SWAC Preview 2016-17

-Jim Root

SWAC Preview

1.      Texas Southern
     Jackson State
     Prairie View A&M
     Alcorn St.
     Grambling St.
     Alabama St.
     Alabama A&M
     Mississippi Valley St.
  Arkansas-Pine Bluff

All Conference Awards

POY: Derrick Griffin, So., F, Texas Southern
Coach of the Year: Byron Smith, Prairie View A&M
Newcomer of the Year: Zach Lofton, R Jr., G, Texas Southern
Freshman of the Year: Tracy Burnett, Alabama A&M


1.      Texas Southern

Key Returnees: Derrick Griffin, Tyree Bynum
Key Losses: Chris Thomas, David Blanks, Malcolm Riley, Jose Rodriguez, Orlando Coleman
Impact Newcomers: Dulani Robinson, Zach Lofton, Stephan Bennett, Damontrae Jefferson, Marvin Jones


Postseason Projection: 16 seed - Probably a Play-in Game

Mike Davis continues to have a not-quite-fair roster advantage over the rest of the conference, as he has used his connections and clout as a former Indiana and UAB head coach to find more talent than his SWAC competition through a variety of methods. Star returnee Derrick Griffin was on the football team (got kicked off, but he can still hoop!), Zach Lofton is a JUCO transfer who has a productive year at Minnesota on his resume, and Dulani Robinson was a decent point guard in the significantly better West Coast Conference at Pacific. On top of all that, Davis adds Damontrae Jefferson, a consensus 3-star recruit whose main knock is size - something that won’t be that much of a drawback in the SWAC.

Size is a nice segue - TSU thrived last year with some longer, athletic guards that could suffocate smaller opponents on the perimeter, forcing difficult shots and dominating the glass. This year could be a drastically different year in that regard, as an incredible FIVE guards listed at 5’10 or shorter could be in the rotation (plus senior Jerron Martin at 6’0). Lofton is the only real continuation of the team’s previous guard template - with his high D-I pedigree, he should dominate in this league, and he could even lead the team in scoring (ahead of last year’s SWAC Player of the Year, Griffin). Robinson, Jefferson, JUCO stud Jalan McCloud, and returnees Tyree Bynum and Brian Carey make up the 5 mini-mights, and each one brings slightly different skill sets - Bynum is more of a shooter, Carey is a turnover-prone backup PG, Jefferson is a tiny ball-handling dynamo, and Robinson and McCloud should be good SWAC scorers from either guard spot.

TSU’s defense was the best in the SWAC last year; unfortunately, they were still 243rd in the country overall due to how bad the SWAC was. The scheme is predicated on running opponents off the free throw line - last year that was easier with a lot of length at guard, but this year’s team will need to rely on quickness take that shot away. That strategy should blossom, though, due to Griffin’s presence in the lane as the conference’s second-best shot-blocker and the addition of Kent State 7-footer Marvin Jones, who has the ability to dominate in the SWAC.

Griffin will also be the top option on offense, feeding him down low and playing off the attention he draws. He will need to be a far better passer out of the double-team this year, but that should come with experience. Lofton and the Munchkins should be able to hit a solid amount of threes to keep the defense honest, and Stephan Bennett from Robert Morris could be a nice stretch four option.

Fun scheduling note: TSU opens the season with 16 road games, not playing a home game until January 14th, at which point I will have seen Rogue One at least five times. That’s over two months of road games! After that crazy slate, Davis’s team will probably still have the best offense in the SWAC, and between that and the stout-for-this-league defense, TSU is a massive favorite to win the league.

2.      Jackson St.

Key Returnees: Paris Collins, Chace Franklin, Yettra Specks, Janarius Middleton
Key Losses: Raeford Worsham
Impact Newcomers: Charles Taylor, Darius Austin, Jeremiah Bozeman, Edric Dennis


Postseason Projection: NIT

For some baffling reason, Googling “Jackson St basketball roster” gives you the Arkansas State roster before actually listing Jackson State’s. They aren’t even in the same conference!! Google’s algorithms need to be tweaked, my friends. Thankfully, I was able to find the Tigers’ roster eventually, and that is more crucial in the SWAC than any other league. Players come and go like guests at a bed-and-breakfast, with very little news or fanfare on the internet to keep the common fan updated. Maybe that’s because there’s so few SWAC bball fans...but still!

