Rewind four months and Southern coach Morris Scott started 0-5 in his first season as Jaguars coach.
Fast forward to Wednesday: With a championship within reach, Southern is five games from completing its first full regular season under Scott — and a ton has changed in the interim.
The Jaguars have won seven of their past eight games and are in third place in the 10-team Southwestern Athletic Conference. Southern’s recent success is partially a testament to Scott, a first-year coach who was responsible for making a spry team with seven first-year players a success months ago.
The successful leap Southern (12-14, 8-5 SWAC) made requires some context as to why the Jaguars began 1-4 in conference play. Or why they started 4-9 in nonconference play.
Before the season, Scott and Southern expected star senior forward Jared Sam to produce. While averaging 15.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, Sam has.
The task for Scott was figuring out which newcomers to surround Sam and other veterans. That process still isn't complete, but two games behind first-place Grambling (14-12, 10-3) with five remaining, the Jaguars appear to be on the right track.
“That’s the tough part,” Scott said in late November. “Knowing how to manage those (veterans) with the new guys. Knowing which buttons to push to get them to come on and how to know how to handle them. That’s the toughest part. As an assistant coach you just go with the flow of the head coach, kind of, and you try to get the most out of them as you can.
“But as the head coach, you’ve got wear a different hat. Know when to pull them, when to push and when to grab them and give them a hug at the same time.”
Championship or not this season, Scott appears to be reaching his team at crunch time.
“(Now), we’re more locked in,” Sam said. “Like I said, every day we’re getting better. Off the court and on the court, we’re more focused and locked in on the defensive end.”
Scott’s tinkered with Southern’s lineups and rotations plenty since the beginning of conference play on Jan. 1.
The Jaguars swapped point guard Eddie Reese for Torrey Mayo to command a more conservative offense in mid-January. In their past few games, Scott’s elected to re-install Reese, a smooth shooting lefty, as point guard during the most “crucial” time of Southern’s season, Scott said.
“He’s been having the steady hand," Scott said. "He’s going a better job of slowing himself down, being in the flow and controlling the tempo of the game. So we feel comfortable with him back with the basketball at the point."
Reese and reserve forward Sidney Umude, both transfers, are giving Sam relief by averaging more than 10 points per game. Forward Emanuel Sheperd and guard Jamar Sandifer, both starters, are shooting better than 40 percent from the field for the season.
“We know we can’t afford to drop games right now,” Scott said Saturday. “Because we dug ourselves in a huge hole earlier this season. We’re just trying to find a win to grind them out and win as many as we can.”