smith recognizes the value of his two primary creators, and gives them unrestricted freedom to make plays out in transition or in pick-n-roll situations when the game slows down – per Synergy, 45% of the Panthers’ possessions last year ended with either 1) a shot off a pick-n-roll, 2) a shot in an isolation situation or 3) a shot in transition, all of which are where Blackston and Jones feast as scorers.
With Blackston and Jones as the fulcrums of the Panthers’ offense, they’ll need some dependable help to chip in the scoring column. Smith brings in a ton of newcomers to help push the Panthers over the top, most of whom bring a rare element of Division 1 experience. While none of the new additions were big time contributors at their most recent stops, down transfers typically translate into instant impact players in the SWAC…
Taishaun Johnson hasn’t played a full season since 2014-15, but he tallied 25 starts and averaged 13 points and 4 rebounds a game in his first year at South Alabama
Elijah Holifield should add some backcourt depth, but it’s tough to predict what he’ll bring after clocking in a grand total of 13 minutes all season last year
Chancellor Ellis is the epitome of stand-still shooter – 53 of Ellis’ 57 field goals two years ago at New Mexico State were from downtown (he hit 36%)
Tyler Singleton is another long range marksmen joining the fold who posted a double figure scoring average two years ago at Incarnate Word
In the turnover-happy SWAC, Prairie View has set been the standard setter at generating steals. Not only did the Panthers post the 7th highest turnover rate in the country last year, but sustained that rate throughout conference action to finish above all other SWAC foes with a 23% turnover rate in league play. What’s interesting is that Smith went away from some of the aggressive zone trapping schemes that he leaned on in 2017 and played more much straight-up man-to-man last season (see bottom-row of chart below):
Bottom Line: In Blue Ribbon, Smith was open about his hands-off coaching approach to offense, citing that because he pushes his players so hard on defense, he wants to reward them with the green light when the Panthers take over possession. The complementary pieces this year look like a net upgrade to who Blackston and Jones were deferring to last season, which offers some promising headroom for improvement on the offensive side of the ball. It’s rare you find a team in the SWAC with two proven commodities like Blackston and Jones dictating the offense, which gives the Panthers a legitimate shot at taking home the SWAC conference title belt in 2019.
4. Arkansas Pine Bluff
Key Returners: Martaveous McKnight, Charles Jackson, Cameron Posey
Key Losses: Travon Harper, Trent Steen, Joe’Randle Toliver
Key Newcomers: Shaun Doss, Chris Smith
Outlook: Since 2014, the SWAC conference tournament has been held just a few miles from Texas Southern’s campus, an unnecessary edge for a team with an already overwhelming advantage in the talent department. There was no bigger victim of this format than Arkansas-Pine Bluff last season, who had to square off with Mike Davis and his laundry list of high-major transfers in their own backyard in the SWAC title game. The Tigers opened the game on a 24-11 run and never looked back, as the Golden Lions’ NCAA tournament hopes and dreams expired at the final hour.
As disappointing as the final chapter was to UAPB’s season, the Lions are trending in the right direction after an embarrassing offensive display two years ago. Pine Blue posted the worst offensive efficiency in the entire country, a byproduct of atrocious finishing around the rim and reckless decision making with the ball. The Golden Lions 25% turnover rate was almost an outlier relative to the rest of the country, which can be easily contextualized – one out of every four possessions, UAPB did not get a shot up.
The remarkable turnaround last season was largely due to the individual brilliance of UAPB’s ‘knight in shining armor’, Martaveous McKnight. Similar to many of the other great lead guards in the SWAC, McKnight sets the tone with his activity defensively, but his ability to create offense out of nothing was a revelation for a UAPB offense that was drowning before he arrived. Per the chart below from kenpom.com, five players in the SWAC consumed more of their respective teams’ possessions while on the floor – only Trae Jefferson was more efficient as scorer than McKnight:
McKnight’s name will be circled by every opposing coach on the scouting report, which means one of either Charles Jackson or Cameron Posey will need to emerge as a viable shooting threat on the wing – Joe’Randle Toliver is a huge loss in this regard – to prevent help side defenders from collapsing on McKnight.