After a third-place finish last year, coach Wayne Brent’s team returns three and a half solid starters along with adding a few intriguing newcomers, opening the door for an incremental step up the standings. Brent’s offenses focus on attacking the offensive glass, though Raeford Worsham’s rebounding will be sorely missed from the wing. Janarius Middleton will lead the frontline and the assault on the boards, and I’d expect the team’s best players, Paris Collins and Chace Franklin, to contribute more on that end of the glass this year (both were more effective defensively). Charles Taylor from UMBC thrived in that role for the Retrievers, so he actually should slide nicely into Worsham’s spot, but he’s not the finisher that his predecessor was. The Tigers (yes, there are three of those in the SWAC) generally lack shooting, so attacking off the drive and hounding the offensive glass is a nice fit for the roster. One other major impact newcomer is UMKC transfer Darius Austin, a rebounding force who could start if Brent decides to play two bigs (and may even beat out Middleton for the job). He’s an active athlete who can also block a few shots.

Another boost should come from JUCO wing Edric Dennis, who stepped into the starting lineup in game 1 while Collins was out and looked great, racking up 21 points, nine boards, and four assists in his debut. If he continues to rebound like that, he’ll stay above Taylor in the pecking order on the wing. Sure, it was mildly concerning they only beat Xavier (not that Xavier) by 12, but again, Collins didn’t play.

Defensively, Jackson State used its perimeter length and athleticism to pressure the hell out of opponents and harass shooters. Collins is a defensive whiz, and between him, PG Yettra Specks, and Franklin, they’ll give opponents a lot of problems. The consequence of all of the team’s pressure is a major tendency to foul - reserve big Treshawn Bolden was the biggest culprit, but it really was a team-wide problem. This also led to key players constantly missing minutes with foul trouble, and for a SWAC team that’s not very deep, things get problematic quickly if the bench has to do too much.

In a league lacking real contenders to Texas Southern’s reign, Jackson State is probably the best of the rest. If they shoot the ball a little better from deep and Dennis or Taylor gives a reasonable impression of Worsham’s contributions, they have an outside shot at challenging TSU.

3.      Prairie View A&M

Key Returnees: Tevin Bellinger, Admassu Williams, Zach Hamilton
Key Losses: Jarryn Johnson, Karim York, Avery Lomax
Impact Newcomers: AJ Astroth


Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT/Vegas 16

If third for Prairie View seems high to you, then I have two responses: 1) you’re awesome for knowing enough about the SWAC to even have an opinion on how good these teams are, and 2) the Panthers were actually sneaky-okay after Byron Rimm resigned in late January! Under then-interim, now-permanent coach Byron Smith, PV A&M lost their first two games as they adjusted to the new leadership, but they then finished 6-3 in their last nine games, including wins over conference champ Texas Southern and a road win at eventual conference tournament champ Southern.

They lose some key pieces from that team, but the pillars are back. The inside-out combo of Tevin Bellinger and Admassu Williams wasn’t a prolific scoring pair, but they spark the team’s perimeter and interior defense, respectively. Despite it’s horrific start to league play (1-8), the Panthers finished with the league’s #3-ranked defense, forcing an incredibly impressive 23.9% turnover rate (the overall rate was an astonishing 4th in the country). Two sticky-fingered guards leave, but that just opens minutes at the PG spot for Ja’Donta Blakley, a master of defense (4.5% steal rate - just trust me, that’s elite). Because of their aggression, PV will probably always foul like crazy, but if they can shore up the defensive glass, the defensive could get to second (they likely can’t challenge TSU). To that end, JUCO forward Shay’rone Jett will likely need to win some playing time, and AJ Astroth could help as bigger wing.

Offensively...there’s a lot of work to do. UNLV transfer Daquan Cook is probably the highest-upside newcomer, though he’ll battle for minutes with Blakley. Smith might be best to play the two together - they’ll be a vicious pair defensively, and Cook’s scoring should balance out Blakley’s vanilla offensive game.  The team’s massive lack of height led to very poor finishing in the paint (despite the lack of rim protectors in the SWAC), so Williams, Jett, and JD Wallace will really need to improve in that area. The Panthers also finished last in the nation in three-point shooting (27% - though it did rise to 31% in conference play), and the complete lack of spacing hurt their interior scoring as well. Jett can space the floor as a big man, and Zach Hamilton is a potential shooting option as well.

