There’s not much time to waste. At least not for the heavyweights.
With the turn of the new year, Southwestern Athletic Conference play is here, and it will begin with the steamiest, and arguably best bout the conference has to offer. If you've followed the preseason's polling, it could be the decider between the conference's best and runner-up.
Texas Southern and Southern, picked to finish No. 1 and No. 2 by the SWAC’s coaches and sports information directions in October’s preseason poll, begin 2018 with a New Year’s Day duel at 8 p.m. in Houston. The game, which will be televised on ESPNU, will begin a two-month stretch of SWAC-on-SWAC action until the league's tournament begins in early March.
Ahead of Southern in second, Texas Southern was picked to repeat as SWAC champion by the leagues following a 16-2 SWAC run in 2016-17 and a third conference tournament victory in the past four seasons.
Then there was Southern, picked to finish one team short of the best in the SWAC.
To Southern, months later, that still stings. And the incoming loaded SWAC schedule against a leveled playing field has Southern brewing with belief.
“We feel really confident,” Southern sophomore guard Jamar Sandifer said. “Most of us feel insulted, because we feel like we should’ve been the No. 1. I mean, it’s not a bad place to start. We get to match up with the No. 1 team first game in conference play. We get to make our statement right there.”
Before league play, the non-conference slates of Southern and TSU have been nothing short of rocky. Texas Southern has lost 13 consecutive non-conference games, all on the road. The Tigers opened with losses to Gonzaga, Syracuse, Oregon and Baylor, to list a few, much like the Jaguars.
Southern (4-9) dropped all nine road non-conference contests, including losses to Duke, Illinois and Baylor, and won each of its four home games in Baton Rouge.
Has that prepared the Jaguars for the SWAC’s busy schedule?
You bet, they said.
“Yeah, most definitely,” Sandifer said. “Those games early on prepared us for the strength of the SWAC conference. It’s a lot of good teams, but it’s kind of over-prepared us, basically. So we get to step up there and play at a higher level than what everybody else has been playing at.”
In his maiden season, Jaguars coach Morris Scott said the beginning of his first season went somewhat like Southern expected: Compete with the goliaths and win the winnable ones.
There were some losses — even against those collegiate powerhouses (fourth-ranked Duke) — in which the Jaguars competed well. The final results don't make the losses less promising for a Southern bunch with seven first-year players and nine returnees from the 2016-17 season.
“We held our own; we showed we can belong,” he added.
“Going into the SWAC, I think we’re going to be pretty solid,” said first-year forward Sidney Umude, who joined the Jaguars as an above-the-rim athletic forward Dec. 13 after resolving eligibility prerequisites.
As for the rest of the SWAC, only Grambling (4-9) has collected a win on the road. Five of the league’s 10 teams remain winless as of Dec. 30 and have running losing streaks of 10-plus games.
To Scott, who entered his seventh season on Southern’s coaching staff this year, he’s been around the SWAC long enough to know this truth: throw out the nonconference results when conference play begins.
“Every game is a challenge, especially in the SWAC,” the coach said. “I’ve been in this league for a while … going on the road in this league is really tough. It’ll be real challenging for us, because we haven’t had success on the road yet. So it’ll be good to see how our guys react to SWAC. Hopefully, we capture some road wins.”