Across town, the basketball season brought mostly frustration.
At Southern, they’ve known frustration. In all sports. Someone at the school could do a master’s thesis on it. But this season, the story has been one of redemption, not only for its basketball teams, but an entire athletic program.
The Southern men are in the NCAA tournament Wednesday, taking on Holy Cross in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio. And no, this is not a “play in” game. This is the actual, bona fide NCAA tournament. Just ask VCU, which five years ago marched from Dayton all the way to the Final Four.
The Southern women are on the road as well: Having reached their SWAC tournament final, they were guaranteed a game in the WNIT, their first postseason trip since 2011. They play Thursday at Arkansas State.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves as far as the Jaguars’ men go. If they beat Holy Cross they get to hop a red-eye to Spokane, Washington, for a first-round game Friday (we now have First Four and first round again; there will be a quiz later) against Oregon, the No. 1 seed in the West.
There’s a bit of geographic symmetry with Southern’s potential path. In 2013, the Jaguars took Spokane’s hometown team, No. 1-seeded Gonzaga, to the wire before falling stubbornly 64-58. The Zags were dispatched in their next game by Wichita State on its way to the Final Four.
The Jaguars were cast into the abyss.
The Southern men won the SWAC regular-season title two years ago but couldn’t go anywhere. They, like the rest of Southern’s athletic teams, were barred from NCAA play by the school’s embarrassingly chronic Academic Progress Rate issues.
So for two years, Southern teams played in a self-generated limbo. The Jaguars made it all the way to the SWAC tournament final last year, knowing all the while that even if they won the tournament, the NCAA automatic bid would go to someone else.
Going into this year’s SWAC tournament, Southern looked like it didn’t have much to worry about. The Jaguars limped into the postseason as the SWAC’s No. 4 seed having just been manhandled at home by a then-six-win Prairie View team, Southern’s fourth defeat in its last five regular-season games.
But once in Houston, Southern found a passing gear. The Jaguars thundered past Alabama State 83-63. They took down top-seeded Texas Southern in its hometown 81-73 after building then squandering then recovering enough of a 24-point lead to hold on. Then they went into complete survivor mode, clawing out a 54-53 victory over Jackson State as the Tigers’ last-second shot rolled off the rim.
“I think it speaks volumes,” Southern coach Roman Banks said of his team’s tournament run. “These guys seized the moment. Our program through its struggles has always been pretty good. They have never stopped the fight despite what they have been facing. In the championship game in this tournament, they showed me a little bit extra. When you have something to play for, you can reach down and grab a little bit more. I think that was the difference. They wanted it, they knew they had a chance and didn’t let it go.”
Holy Cross got on its own roll, winning four games in the Patriot League tournament despite entering the tourney with a 10-19 record.
Southern (22-12) is favored, but Banks is wary of the Crusaders, their pressing style offense and 1-3-1 matchup zone.
“This is definitely a team you want to prepare for,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of time, so we have to trust what we’ve been working on.”
Between games and practices Banks, who has been serving as Southern’s interim athletic director, has shepherded the department through the NCAA approval process. He’s done an amazing job at both but knows there is much work to be done.
“There are still some things we have to take care of over the next 12-15 months,” Banks said. “We’re not out of harm’s way yet. There are still some things we have to evaluate going into this August. We still have an infractions case pending. The NCAA is working with us on that. They like our involvement and how we’re responding. We’re not reactive but proactive. We just need to remain steady over the next 12-15 months, and I think we’ll be OK.”
After all the program has been through, the pressure of advancing in the NCAA tournament doesn’t look quite so daunting.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.