Smith really got the Panthers playing well towards the end of last year, but it will still take a leap to get them in top 4 contention. I’m bullish that they can get there, with Cook leading the offense and Blakley spearheading the crazy pressure defense


4.      Southern

Key Returnees: Trelun Banks, Jared Sam, Shawn Prudhomme
Key Losses: Adrian Rogers, Christopher Hyder
Impact Newcomers: Brendon Ganaway, Josh Robinson


Postseason Projection: None

The Jags hail from the generic region of “Southern” - a mysterious land of mostly-bad basketball, but also the occasional NCAA Tournament berth and play-in game victory. (Editor’s note: they’re actually from Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, this guy is an idiot) With three scorers back who averaged over nine points per game, hopes are high in The Southern Region that a return trip to Dayton for the First Four may again be in store.

Southern is the rare SWAC team who actually has a physical presence inside - Jared Sam isn’t super thick, but at 6’9”, he’s a very good finisher and a solid rebounder and shot-blocker. He’ll need help from seniors Tony Nunn and D’Arian Allen to truly make the defense potent - Southern has been top 10 in the country in opponents’ effective field goal percentage in three of the last four years, and a lot of that is due to how active they are in the paint. Nunn is actually an elite shot-blocker, but both he and Allen are gigantic hacks, so keeping them on the floor is a real concern.

They also harass teams on the perimeter, forcing turnovers and making shooting in rhythm nearly impossible. Steal king Christopher Hyder graduates, though, so that area of the defense may regress some. Banks will look to his son, Trelun Banks, to lead the defensive line, though he is more of a scoring lead guard. Undersized forward Shawn Prudhomme is an Energizer bunny; he’s everywhere on defense, a solid rebounder and shot-blocker, and quietly an outstanding shooter (37% from 3, 94% at the FT line). Chris Thomas and Rashad Andrews are the likely starters at the 2 and 3, but if any of the newcomers show more of a gritty defensive instinct, they have chances to earn playing time.

Chief among those are redshirt freshman Brendon Ganaway and Texas State transfer Jamarcus Weatherspoon. Ganaway is a point guard from Houston, and if he can be disruptive defensively and distribute the ball offensively, it would allow Banks to play his more natural off-guard spot. Weatherspoon, on the other hand, is a big guard at 6’5, and he showed some promising defensive instincts at his previous spot. He should find his way to minutes, possibly even starting. He’ll als enjoy the step down in competition after an inefficient run in San Marcos.

Southern has the style to be a problem once again in the SWAC, but “being a problem” and “winning the league” are two different things. Expect a win or two over TSU and JSU, coupled with a confounding road loss or two against the bottom of the league in the dead of February.


5.      Alcorn St.

Key Returnees: Marquis Vance, DeAndre Davis, Reginal Johnson
Key Losses: Octavius Brown, Tamarcio Wilson, Devonte Hampton, Patrick Onwenu
Impact Newcomers: AJ Mosby, Kobe Wilson, Yalen Reed, Denzel Dulin


Postseason Projection: None

Alcorn State rode an incredibly patient offense and a grind-it-out defense (plus the 12th-most luck, per KenPom) to a stunning second-place league finish last year. A ton of key pieces depart from that roster, meaning some serious regression may be in order, but coach Montez Robinson should be able to reload his assault-the-rim offense with improving returners and intriguing newcomers, so the drop shouldn’t be too precipitous.

The biggest concern is on the interior, where Alcorn crushed its grapes last year (arguably not a phrase, but I think you get the meaning - that’s how the wine gets made!). Forward DeAndre Davis and wing/linebacker Reginald Johnson were both highly effective on the offensive glass in somewhat limited minutes last year, and with larger roles in 2016-17, they should continue the Braves’ onslaught on that end. Davis and Marquis Vance also thrive getting to the free throw line, another key to the offense, and Bethune-Cookman grad transfer Denzel Dulin and JUCO AJ Mosby are both intriguing newcomers on the wing.

