The hottest men’s basketball teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference meet at 7:30 p.m. Monday when Alabama State hosts Southern in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Hornets (10-5 overall) lead the SWAC after winning their first six conference games. The Jaguars (9-12) are 6-1 in the conference after winning their past five to move into a tie with Texas Southern (5-1) in the loss column.
TSU has a leg up on Southern in the tiebreaker because of a 59-58 victory against the Jaguars on Jan. 5 in the F.G. Clark Activity Center. But the race tightened Saturday when the Tigers suffered their first conference loss (66-62 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff) as Southern was winning 65-58 at Alabama A&M.
“Your intensity has to pick up,” Jaguars guard Christopher Hyder said of the conference race. “Your focus has to pick up. We’re tuned in.”
Joell Hopkins was certainly tuned in as he came off the bench to lead the Jaguars with 19 points against Alabama A&M, making all five of his field-goal attempts and hitting 9 of 10 free throws.
Hyder had his usual steady floor game. He scored just four points in a team-high 34 minutes, but he took just two shots and added four assists, four rebounds and three steals.
“He’s a guy that affects the game without scoring,” coach Roman Banks said. “He’s a guy that can see the floor well. He brings a very testy defensive presence to our team. Even more than that, he excites us with his energy.”
Hyder averages just 3.7 points, but he plays the third-most minutes (28.0) on the team, averages 3.5 rebounds as a point guard and leads the team in assists (76) and steals (31).
“Scoring isn’t the big thing for me,” Hyder said. “I do the little things that help my team win. When I get a steal or a loose ball, that gets us an extra possession, and those can be changing points in the ballgame. I pride myself on that. When a teammate makes a shot, I feel like I’ve done my job. I got them the ball in the right spot to make a shot, or I made the right pass to the right person.”
Seven Jaguars played at least 20 minutes against Alabama A&M, but Banks likely will try to use his bench more with the short turnaround Monday night.
This game matches ASU’s SWAC-leading offense against Southern’s SWAC-leading defense. The Hornets lead the league in scoring (74.7) and field-goal percentage (47.1). Southern leads in scoring defense (56.1) and field-goal defense (35.5).
The Hornets have the best scoring margin in the league (plus-13.8), and the Jaguars are second (plus-9.4).
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.