(UPI/SportsNetwork.com) - The Southern Jaguars will begin their quest for a second straight Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament title, but the rest of the 10-team field will certainly have something to say about that as the 37th annual event kicks off at the Toyota Center on Tuesday, March 11.
Even if Southern, the No. 1 seed after securing the regular-season title, is able to navigate its way to the tournament crown, it will not earn the SWAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Jaguars along with Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, are all ineligible for play in the NCAA Tournament. However, unlike in past years, all four will compete in the conference tournament after a revision to the SWAC's eligibility policy was made earlier in the month.
If one of the four teams that is ineligible for the Big Dance wins this tournament, the automatic bid would go to the eligible team that advances the furthest. As if that were not confusing enough, if more than one eligible team advances the furthest and are eliminated in the same round, in essence a tie, the highest-seed would take the automatic bid.
Two of the ineligible teams could be kicked out in the first round as 10th- seeded Grambling State faces seventh-seeded Jackson State, and eighth-seeded MVSU takes on ninth-seeded Prairie View A&M on the first day of the event. The rest of the teams in the tournament will receive byes to the quarterfinal round.
Grambling State isn't likely to be worried it cannot compete in the NCAA Tournament, as there is very little chance the Tigers will win the four games needed to take the SWAC title.
After all, they won only four of their 27 games all season, while finishing dead last in the SWAC. History is not on their side, as they are the only team in the SWAC never to have won the conference crown. Antwan Scott (15.9 ppg) and A'Torri Shine will do all they can to push the Tigers forward, but that has been a losing battle they have fought all season.
Jackson State did not impress this season either, but the team finished finished 11-19 overall and 7-11 against the rest of the SWAC.
Two of those seven league wins came against Grambling State with Jackson Sate taking a 76-59 win on Jan. 25 and a 79-59 triumph on Feb. 17.
Unlike Grambling State, Jackson State has had success in this event over the years, winning it five times with the last title coming in 2007. However, the Tigers have not been as competitive of late, with a losing record in each of the last three seasons.
This is the first season under head coach Wayne Brent, which is led on the court by Julysses Nobles and Brandon West.
Whichever team comes out of the matchup between Jackson State and Grambling will clash with second-seed Texas Southern.
TSU is one of the hottest teams in the conference coming into the postseason. It won each of its last six games of the regular season, including a 67-64 triumph over top-seeded Southern in the finale. The success at the end of the campaign helped the Tigers to a 12-6 league ledger.
Two more wins would push them over their total from a year ago, when they went 17-14. Additionally, a run through the entire tournament would give them their fifth title and first since 2003.
If the team is going to accomplish those goals, the Tigers will need Aaric Murray (21.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.4 bpg) to keep up his dominant play in the paint and to maintain the pace on offense, after leading the SWAC in scoring (76.2 ppg), field goal percentage (.460) and assists (14.2 apg) this season.
In the second game of the first round, MVSU and Prairie View A&M will collide.
The Delta Devils won the SWAC Tournament in 2012 and have earned five trophies during their time in the conference. Getting back to the title is unlikely as they are just 9-22 overall, including a 5-13 mark against the rest of the league.
Their play down the home stretch hurt their seeding, as they finished the season with losses in eight of their last nine games. The nine wins they captured this season were an improvement from the five-win campaign of a year ago, though, in their first season under Chico Potts. Defense has been a real struggle for MVSU this season, as it allows 80.7 ppg on 49.8 percent field goal efficiency.
Prairie View A&M also closed out the regular season in miserable fashion, suffering setbacks in seven straight games, culminating in a 64-62 heartbreaker versus Alcorn State in the finale.
The Panthers still got a higher seed than the Delta Devils with a 6-12 conference record, but their mark in overall play was a game back of their first-round opponent (8-22), who they were swept by during the regular season. If the Panthers are unable to advance to the semifinals it would end a five-year streak of at least 10 wins for the team, which has just one SWAC title to its credit, earning that all the way back in 1998. Like MVSU, PVAMU has been a poor defensive group, letting up 79.6 ppg on 47.7 percent shooting. Montrael Scott (15.3 ppg) has been a steady performer at the other end.
Awaiting the victor of the second matchup in the first round is No. 1 seed Southern. It is rather unfortunate that the Jaguars could not remain eligible this season, as they are without a doubt the class of the SWAC. They have the best overall record (19-12) among league teams and easily earned the regular- season title with a record of 15-3 in conference action. When they won the conference tournament last year they broke a tie with Alcorn State for the most among current conference members (eight). Just like last year's team, which nearly toppled No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, defense has been the key. The Jaguars are second in the country in opponent field goal percentage (.370), while limiting foes to 62.6 ppg. Calvin Godfrey (13.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Malcolm Miller (12.6 ppg) head up their more modest offensive effort.
The other two quarterfinal-round matchups are already set, and the four teams in those contests will be in action on Thursday when third-seeded Alabama State takes on sixth-seeded Alcorn State, and No. 4 seed Arkansas-Pine Bluff battles fifth-seeded Alabama A&M.
Alcorn State is the most decorated team in the conference, outside of Southern, with seven league titles to its credit. However, the Braves have not won one it all since 2002 and have only been in the title bout once since then.
They finished 12-18 overall this season, with losses in three of their last five games, although they did defeat Prairie View A&M 64-62 in the season finale. Even though 12 wins is nothing to celebrate, it is the best win total for the Braves in more than a decade. LeAntwan Luckett (16.2 ppg) runs the show for the team as the second-leading scorer in the SWAC. Octavius Brown (13.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is also a strong performer.
On the other side is an Alabama State squad that tied Texas Southern for second place in the conference (12-6), but lost the tie-breaker.
The Hornets still had a season to be proud of, finishing with three straight wins and an 18-11 overall record. However, their last three victories came by a combined nine points against PVAMU, Grambling State and Jackson State, three of the lowest seeds in the tournament.
Alabama State had close games in both meetings with Alcorn State as well, sweeping the season series with winning scores of 92-86 and 58-54. Jamel Waters is the player to watch for the Hornets, as he is netting 14.2 ppg to lead the second-best scoring team in the SWAC (72.1 ppg), which is gunning for its fifth league title.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff is the fourth and final team that is not actually eligible to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Lions finished at 13-17 overall, but that mark doesn't tell the story of how they fared in league play.
Thanks to a fantastic final month, during which they went 9-2, the Golden Lions rolled to the fourth seed with a record of 11-7 in league play. They'll hope to carry that momentum into this event to capture their second-ever conference title, even if it doesn't come attached to a NCAA Tournament bid. Marcel Mosley (13.6 ppg) and Tevin Hammond (13.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) pace the squad, which had such success despite ranking last in the league in scoring (63.6 ppg).
Two of the Golden Lions' 11 conference wins came against Alabama A&M, which they beat 72-64 on the road, and 64-61 at home.
The Bulldogs fought even more often than not in the rest of their league clashes, finishing at 10-8, with a middling 13-15 overall record. They did pick up wins in three of their last four games, but against lower seeds PVAMU, Jackson State and Grambling State.
Alabama A&M is also seeking a second conference tournament title, with its only other one coming in 2005. Like the Hornets, the Bulldogs don't light up the scoreboard (65 ppg), with Jeremy Crutcher (12.4 ppg, 4 apg) as the only player on the roster averaging in double figures.