On the other side of the ball, head coach George Ivory’s defense is controlled chaos and the epitome of feast or famine. When the extended zone traps are able to bother shaky ball handlers, the Lions’ can tilt the floor in their favor by generating a ton of turnovers. But when opposing offenses are able to hang on to the ball and get a decent shot off, the Lions can be exposed. While UAPB’s first shot defense was stout last season, having no specific man assignment in the zone leaves the Golden Lions out of defensive position far too often. As we witnessed last year, this resulted in countless 2nd and 3rd shot opportunities for opponents.
Per the chart below, no one in the SWAC played zone more frequently than the Golden Lions last season, which has been the hallmark of UAPB’s defense over the past five seasons (see top row).
Bottom Line: It’d be shortsighted to discount the losses of Travon Harper and Trent Steen, the focal points of last year’s frontcourt. Pine Bluff was battered on the boards last season, so losing what were arguably their top-2 rebounders does not bode well for solidifying the glass in 2019. No Harper and Steen also raises questions as to who will protect the rim and wall off open driving lanes in the middle. Rising sophomore 6’8 Terrance Banyard looked promising in limited action year, but Pine Bluff will need to shift to a more guard-centric, small-ball lineup that mirrors most of the other teams found around the SWAC.
There’s certainly a risk that the Golden Lions could get bullied in the belly of their defense, but the perimeter havoc should help mask some of those soft spots in the lane. All things considered, a top-5 finish feels reasonable with such a special lead guard in McKnight at the point of attack.
5. Alabama St.
Key Returners: Jacoby Ross, Reginald Gee
Key Losses: Terrance LeFlore
Key Newcomers: Leon Daniels, Kevin Holston, Therrell Gosier II, AJ Farrar, Azariah Seay, John Sellars
Outlook: When you’ve coached in the SWAC for as long as Lewis Jackson has, the ebbs and flows of up and down years are inevitable. The excessive roster turnover makes it nearly impossible to consistently build cohesive teams with upperclassmen who are ‘all-in’ committed to the coach’s vision. Jackson has been through this cycle multiple times over his 13-year stay in Alabama’s state capital, so he knows not to panic at the earliest signs of adversity – precisely the situation the Hornets find themselves in after turning in back to back sub-500 showings in conference play.
Returning all five starters bodes well for a possible turnaround this season – this level of year-over-year continuity is a rarity in the SWAC, where players seem to come and go more frequently than a fast food restaurant. While other coaches will be integrating a slew of newcomers from many different origins, Jackson knows what he’s working with after coaching this group last season.
The brightest star amongst this rapidly improving core is Jacoby Ross. Ross was brilliant as a young freshman last season, showing no hesitation to assert himself as the undisputed floor leader and primary offensive creator. He ran away with SWAC Freshman of the Year honors, which was well deserved given how important he was to the Hornets’ offense. Many times in low level leagues, conference awards skew heavily to counting stats without consideration to how that actually translates into winning - this is not the case with Ross…
Here’s a simple way to interpret the chart above from hooplens.com. When Ross was on the floor, the Hornets were one of the most efficient teams in the SWAC, posting a 1.05 points per possession over the entire course of the season and 1.03 PPP in league games. When he sat, Alabama State scored just 0.88 points per possession, a clip that stacked up with the worst offensive teams in the entire country last year: Coppin State (0.86), Northwestern State (0.87), Longwood (0.89) and fellow SWAC resident Alabama A&M (0.89).
The offense should remain among the top scoring attacks in the league with Ross’ backcourt partner in crime, Reginald Gee, rejoining him on the perimeter. Gee is a complete scorer at the 2-guard spot and was a model of efficiency last season. His percentages from all over the floor graded out as elite by SWAC standards, including an impressive 52 / 52 / 75 shooting split that equated to the 5th best true shooting percentage in the conference. With Gee’s ability to score at all three levels, the two-headed monster of Ross and Gee might be the best backcourt duo in the SWAC, one that rivals the potent scoring tandems found at Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M.
The rest of the rotation will be filled out by a slew of upperclassmen, all of whom gained invaluable experience playing together last season. Of the returning starters (Tobi Ewuosho, Ed Jones and Branden Johnson), Johnson is the pivotal interior presence who owned the paint last year and terrorized opposing bigs on the glass. His offensive skill is far from polished, but his activity in the lane makes him an invaluable garbage man in the SWAC. Few teams have a two-way rebounder and reliable rim protector like Johnson and he might be the best interior defender in the conference not named Trayvon Reed.
