Roman Banks exceeded all expectations in his inaugural season as Southern University’s basketball coach a year ago, finishing with a 17-14 overall record and an impressive 13-5 showing in Southwestern Athletic Conference play.
This time around, he faces a whole new wave of challenges as Southern prepares for its season-opener at Iowa State on Friday night.
Not only are the Jags paired against a refueled Cyclones squad that finished 23-11 last season and made a run into the third round of the NCAA Tournament, but Southern starts the season with six straight games on the road, including a 10-day trip beginning Friday.
“It’s a challenge,” Banks said. “It’s kind of not unusual when you’re going out to play money games and revenue games early in the season or late in December. It’s not unusual, and I think it’ll be a great experience for us. We won’t be home for a little while, but we’re going to go out and represent the university as best we can.”
The first test comes in the form of an Iowa State team that lost five players from last year’s squad, including its top three scorers, but added six freshmen, including four-star power forward Georges Niang.
Iowa State picked to finish No. 8 in the Big 12 at Media Days last month, but two key transfers could help the Cyclones far exceed those expectations. They added point guard Korie Lucious, who played on two Final four teams at Michigan State, and guard Will Clyburn, who was the leading scorer for Utah in 2011.
Southern, on the other hand, returns just five players from last year, three of which are upperclassmen. Senior guard Jameel Grace is the only one on the team with four years of experience, and he’ll be taking the reins of a Jags squad with seven newcomers on the team.
“I imagine that we’ll have some adjustments to make because of the fact that there’s so many new guys,” Banks said. “You have some gamers, you have some practice players, and all that goes into the formula.”
Southern did have a couple dry runs in recent weeks to test its new look, organizing two local scrimmages against Nicholls State and the University of New Orleans.
“Both of teams are different, and that was by design to see if we can adapt to different styles of play,” Banks said. “I think that we did. But in either scrimmage, we just weren’t a consistent unit. We weren’t a consistent team for 40 minutes.”
Banks said different players stood out in each scrimmage, but the Jags are still searching for a go-to guy every night. Southern returns three of its top five scorers from last season, including senior guard Derick Beltran, who led the way with 13.2 points per game.
So which one of the newcomers should Jags fans keep an eye out for this season?
“If you ask the guys, they think none of them have impressed me,” Banks joked. “As an overall team, I’ve been pretty pleased. We’ve had some inconsistent days, but I think if we can get together as a consistent unit every day, that we’ll have a chance to win some ball games and compete to the end.”
The challenge doesn’t end there for Southern.
The Jags leave Iowa State on Saturday morning to fly to Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers on Sunday, before hopping on a bus for a seven-hour trip to Laramie, Wyo., for a three-day tournament in Wyoming.
But even with all the odds stacked against Southern, Banks still set a high, yet realistic bar heading into the brutal season-opening slate.
“I hope to go in, and we’re trying to win a basketball game,” Banks said. “My early expectation is to get better as a team and find chemistry for this basketball team. I’m anxious to see what our guys do under the lights and how they perform going to play a major talent. We’ve been anticipating it a long time, but we still can’t believe it’s here already.”