Rabalais: NCAA pressure nothing next to struggles Southern has faced _lowres

Photo by JUAN DeLEON -- Southern coach Roman Banks celebrates after his team defeated Jackson State SWAC tournament championship game 12 in Houston.

Both Southern basketball teams saw their seasons come to disappointing ends in the past few days.

The men followed their Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship with an uneven performance in a 59-55 loss to fellow No. 16 seed Holy Cross in the First Four of the NCAA tournament Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.

One night later, the women, who had fallen one win short of an NCAA tournament appearance of their own, couldn’t get going offensively and lost at Arkansas State 68-45 in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

But the fact that both teams were automatic qualifiers for postseason play in the first season in three that they were eligible for such drove home the significance of being able to compete for championships.

The men’s victory in the SWAC tournament earned them the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

When the women — co-champions in the regular season with Alabama State and Texas Southern — reached the title game of the SWAC tournament against Alabama State, they were assured of a postseason berth. The winner of the title game would get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and the loser would get an automatic bid to the WNIT as the last remaining co-champion not to go to the NCAA tournament.

So as the college basketball postseason rolls on in their absence, it’s worth noting that both Jaguars teams earned a championship in their first season after the lifting of a two-year NCAA postseason ban that resulted from the university supplying the NCAA with “unusable data” relating to student-athletes’ Academic Progress Rates.

Both teams overcame late-season setbacks to claim their titles. The men bounced back from four losses in their last five regular-season games to win three straight in the SWAC tournament and reach the NCAA field for the first time in four years. The women bounced back from a potentially devastating loss at Alcorn State to win the last two games — including a showdown against Texas Southern — and grab their share of the regular-season title.

Both teams had competed at a very high level even during the probationary period. Both won SWAC regular-season titles two years ago and both played in the conference tournament title game in 2015, though both came up short.

“They have never stopped the fight despite what they have been facing,” said men’s coach Roman Banks, who assumed the additional duties of interim athletic director a few weeks before the ban was lifted last May.

He, like women’s coach Sandy Pugh, could appreciate the added edge their teams had because of the opportunity to be rewarded with postseason play if their proved worthy of it.

A year ago, the men lost in the final minute to Texas Southern 62-58 in the SWAC tournament title game. A week ago, they found away to hold on for a 54-53 victory against Jackson State in the title game.

“They showed me a little bit extra,” Banks said. “When you have something to play for you, can reach down and grab a little bit more,” Banks said.

He added that the program was “set back a couple of years” by a pair of key players transferring two years ago and several “‘A’ guys” spurning Southern in recruiting because of the postseason ban.

Pugh and her staff have been faced with the same challenge in recruiting.

The basketball signing period begins in less than a month, and both Southern coaching staffs have stronger sales pitches than they’ve had the past two years.

But the Jaguars aren’t out of the APR woods just yet. Banks said they “need to remain steady over the next 12-15 months, and I think we’ll be OK.”

In other words, the university needs to respond to the opportunity to remain postseason eligible the way its basketball teams responded to becoming postseason eligible.

Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.