Bottom Line: In his decade plus tenure at Alabama St., only four times has Jackson finished below .500 in the SWAC – in the year following each of those seasons, the Tigers have boosted their win total by an average of four games, a major reason why ASU’s ceiling is much higher than this conservative 5th place projection. The return of Ross makes all the difference and his impact can propel the Hornets into the top-4 if he can ascend to new heights in his sophomore season.
6. Alcorn St.
Key Returners: Reginal Johnson, Maurice Howard, Devon Brewer
Key Losses: AJ Mosby, Dante Sterling, Avery Patterson
Key Newcomers: Jonathan Floyd, Deshaw Andrews, Harold Givens (New Mexico State transfer)
Outlook: There’s a few different angles I could take with this preview, but none are more important that the health and effectiveness of Reginal Johnson. Prior to last season, the SWAC media poll picked Johnson as Player of the Year, but that became invalid once Johnson broke his foot against Tulane in the 7th game of the season. With Johnson on the shelf for the rest of the year, the Braves had to patch together points in a variety of ways to keep the offense afloat. Head coach Montez Robinson deserves some love for engineering what wound up being the 4th most efficient offense in the SWAC last year, but the offensive firepower was a far cray from the league leading 52.2% effective field goal percentage posted two years ago when Johnson was at full strength.
Since Johnson was inserted into the primary rotation back in the 2015-16 campaign, Alcorn State has won 72% of their conference games, which excludes last year’s tumble down the standings with Johnson ailing on the sidelines. At 6’5 250 pounds, Johnson has a downy soft touch as both a finisher and shooter and uses his wide frame and smooth handle to carve out space to get his shot up. That big frame doesn’t go to waste on the boards either – Johnson will mix it up on both ends, as evidenced by a top-10 ranked offensive AND defensive rebounding rate in the SWAC back in 2017 .
Johnson’s absence bumped Maurice Howard and Devon Brewer up one notch in the offensive hierarchy last year – Howard is a lights out shooter, while Brewer is another big body inside. With Brewer and Johnson on the floor together, few teams have the sheer size to match up 1-to-1 with those two behemoths. To supplement the returners, Robinson hauled in what might be the best band of newcomers in the SWAC, outside of Texas Southern. Flanking Howard on the perimeter will be explosive scoring JUCO import Jonathan Floyd, while JUCO All-American Deshaw Andrews and New Mexico State transfer Harold Givens team up with Brewer inside.
On the other side, the Braves will often showcase a matchup zone that’s anchored in a standard 2-3 zone structure. The following clip below gives a taste of what this looks like in action. You can see how the lone big in the middle actually trails the screener all the way to the top of the key.
Bottom Line: Johnson is expected to miss most of the non-conference portion of the season, but should return just in time for ‘SWACtion’ when the calendar turns to 2019. If he can avoid an injury set back and return to his peak form last seen during the 2017 conference season, the Braves have a ceiling far higher than 6th place. I’m just a tad bit nervous about the notion of re-integrating Johnson right before conference play begins, and concerned he may not be able to replicate those lofty standards set back in 2016-17.
Key Returners: Eddie Reese, Sidney Umude
Key Losses: Jared Sam, Jamar Sandifer, Emanual Shepherd, Chris Thomas
Key Newcomers: Jayden Saddler, Cam Horton, Brian Assie, Alex Ennis, Osa Wilson
^^^ when you go to Southern’s roster page, this is the first thing that pops up – it’s safe to say the Jags are giddy to kick-off a new chapter in their program’s illustrious SWAC history after a weird season in flux under interim head coach Morris Scott.
Woods’ first order of business is simple: avoid any more fights with teammates! Given the volatility of Woods’ hyper-competitive streak, this hire does not come without risk – but in my eyes, it’s a well calculated risk, especially when you factor in Woods’ familiarity with the conference and proven track record of success during his near flawless 4-year stretch at Mississippi Valley State from 2008-2012.
During that span, the Delta Devils simply got better and better each season with Woods calling the shots, which eventually culminated in a banner 2011-12 campaign that will go down as one of the all-time best in the MVSU record books. During that year, the Delta Devils rattled off 17 straight conference wins and set fire to the SWAC landscape before ultimately punching their auto-bid ticket to the dance.
