Men's Basketball

Southern coach Roman Banks

The Southwestern Athletic Conference won the first NCAA tournament game it ever played in.

In 1980, back when the Big Dance wasn’t quite as big, No. 8 seed Alcorn State defeated No. 9 South Alabama 70-62 before losing to Dale Brown’s LSU Tigers in the next round.

The Braves won three tournament games in five years in what is undoubtably the most successful postseason run for a SWAC program.

A few years later, Southern became the first team to win a game in the round of 62 when the No. 13 Jaguars toppled Georgia Tech in one of the biggest moments in program history.

Since then, the SWAC won one NCAA tournament game: a play-in contest between Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop in 2010.

In 23 years, no SWAC team climbed higher than a No. 15 seed, with nine teams competing in play-in games since the NCAA instituted the round in 2001.

It’s unlikely you’ll see a SWAC team in the top 25 anytime soon. The league simply isn’t built for it. The SWAC finished in the bottom three of conference RPI for men’s basketball every year since 1996.

That doesn’t mean SWAC schools don’t score the occasional upset over a struggling high-major team or a decent mid-major during the regular season — Southern beat Mississippi State last season, and Texas Southern defeated La Salle in November.

But the reality is that numbers like a 3-62 record against teams with a top-200 RPI this season are more of the norm for the league. Playing basketball in the SWAC is a fight for relevancy — and the SWAC isn’t winning.

“Do I think this conference is going to have to change some things going forward? Yes,” Southern coach/interim athletic director Roman Banks said. “We’re considered a low-resource institution, and they have some provisions that allow us to do some things as a low-resource institution, but the NCAA is growing by leaps and bounds every day and putting demands on the university. If the Southwestern Athletic Conference is going to remain relevant, then overall, the universities are going to have to find their way financially to exist in Division I.”

The SWAC is one of the least profitable conferences in the country. According to USA Today, the SWAC had two teams make money, three teams break even and five programs lose money in the 2014-15 school year. Combined, conference teams lost $2,486,215.

Alabama A&M had the most net profit at $215,507, while Grambling lost the most at $2,044,323. Alabama State had the highest gross revenue at $14,597,561, the 162nd most in the country. Southern was a close second at 180th with $12,914,360 in gross revenue, but its net total was a loss of $519,168.

The ultimate result: Teams are forced to play guarantee paycheck games.

This year, Southern traveled to Georgia Tech, Baylor and Nebraska. One of the lucky teams, Southern played five nonconference games at home.

Texas Southern, the coaches’ preseason pick to win the conference, played the ninth toughest nonconference schedule in the country and has yet to play at home. By the time the Tigers (4-9) host Grambling on Jan. 14, they’ll play 16 consecutive games on the road.

On the rare occasion a SWAC team gets a home game, it’s usually against a Division II or NAIA team.

SWAC teams played a combined 124 nonconference games this season and barely cracked a 20 percent win total. When conference play starts Monday, not one of the league’s 10 teams will have a winning record.

Even if a SWAC champion goes undefeated in conference play, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be viewed as more than a “good, for the SWAC” kind of team.

“(Texas Southern) plays 13 road games to start the season, and I just think that distorts the experience for the college athlete to never play in front of his or her fans,” said Mike DeCourcy, college basketball columnist for Sporting News. “I also think (home games) help to establish confidence. Any time you go on the road, you’re at a disadvantage from the beginning. If you do that 13 consecutive times, that’s a lot of disadvantage to keep on an athlete.”

Banks wants the SWAC to evaluate its strategy. Right now, some of the league’s top programs are pigeonholed into less-than-optimal deals in service of the league. For instance, the SWAC currently has a deal with Russell Athletic for an exclusive sponsorship of all team apparel and equipment. It’s great for smaller schools that might not get a deal of their own.

But Banks believes bigger programs, like Southern, could find better deals independently, allowing them to play more games at home with less focus on money.

“If certain companies want to go after certain schools and build a better relationship because of marketing and the likeness of that team wearing that gear and their fans and alumni, then give them that opportunity and don’t penalize for that opportunity,” Banks said. “I understand from a conference perspective, but then when you look at it from an administrative perspective, then you’ll want your own deal, your own independence.”

Banks suggested teams that cannot meet the financial responsibilities of Division I might consider dropping to Division II — or other programs may begin to look for options outside the SWAC.

Banks also said he would never consider dropping Southern out of Division I, and it’s hard to imagine leaving the SWAC given its rivalries — particularly the Bayou Classic in football — but conversations on how the SWAC will remain relevant on a national scale should take place at some point, or Southern may begin to consider its options.

“I do think most universities are stepping up and, if universities step up, the conference may be relevant,” he said. “But if we can’t all keep stepping up, then what do you do? I think each institution has to evaluate themselves and see what’s best for them.”

For now, the SWAC must compete with what it has.

Conference basketball play begins Monday and, as the defending tournament champion, Southern is fighting for its SWAC-best 10th trip to the NCAA tournament.

Despite the struggles of nonconference play, Banks still believes his Jaguars can put out a solid product — even if the rest of the country doesn’t notice.

“We’ve got some really good players in our league,” he said. “I don’t think that it gets the attention, because it’s still the same thing. A coach comes in (to conference play) 2-10 because of what they have to go through. When you break it down, we’ve got some pretty good teams in our league.”

The SWAC's top three teams

Texas Southern

TSU is the favorite to take the SWAC title and has the highest RPI in the conference at 56. The next closest team is Prairie View A&M at 255.

Southern

The defending SWAC tournament champion, Southern has the experience and talent to compete for a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament. The big three of Tre’lun Banks, Shawn Prudhomme and Jared Sam will produce points in conference play.

Jackson State

JSU won’t get the attention the other two on this list get, but guard Paris Collins and forward Chace Franklin were the only teammates to make preseason first-team all-SWAC.

The SWAC's top three players

Derrick Griffin, Texas Southern

Griffin was the best player in the conference last season, and there’s no reason to assume he won’t be one of the best this season. As a freshman, the TSU center broke the SWAC single-season record for consecutive double-doubles, with 12.

Shawn Prudhomme, Southern

Prudhomme didn’t start last season, and that’s looking like a mistake. In his first year as a starter, Prudhomme leads the league with 221 points.

Paris Collins, Jackson State

Collins and Griffin are the only 2015-16 all-conference picks to make the jump to the 2016-17 preseason list. Collins averages 13.4 points and 2.9 assists.


Follow Mike Gegenheimer on Twitter, @Mike_Gegs.