The Southern men’s basketball team begins the season with what coach Roman Banks calls “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

For the past two seasons, there was no light, just the dark reality that the season would end in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.

Even if the Jaguars won the tournament, they knew the SWAC’s automatic bid would go to another member because Southern was banned from NCAA postseason play due to the submission of “unusable data” on student-athletes’ Academic Progress Rates.

“Sometimes it would get in your head, ‘Why go play if you win and you can’t advance?’” junior guard Trelun Banks said. “You had to knock that part out and keep playing ball regardless.”

Now the Jaguars have clear heads as they begin the season at Arkansas on Friday night. The ban was lifted in May, and Southern, which was picked second in the SWAC preseason poll, knows it will go to the NCAA tournament if its wins the SWAC tournament.

“It makes you want to work 10 times harder,” Trelun Banks said. “Now you know that you have a chance to play for a bigger accomplishment, it helps your mindset. You want to work harder. You want to do more cardio. You want to get better at all aspects of the game.”

The Jaguars narrowly missed a SWAC tournament title last season, losing to Texas Southern 62-58 in the championship game to finish 18-17 overall and 13-5 in the SWAC.

Trelun Banks is one of four key contributors to that team who are back. The others are senior guards Adrian Rodgers, a preseason All-SWAC first-team pick, and Christopher Hyder as well as sophomore forward/center Jarred Sam.

Coach Banks said he has noticed a difference in practice.

“It’s very motivating for me not to have to take my voice to another level as much as the last two years,” he said. “They’re in early, they’re staying late. The opportunity to go to the postseason is huge for their mindset, and I think it’s going to add energy into this season for us.”

Banks said the players accept hard-nosed coaching a little more readily now.

“Now that there’s a postseason opportunity in front of us,” he said, “I think when you get on them, the guys look at you as a motivator.

“You’re a coach who’s trying to push his team to be the best that it can be and not just a hard coach.”

If the Jaguars are going to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, they’re going to need big seasons from several players besides the four veterans.

Coach Banks singled out Chris Thomas of Glen Oaks High School, who played sparingly last season and is making the transition from a frontcourt player to a perimeter player; Pat Smith, a transfer from Southern-Shreveport who is a candidate to provide more scoring from the power forward spot and allow Sam to play more center; and junior forward Shawn Prudhomme.

The Jaguars have scrimmaged against McNeese State and UNO as they blend the newcomers with the veterans and adjust to a faster pace.

“We like to get up and down, play a little faster, play a little smaller,” Hyder said. “Because we’re a lot quicker this year with our bigs, and we have a lot more shooters this year too.”

They also have one big incentive they didn’t have the past two years.

“There’s nothing to hold us back now,” Sam said.

Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.