I’m highly confident Woods will bring that irreplaceable wisdom to his new employer. However, given the stark contrast between the style of play Woods will likely implement and the style we observed last year under interim head coach Morris Scott, it may take some time for Woods’ vision to translate to the win column.
With the modern NBA continuing to re-shape college basketball all over the country, Southern was the antithesis of a perimeter-oriented, guard-dominant team last year. With a load like Jared Sam in the middle, the Jaguars played bully ball in the paint and fed their meal ticket early and often inside. Per the play type chart below, courtesy of Synergy, the lion’s share of the scoring came via post-ups or offensive rebound, both of which were spearheaded by Sam.
With Sam departing, the strength of the roster naturally shifts to the backcourt, which is where it should be with Woods’ about to implement his own stylistic blueprint. Eddie Reese is the alpha amongst the Jaguar guards and will have to be an extension of the fiery Woods on both ends of the floor.
Without Sam gobbling up every missed shot, rebounding, the driving force of last year’s success, now becomes a major concern. Sidney Umede’s per minute stats were actually quite comparable with Sam last year, but he’s nowhere near the imposing presence inside that Sam was. That said, Umede’s mobility and lateral quickness, relative to Sam, should help him mold to Woods’ more up-and-down pace as rebounding may take a back seat to turnovers in terms of defensive points of emphasis.
Bottom Line: While Woods brought in some enticing young talent to shepherd the rebuilding project – Jayden Saddler is the guy to keep an eye on and could emerge as a game breaker at point – Woods will likely be stubborn in institutionalizing his preferred brand of basketball and corresponding culture in year 1. Thus, some bumps along the way are to be expected, but the long-term outlook certainly looks promising for a program looking to return to perennial power status at the top of the SWAC totem pole.
8. Mississippi Valley St.
Key Returners: Dante Scott, Jordan Evans
Key Losses: Kylan Phillips, Jamaal Watson
Key Newcomers: All of them
Outlook: How fitting is it that Mississippi Valley State falls in line behind Southern - the newest employer of former Delta Devil head coach Sean Woods - in our preview sequencing. Those glory days of Woods are long gone in Itta Bena, MS, with 2013 marking the last time MVSU was close to relevant, even by lowly SWAC standards.
Up until last year, it appeared head coach Andre Payne had made some forward progress, though marginal at best – the Delta Devils had improved their conference win total by one game in two straight seasons, reaching a high of 7 wins two years ago. Welp, last year MVSU stumbled back into oblivion and checked in just one spot above last place Alabama A&M at 4-14.
Any glimmer of hope for a bounce back will fall on the shoulders of Dante Scott and Jordan Evans, who must give Herculean efforts on a nightly basis to keep this team competitive. Outside of Scott and Evans, Tereke Eckwood is the only other returner who clocked in more than 20 minutes a game last season. Emmanuel Ejeh had brief stretches last year where he rose to the occasion, but extrapolating his per possession production into a larger role this year is guesswork.
If Payne employs the same ‘all hands on deck’ mentality to his rotation management this year, everyone on the roster should get a chance to prove their worth. Per kenpom.com, the Delta Devils’ bench consumed 46% of all available minutes, the 2nd highest clip in the country. Injuries didn’t help, but Payne was clearly grasping for straws all year long trying to find some spark amongst the many lineup iterations he threw out there.
Bottom Line: Success in 2019 hinges on the effectiveness of Scott and Evans, but their individual performance is somewhat hindered by the incompetence around them. Defenses are able to shade heavily toward them both whenever they touch the ball, forcing Scott and Evans to take tough, contested shots far too often. Hopefully they’ll have some moments in their final collegiate season, but expecting a surge in the SWAC standings is far from realistic with the lack of talent and Division 1 experience around them on this roster.