Another area of concern:point guard play with the graduation of Devonte Hampton and Tamarcio Wilson. Rahamanh Katumbusi is not comfortable in that role, so freshman Maurice Howard and JUCO Juwan Henderson will need to make an impact right away. Howard started in game 1 - he’ll be solid, but expect freshman growing pains.

Defensively, they play an interesting style - they want to speed you up, but not really to force turnovers. The Braves want to make you take bad shots quickly so that they can get the ball back on offense, and with Davis and the addition of Devon Brewer, they should have some rim protection as well. However, due to the team’s affinity for crashing the offensive glass, the Braves’ transition defense is highly vulnerable. It’s a symptom of the system, though, so they’ll just have to negate that weakness as much as possible.

With increased opportunities, Vance and Davis are both major breakout candidates, although the team’s pace will slow down their counting stat production. Despite the loss of four key players from last year, there looks to be enough here for Alcorn to remain competitive in the SWAC.

6.      Grambling St.

Key Returnees: Nigel Ribeiro, Ervin Mitchell, Deonte Hearns, Remond Brown
Key Losses: Mark Gray, Michael Bethea Jr.
Impact Newcomers: Avery Ugba, Marcel Thompson, Drake Wilks, Ivy Smith Jr.


Postseason Projection: None

Grambling finishing sixth seems pretty unremarkable, right? Well, the team that finished sixth in the SWAC won seven conference games last year, which is exactly as many as Grambling has won...in the last four years combined, with four of them coming last year. Now in his third season at the helm, coach Shawn Walker seems to have the Tigers slightly on the rise, as four double-digit scorers return and Avery Ugba seems tailor-made to slide into the team’s starting center role.

After a winless first year, Walker built some momentum last year, and he hopes a promising defense can help them build on their four conference wins. Point guards Nigel Ribeiro and Chase Cormier lead the turnover-reliant scheme, and versatile wings Ervin Mitchell and Deonte Hearns will use their length to bother opponents as well. Grambling went zone 30% of the time last year per Synergy, often employing a 1-2-2 three-quarter court zone press that trapped hard just over half court. They’ll also fall back into a more conservative 2-3 at times as well, but both strategies aimed for the same thing - harassing on the perimeter and creating turnovers. They’ll constantly gamble, leaving the back end exposed, but in the SWAC, the rangy and quick perimeter gives them a chance.

Offensively...there’s some work to do. I’m basically going to be a broken record saying this with this league (7 of the conference’s teams were in the bottom 35 in the country in three-point percentage), but Grambling cannot shoot at all (only team worse was PV A&M). They rely on getting to the free throw line (#1 in the league in free throw rate), with Hearns and Cormier leading the way. Ugba should also be an asset in this department, as well as helping the Tigers on both ends of the glass. Marcel Thompson should be a nice shooting asset as a freshman, and Remond Brown will be another slasher from the perimeter. Like the Tigers, many SWAC opponents look to force turnovers, which was another major issue for Grambling. Cormier in particular was a walking turnover, a part of his game that will need to improve as a senior.

There’s a lot of minutes returning for the Tigers, and Ugba should be better than what they threw out at center last year, so optimism is (relatively) high around the Grambling program. Moving up towards the middle of the league would be a gigantic step given the recent struggles, and behind Ribeiro and Hearns, I think they will take that step.

7.      Alabama St.

Key Returnees: Tony Armstrong, Steve Rogers, Terrance LeFlore, Torlof Thomas
Key Losses: Bobby Brown, Jamel Waters
Impact Newcomers: Demetrious Houston, Reginald Gee, Rodney Simeon


Postseason Projection: None

It’s not a great sign when the “Hornets” is the third-most creative nickname in the league - far too many Tigers, Panthers, Cougars in the SWAC. We get it guys, you all like the big cat portion of the zoo! “Hornets” isn’t crazy, but I’ll take it.

Bama State sneakily might roll with a double point guard-esque lineup, with Terrance LeFlore and Torloft Thomas both flashing the ability to pass last year. Thomas is more of a wing, but he’ll find open cutters and kick when necessary, and the coach Lewis Jackson’s squad has a shiny new scoring option for those two to pass to - JUCO transfer Rodney Simeon. Simeon is an unabashed gunner, and when he’s hot, he can win games by himself in the SWAC. The Hornets were the best shooting team in the conference last year, but the departed Jamel Waters was a major reason - without him, Simeon, LeFlore, and Thomas will have to step up to maintain that shooting reputation.

