By Kevin Sweeney
I always find it interesting to study conference trends year over year. For instance, the Missouri Valley always plays slow, the Big Ten has been known for playing two bigs, and the Big East in recent years has been quicker than others to adopt pace and space on offense. The SWAC’s main trend? turnovers and fouls. Teams in the SWAC get to the line at a higher rate than any other league, but they also turn it over more than any other. Teams get out and run, they press, and play a lot of guys– making the games fun to watch even if we know the champion is headed for Dayton come March.
#1. Prairie View A&M– To me, this feels like the safe choice. Will it be difficult to replace talented scoring guard Gary Blackston? Without a doubt. Still, Byron Smith’s team brings back three starters from a team that went 17-1 in SWAC play and plays a style that is perfect to win games at the SWAC level. The Panthers sell out to force turnovers and get to the free throw line in bunches, but what set them apart a season ago was their ability to take care of the ball. To continue that, they’ll need JUCO point guard Dajuan Madden to perform from day one– he averaged 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game at Coastal Bend. Also worth watching is Odessa College import Jawaun Daniels, a physical combo forward who should cause some matchup problems in the SWAC.
#2. Texas Southern– The nature of Texas Southern’s transfer-heavy approach makes it incredibly difficult to tabulate just who is on the team and eligible to play this season. Despite it being announced earlier this summer that former Oklahoma State guard Michael Weathers had committed to TSU, he does not appear on the roster, so we can assume that is no longer happening. What is clear: the Tigers have a very deep and talented frontcourt, with Eden Ewing earning a waiver for one final year of elibility to pair with transfer market adds Chris Baldwin (UMass) and Jethro Tshisumpa to form a unit that should maul SWAC clubs on the inside. Athletic combo forward John Walker (Texas A&M) should also factor into the frontcourt mix after receiving a waiver to play right away.
#3. Jackson State– Jackson State grabbed a potential player-of-the-year in Roland Griffin, yet no one noticed until someone decided to actually check the JSU roster one day. Griffin departed Iona before last season after an altercation with an assistant coach, but was tracking to be one of the best players in the MAAC. After getting another chance, he should star: Griffin is a highly skilled forward who can defend multiple positions and finish around the rim. He’ll pair nicely with high-upside sophomore forward Jayveous McKinnis and talented scoring guard Venjie Wallis to form a high-powered trio that should allow the Tigers to contend for a conference title.
#4. Grambling State– So much of mid-major basketball is point guard play, and Grambling has a good one in Ivy Smith. Turnovers were a problem at times a season ago, but Smith is perhaps the best floor general in the conference– a guy confident both scoring and distributing who can act as an extension of head coach Donte Jackson while on the floor. JUCO import Kelton Edwards can light it up on the wing, and Johnson is an excellent defensive coach despite his teams playing fast.
#5. Alabama State– It’s difficult to win when your three highest-usage offensive players all shoot under 40% from the field, but ASU still found a way to win nine conference games a season ago despite their offensive woes. Why? They were able to force turnovers at a high rate while mostly taking care of the ball. Jacoby Ross and Leon Daniels have to be more efficient for this team to become a title contender, but that ball control edge should continue with the additions of Decardo Day (Florida Gulf Coast) and DJ Heath (Shelton State CC). Day and Heath’s presence allows Lewis Jackson to play multiple point guards on the floor at a time.
#6. Southern– Two years ago, Ahsante Shivers was labeled by many (including myself) as one of the biggest breakout stars in the MAAC as he entered his sophomore season at Siena. After a rough season and a late departure following the hiring of Jamion Christian at Siena, Shivers is out to resurrect his career at Southern. A jumbo wing who should be able to use his size and physicality to get buckets in the SWAC, Shivers can pair with fellow Mount Zion Prep product Jayden Saddler for a bruising but talented backcourt, and Valpo transfer Micah Bradford could bring some major athleticism on both ends if eligible.
#7. Alcorn State– So many teams in the SWAC win on turnover margin– it’s a generally fast-paced, frenetic league in which teams use their athleticism to win. Alcorn State lost on turnover margin last season, ranking last in conference play in both offensive and defensive turnover rate. Losing the possession battle that drastically makes it difficult if not impossible to win, and fixing that has to be Montez Robinson’s primary focus heading into 2019-20. Finding a true point guard would be a start: Maurice Howard is a high-level shooter, but he’s not a distributor, and a 1:1 A/TO rate just doesn’t cut it at the point guard position.
#8. Arkansas-Pine Bluff– Martaveous McKnight was this team’s everything for the past two seasons, a 1,300-point scorer in just two years at UAPB. Replacing him will be next to impossible, though junior Shaun Doss showed promise as a future alpha a season ago. A massive crop of JUCO products joins Doss to put together a roster with a lot of unknown parts. If a few come together, it’s certainly not out of the picture that George Ivory’s group finds a way to creep up the standings.
#9. Alabama A&M– In a league where JUCO transfers are often the primary recruiting option, AAMU has an incredibly young roster with seven true freshmen on the roster. That makes this class especially important for Dylan Howard’s future– hit a few stars and he’s set. Grad transfer TJ Parham (Green Bay) should help add some experience and scoring pop on the wing.
#10. Mississippi Valley State– Hiring Lindsey Hunter, a guy with NBA experience and HBCU ties, made all the sense in the world for a program like MVSU. His name and pedigree should bring some credibility on the recruiting trail in the long-term. That said, this roster is in very rough shape for year one– it’s never good when a team that won just six games a season ago loses its four best players.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ivy Smith (Grambling State)
- Roland Griffin (Jackson State)
- Eden Ewing (Texas Southern)
- Devonte Patterson (Prairie View)
- Jayveous McKinnis (Jackson State)
Player of the Year: Roland Griffin (Jackson State)
There’s no clear-cut choice here, so I’ll roll with Griffin. If he can regain his form from his time at Iona, the well-traveled combo forward is without a doubt good enough to win an award like this. After scoring in double figures just once in his first ten games in New Rochelle, Griffin poured it on down the stretch, headlined by a 29 point, 8 rebound, 4 block performance in the 2018 MAAC title game. He’s a versatile defender and a terror around the rim. Good on Wayne Brent for taking another chance on Griffin, and I think he’ll be rewarded.
Breakout Player: John Jones (Texas Southern)
Jones was mostly just a shooter a season ago as a supporting piece for his father’s club. This season, TSU needs more from Jones with a backcourt that graduates a lot of talent from a season ago. He had a terrific stretch in the month of January in which he averaged over 13 points per game for nine games, but struggled to find consistency. A big year would do wonders for Texas Southern’s title hopes.
Newcomer of the Year: Roland Griffin