9. Alabama A&M
Key Returners:Arthur Johnson, Andre Kennedy, Evan Wiley, Jalen Reeder, Amari Goulbourne
Key Losses: De’Ederick Petty, Marcus Merriweather
Key Newcomers: Gerron Scissum*
*Note - expected to be eligible 2nd semester
Outlook: Whenever companies undergo major internal reorganizations or transformations, often times contractors are brought in to bridge the gap between the old and the new. Such was the case last year with Donnie Marsh playing the role of consultant in what essentially amounted to a one-year contract. Marsh, Alabama A&M’s head coach last year, came and left in the blink of an eye, opting to take his talents to Florida Gulf Coast and those beautiful sandy beaches of Fort Myers, Florida (I mean, can you blame the guy?).
On the surface, this appeared to be a flaky move - that is, testing the waters at Alabama A&M for a quick cup of coffee and then bolting the second it went south. But according an interview with new interim coach Dylan Howard in Blue Ribbon, he feels Marsh may established a sturdy foundation to potential build upon going forward.
“Coach Marsh came in and was able to do a great job of stabilizing the program and basically helping to establish a culture where the players felt good and now I am able to build on that,” Howard said.
While that might be a rosy depiction of the true nature of reality – Howard is Marsh’s former assistant and presumably his friend – the facts do appear to line up. Howard inherits three senior starters from last year, Arthur Johnson, Evan Wiley and Andre Kennedy, which should suppress any turbulence from the turnover that rocked the rest of the roster. As many as 7 guys who didn’t see time last year could be a part of the equation this year, but none have the prowess of JMU transfer Gerron Scissum. For a bottom-feeding SWAC team, luring a transfer with mid to high-major experience – Scissum was at VCU prior to JMU – is a home run as Scissum could put up big time numbers once he becomes eligible 2nd semester.
Bottom Line: Scissum, Wiley and Kennedy are actually a formidable frontline trio, especially with both Wiley and Sciccum presenting matchup problems for opposing forward – both can step away and stroke it from distance, while Kennedy makes his pay inside. The real question is guard play, and whether or not one of last year’s returners can learn how to hang onto the ball. The Bulldogs coughed up the rock at an outrageous rate last season, despite playing a much slower tempo under Marsh. Any hope for a bump offensively will be contingent on steady decision making and steady ball security.
10. Jackson St.
Key Returners: Lemmie Howard, Dontelius Ross, Jeremiah Bozeman, Demetrice Clopton
Key Losses: Too many to name
Key Newcomers: Chris Howell, Jontrell Walker
Outlook: Fragile is the proper word to describe the 2018 Jackson State Tigers, a team that miraculously lugged it’s way to 9 conference wins despite having next to zero lineup continuity. With all the injuries that sprouted up at various points throughout the season, predicting the game-to-game rotation a fool’s errand – even head coach Wayne Brent didn’t know what he was getting from his own players for a lot of the year.
All things considered, hats off to Brent and the Jackson St. coaching staff for their perseverance last season. But, as those around the SWAC know all too well, there’s no forgiveness for hardship as the Tigers will now face another hurdle of having to completely restock the 2018 roster. Of those that stuck around this offseason, Lemmie Howard is the best of the bunch, a rising sophomore who saw his role increase substantially down the stretch. Dontelius Ross, Jeremiah Bozeman and Demetrice Clopton all had moments last year, but must stay healthy for Jackson State to avoid any serious free fall into the gutter of the SWAC standings.
A lot will be riding on two experienced newcomers, Chris Howell and Jontrell Walker, both of whom possess a talent pedigree that supersedes most of the incumbents. Walker is a true wildcard after being kicked off Ball State back in January, but he could be a revelation if his head stays on straight. Howell was a major catalyst in the South Dakota State backcourt two years back and should turn his heads with his end-to-end speed with the ball.
An interesting stylistic note on Jackson State – in a league that plays in a constant state of chaos, the Tigers are an anomaly with their much more controlled, slower pace of play. While the shooting remains an abomination, Jackson State was able to remain competitive last year by taking care of the ball and not wasting possessions.
Bottom Line: Shooting remains a glaring deficiency, which isn’t great considering that no team in the SWAC has jacked up more 3s over the past two seasons than Jackson State. However, outside shooting isn’t what dragged down the offense last year – it was the incompetent finishing near the rim and inside the arc that doomed the Tigers last year. Jackson State converted less than 40% of their 2-pt field goals, the lowest percentage of any team in the country. Any hope for a revival starts and ends there, which is where Trent is hoping Howell and Walker can assert themselves as more confident scorers and more polished finishers.