Defensively, Jackson has the Hornets in a conservative scheme. They didn’t excel at any one thing, and without a calling card on that end, they finished a blah seventh in the league on defense. Jackson brings in a major influx of size, though, with Amir Warnock, Artis Cleveland, and Demetrious Houston (eligible in December) coming in to shore up the interior defense. Houston comes over from Mississippi State, a high-major talent that will be a gigantic matchup problem if he can transition into the rotation smoothly midseason. He brings a little bit of everything - shooting, rebounding, defensive activity, athleticism. Warnock and Cleveland are mammoth, and they should help the Hornets own the paint in most SWAC games. Corvon Butler is another mismatch, as his combination of quickness and strength is also tough to guard.

If the plethora of newcomers pan out, Alabama State could surprise some teams. They have size, passing, shooting, and versatility - my biggest concern is Jackson’s defensive scheme minimizing the team’s abilities on that end. With Simeon, Houston, LeFlore, and Thomas, the Hornets could have a top 3 offense in the league, so getting that defense up to a higher level is crucial.

8.      Mississippi Valley St.

Key Returnees: Marcus Romain, Isaac Williams, Rashaan Surles, Vacha Vaughn, Ta’Jay Henry
Key Losses: Latrell Love
Impact Newcomers: Terence Traylor, Jevon Smith, Hasaan Buggs, Darrell Riley


Postseason Projection: None

I recently wrote 3MW’s Southland preview, and I can’t help feeling like Mississippi Valley State is playing in the wrong conference. The awesomely-named Delta Devils want to get out and run offensively while speed you up and forcing turnovers defensively, characteristics that have a very SLC-esque feel to them (oh, and they also have basically no size to speak of, unless the newcomers make significant impacts).

Like many SLC teams, coach Andre Payne’s squad has a star guard leading the way. Marcus Romain is a transition monster, constantly barrelling to the basket to get easy baskets and free throws (hit 76% of his 200 attempts). He can knock down a three here and there to keep defenders honest, but his true goal is to get in the paint. He’s a good passer when he does drive; unfortunately, his distribution options are possibly the worst collection of shooters in the country. The team’s two nominal point guards (Romain usually handles the ball), Rashaan Surles and Kylan Phillips, combined for a slash line of 28%/29%/66%, shooting splits that have James Naismith wishing he’d never invented the sport.  Isaac Williams is the team’s second best scorer, but he’s no gunner (31% from deep), and only one returning player besides Romain shot over 40% from the field (undersized post Ta’Jay Henry).

Defensively, they may be due for some regression as well - they got rocked inside by opposing rebounders and finishers, and their transition defense is predictably poor in the helter-skelter pace. Newcomer Jamal Watson is a lanky 6’10, and if he can help on the inside, it will make the entire defense better. Payne did smartly allow opponents to shoot threes - in the SWAC, very few opponents are going to hurt you from there.

All of this will be made even more difficult by Payne’s masochistic non-conference scheduling, which includes zero (none, zilch) home games and trips to Northwestern, West Virginia, Michigan State, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Gonzaga, Grand Canyon, and Iowa State. The Delta Devils won’t play a home game until the conference opener on January 7th - almost as bad as Texas Southern. Half the country will have already given up on their New Years’ Resolution by then!

Payne will continue to have this team go, go, going, but their lack of shooting and offensive options outside of Romain and Williams will likely limit the team’s upside in the standings. If the defense regresses, too, the Delta Devils will be finishing closer to the SWAC’s cellar than the penthouse.

9.      Alabama A&M

Key Returnees: Rakiya Battle, Quinterian McConico, Christopher Thomas
Key Losses: Ladarius Tabb, Nick West, Jacob Perry, Arthur Wade
Impact Newcomers: Tracy Burnett, De’Edrick Petty, Evan Wiley


Postseason Projection: None

I’m a little salty with coach Willie Hayes’s Bulldogs, as they badly underperformed last year despite the presence of two SWAC studs in Ladarius Tabb and Nick West. Very rarely do you have an elite scorer and a 6’10 stalwart to build around, and yet the ‘Dogs finished 6-12 in a bad league. With both of those guys gone, Hayes must start over with elite passing PG Rakiya Battle and a host of young, unproven players around him.

