As soon as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket was revealed Sunday night, Southern and Holy Cross scrambled to learn as much as they could about each other.
With their First Four match-up in Dayton, Ohio, looming Wednesday night, they had no time to waste in developing scouting reports on each other.
Right away, the Jaguars learned that their fellow No. 16 seed Crusaders were similar to them in that both salvaged disappointing regular seasons by making impressive runs to their conference tournament championships.
Their respective disappointment in their regular seasons was relative though. Holy Cross (14-19) was 5-13 in the Patriot League and seemed headed for an ignominious first season under former Princeton and Northwestern coach Bill Carmody.
The Jaguars (22-12), on the other hand, had a few satisfying nonconference wins and reeled off eight consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference wins. But the disappointment came when they faded down the stretch and sank to a fourth-place finish.
The ninth-seeded Crusaders were one of the first teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament when they upset second-seeded Lehigh to win the Patriot League title last Wednesday.
That was 24 hours before Southern even began play in the SWAC tournament. When the Jaguars did get started, no one could stop them as they dispatched the No. 5 seed (Alabama State), the No. 1 seed (Texas Southern) and the No. 3 seed (Jackson State).
Then came Sunday’s bracket announcement, and both teams were thrust into the 72-hour period to get ready.
Though committed to making the most of the time leading up to his team’s first NCAA tournament appearance in four years, Jaguars coach Roman Banks said the heavy lifting already had been done.
“We’ve put in 100-plus practices,” Banks said. “We’ve played (32) basketball games. You go in depending on your system. We have our way of attacking, we have the Southern University style of defense, and we have our way of scoring on offense. We’re going to play our system rather than play their system.”
That approach served Banks and the Jaguars well in their only previous NCAA tournament game in Banks’ five-year tenure, even though it didn’t result in a victory. It was the 2013 tournament, and Southern was seeded 16th and paired with No. 1 national seed Gonzaga.
The Jaguars threw quite a scare into the Zags as well as countless bracketeers around the country as they flirted with the first victory by a 16 seed against a top seed before falling 63-58.
Senior point guard Christopher Hyder was a freshman on that team, and he’s the only member of this team with first-hand knowledge of playing in the NCAA tournament.
“I learned that you have to be who you are,” Hyder said.
Southern enters the tournament with a strengthened belief in who it is. After losing four of their last five regular-season games, which included the first three-game losing streak against SWAC teams under Banks, the Jaguars regained their identity going into the SWAC tournament and never lost it.
Banks’ teams have always been noted for their tough-minded, physically aggressive, get-in-your face defense. They’ve always liked to push the pace when that defense and their defensive rebounding have placed them in an advantageous position to do so.
But for much of the season, especially in the late-season slide, Southern was inconsistent on defense and generally ineffective rebounding the ball. That limited the Jaguars opportunities for fast-break baskets. Having to conduct an inordinate number of possessions against teams’ set defenses, especially without a consistent low-post scoring threat, hamstrung the offense.
Then came the SWAC tournament, and Southern smothered its opponents defensively, came out on the plus-side in rebounding, rediscovered its fast break and got just enough scoring from the low post to make opponents play straight-up defense.
That created seams for Hyder and tournament MVP Trelun Banks to penetrate, which in turn led to better perimeter looks for Banks, Adrian Rodgers and Shawn Prudhomme.
The result was the re-emergence of a complete ballclub, one that had sent a message earlier in the season that it had NCAA tournament potential when it beat Mississippi State in Starkville, Mississippi, and added other nonconference wins against Tulane, Southeastern Louisiana and Wyoming, then reiterated that message with the eight-game winning streak from mid-January to early February.
“We had some good nonconference wins, and we had an eight-game streak,” Rodgers said. “But you want to be playing your best basketball now, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”