Before the Southern men’s basketball team opened Southwestern Athletic Conference play against Texas Southern, coach Roman Banks warned that the visiting Tigers were much better than the 1-12 record they carried out of nonconference play.
Nearly two months later, TSU requires no such disclaimer.
The Tigers (15-14, 14-2) have won 14 of 15 since losing at Southern (20-8, 14-2) in the SWAC opener and enter Thursday night’s showdown at H&PE Arena in a tie with the Jaguars atop the league standings.
“You’re talking about a team that has guys with a lot of experience, guys that have been playing awhile,” Banks said. “The program has been pretty good the last four or five years. The last coach did a good job, and they hired another guy — a veteran coach — with the idea of trying to take advantage of the talent they had coming back.”
Mike Davis, best known for leading Indiana to the 2002 national championship game, has a chance to win the SWAC’s regular season in his first season as TSU’s coach.
Third-place Arkansas-Pine Bluff (15-14, 14-3) remains alive for the title as well, but the Southern-TSU winner can do no worse than share the honor. UAPB finishes the regular season at Mississippi Valley State on Thursday.
Neither UAPB nor TSU is eligible for the SWAC tournament, the Golden Lions because of APR penalties and the Tigers because their NCAA probation includes a 2013 postseason ban.
Southern, which raced to an 8-0 start in league play, has long since locked up the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. But the Jaguars can wrap up one of the program’s best regular seasons by beating TSU and Prairie View over the next three days.
It will have to happen on the road, where Southern has tasted its only two conference defeats.
TSU is 7-0 at home in SWAC play.
“This time of the season, I think the challenge is even better for us to come here and have to play them on the road,” Banks said. “It tests our character. It shows us where we are as a basketball program.”
How much Jameel Grace has to give could be a key as Southern chases its fifth straight win.
Grace, who missed part of January with a sprained shoulder, did not practice with the Jaguars this week after suffering a thigh injury in Saturday night’s 61-48 victory over Alcorn State. The senior point guard is expected to play Thursday but could be limited.
Returning to a building where the Jaguars lost by 34 points last year, Southern will face a TSU team that hasn’t lost since Jan. 19 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Senior guard Omar Strong and junior guard Raymond Penn give the Tigers a dynamic tandem in the backcourt.
Strong had gone 60 straight games with at least one 3-pointer before going 0-for-9 from downtown in Monday’s 70-50 victory at Alabama State. He averages 16.3 points to rank second in the SWAC and leads the league in free-throw percentage (84.1 percent) and minutes played.
Penn averages 12.3 points and leads the SWAC in assists at 5.6 per game.
On the inside, senior forward Fred Sturdivant, averaging 10.8 points, leads the SWAC with 88 blocks and ranks second in the league in rebounds at 8.3 per game. He had 22 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against Alcorn, his third double-double in four games and his 11th overall.
“It puts us in a unique situation,” Banks said, “because it’s not often you play a team with so many guys that are capable. It’s going to be a challenge for us to figure this thing out.”
In the first game, TSU led Southern much of the way Jan. 2 before Southern rallied for a 63-57 win. The lead changed hands five times in the final 10 minutes.