The Bulldogs lack two very important factors that good basketball teams have - outside shooting and defense. They shot an abysmal 28% from deep last year (even Tabb and West were only at 29%), and no returning player hit more than Battle’s 15 threes (at a SCORCHING 26%, mind you). Instead, they’ll need to continue attacking the rim in their crawling halfcourt offense, using the glass and the free throw line to attempt to get easy points. Battle is a good enough driver and passer to set up his teammates, but if they can’t convert, he’ll eventually be warmed by a multitude of traps and double-teams.

Adrian Edwards was a very good rebounder from the wing, and Quinterian McConico and Christopher Thomas both finished at 60%+ inside the arc (mostly due to the easy chances created by Battle). Former high school teammates Tracy Burnett and Evan Wiley are likely the team’s biggest chances to improve offensively, though neither comes with a reputation as a knockdown shooter. JUCO guards Marcus Merriweather (sat out last year) and Eugene Jones could also provide some offense, but again, they’ll need to prove it before getting any respect from defenses.

The defense was the worst in the conference during SWAC play by a pretty wide margin, mostly due to a weird combination of conservative perimeter defense and sieve-like interior defense. Normally, when you aren’t forcing any turnovers like A&M, it’s because you’re packing the lane and forcing opponents into tough jumpers. Instead, despite the presence of West, SWAC opponents feasted at the rim, and no one on the roster projects as someone who will change that.

The optimist would see the loss of West and Tabb and hope it opens up chances for other players to thrive, but the realist (me) thinks that those two (plus Pine Bluff) were the only aspects helping keep the Bulldogs clear of the SWAC cellar.

10.   Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Key Returnees: Ghiovanni Robinson, Charles Jackson, Marquis Cunningham
Key Losses: JoVaughn Love, Thaddeus Handley Jr., Trent Whiting, Deshon Bayless
Impact Newcomers: Artavious McDyess, Trenton Steen, Travon Harper


Postseason Projection: None

As a child of the late ‘90s and early 2000s NBA, I fondly remember Antonio McDyess playing for every single NBA team (OK fine, it was five, with two stints on both the Nuggets and Suns), so it’s exciting to see his son, Artavious McDyess, lace them up for the Golden Lions this year. Pine Bluff was one of the country’s worst offenses last year, playing an extreeeeemely slow tempo yet still somehow managing to constantly give the ball away like an unwanted Christmas gift from Aunt Margaret.  McDyess isn’t the top-of-the-line recruit that his dad was, but if he can bring an element of efficient interior scoring to this roster, well, that would be the first.

Coach George Ivory has generally done a very good job in Pine Bluff, with four winning seasons in the SWAC, two 9-9 years, and two under-.500 seasons. Unfortunately, one of those down years was last year, and it’s going to take a gigantic effort to make this year a lot better. Ghiovanni Robinson is a good defender, but he really doesn’t make his teammates better. The Golden Lions’ offense took a lot of threes but had very few assists - aka, a lot of my-turn, your-turn launching of contested shots. All of that isolation also contributed to the team’s turnover epidemic (350th in the country in turnover rate), as the offense was ultra predictable and easy to double-team. The team’s shooting actually got a lot better in conference play, but the turnovers continued to plague them - the backcourt of Robinson and sophomores Charles Jackson and Marcus Wallace all need to take major steps to eliminate their miscues.

Pine Bluff was actually not last in the conference on defense - they were ninth! That was almost exclusively due to their perimeter-harassing ways - the three-headed backcourt forced a ton of steals in Ivory’s zone trap schemes, and the pressure often took away the three-point line as well. The interior defense was disastrous, though, as opponents grabbed a monstrous 35% of their misses (37% in all games) - McDyess and JUCO transfers Travon Harper and Trenton Steen will be counted on to shore that up, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harper and McDyess both start over returner Marquis Cunningham.

There are red flags galore with this team, most notably the offense’s shaky ball-handling, and that will probably keep them near the bottom of the league. I’ll still pay attention just to see how good McDyess ends up being though!