The Southern men’s basketball team will spend the next three days in the Houston area finalizing their position for a return trip next week.
The Jaguars visit Prairie View on Thursday night and Texas Southern on Saturday to conclude the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular season. When the trip is over, the seedings will be set for the SWAC tournament, which begins Tuesday in Houston.
Southern (16-9, 12-4 SWAC) is tied with Alabama State for second place, two games behind Texas Southern. The Panthers (13-16, 11-5) can tie the Jaguars by beating them Thursday.
“We want to finish strong and try to get these two wins and help our seed,” guard Christopher Hyder said. “We also want to try to get some confidence going into the conference tournament and try to win it.”
Prairie View, which lost at Southern 68-56 in the conference opener Jan. 3, has won seven consecutive games. The Jaguars have won four of their past five, including a 71-63 victory against Alcorn State in the home finale Saturday.
“We’ve grown as a team,” Hyder said. “A lot of people have gotten better. The post is giving us more. Overall as a team, we’ve gotten better.”
Southern may play its third consecutive game without starting forward Jared Sam, who has a sprained ankle. Coach Roman Banks has started Joell Hopkins in Sam’s place the past two games. It’s a possibility Sam could play, Banks said.
Those were Hopkins’ only starts since a 54-43 loss to Eastern Illinois on Nov. 29 in the Emerald Coast Classic. He has responded with averages of 9.5 points and four rebounds in 24.5 minutes in the two starts. He has made seven of 12 shots.
“I just keep trying to bring energy to whatever role I have,” Hopkins said. “I know I can do that whether I’m starting or coming off the bench.”
At 6-foot-7, Hopkins is two inches shorter than Sam and more of a small forward than a power forward.
“I just try to use my God-given gifts to play bigger than I am,” Hopkins said. “Working hard makes up for my lack of height, girth and weight.”
Guard Tre Lynch came off the bench to have game-highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds against Alcorn. He took advantage of the added attention defenses have been paying to leading scorer Adrian Rodgers, who had eight points and took just four shots against Alcorn.
“We look for Tre to be more consistent,” Banks said. “We want him to be like that every night.”
Regardless of what happens during the two trips to the Houston area, the Jaguars know that’s where their season will end. Even if they were to win the SWAC tournament, the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament would go to the runner-up because Southern is banned from NCAA postseason play.
“Even though we can’t go to the NCAA tournament,” Lynch said, “there are still games and a tournament that we can win.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.