Two leagues to go! We wrap up our final week without college basketball with a preview of the SWAC. While much of the buzz about HBCU basketball centered around the MEAC and the high-profile additions made at Howard, the SWAC has more quietly added some impressive talents to its coffers for 2020-21. It should be tough, physical, and competitive league once again. Let’s dive into the rankings:
- Texas Southern – Johnny Jones has reloaded well in Houston, adding multiple key transfers to a group that was already slated to bring back several key rotation cogs. The headliner is Michael Weathers, who dealt with multiple off-the-court issues at Oklahoma State but was a legitimate Big 12-caliber player while there and once averaged 17 points and 5 assists per game at Miami-Ohio. This is a program that has often become a “Last Chance U” of sorts, and Weathers is the perfect type of gamble to make there. He has had turnover and shooting issues in his career, but has a chance to be special for the Tigers. Another pair of newcomers beef up the frontcourt: Galen Alexander is a physical 4-man who was in the rotation at Georgetown before departing at the semester break and has a chance to be an all-conference caliber guy, while Karl Nicholas should also be in the mix after being a solid rotation cog for Stephen F. Austin in 2018-19. Add those newcomers to a core that returns the likes of Yahuza Rasas, Justin Hopkins, and John Jones, and the Tigers seem well on their way to once again competing for a SWAC Championship.
- Prairie View A&M – It’s hard to understate how good a job Byron Smith has done getting Prairie View rolling, and he would likely have brought the Panthers to their second straight NCAA Tournament had things not been cancelled due to COVID-19. While PVAMU loses a lot of pieces from last year’s club, Smith has hit the transfer market hard to beef up this roster for 2020-21. The big looming question is whether talented PG Cam Mack is eligible. Like Weathers at TSU, Mack is a legitimate high-major player who was one of the lone bright spots for a bad Nebraska team last season. He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands and would fit well in Smith’s up-tempo, attacking system. Mack likely will compete for conference POY honors if eligible. Other newcomers include former top-100 recruit Eric Hester, who began his career at Florida before pit stops at Akron and JUCO, skilled combo guard Jeremiah Gambrell (Western Kentucky), and scoring PG Damari Parris (Eastern Michigan). Having depth at the guard position is a necessity for the style Smith wants to play, and he certainly has that on paper. Help up front from Detroit transfer Boe Nguidjol would be big as well.
- Southern – Sean Woods and his conference-best defense are a very legit third candidate to win the league after finishing the season on a 14-2 tear and bringing back a ton of key talent. Woods cycled through a ton of bodies last season, utilizing his team’s great depth to stay fresh on the defensive end. This ground gets potentially even deeper with the addition of multiple talented transfers in the frontcourt. The backcourt is experienced with the likes of Micah Bradford and Ahsante Shivers leading the way: while neither are great shooters, both are willing drivers with a nose for the bucket who a veteran presence few in this conference can match. There’s also plenty excitement about the future for gifted wing/forward Damiree “DJ” Burns, who isn’t a shooter but is great attacking the rim and on the glass. Meanwhile, Woods and staff beefed up the frontcourt with former elite JUCO recruit Andre Allen, who spent last season sitting out at Arizona State. Allen should be a major factor at the SWAC level and gives the Jags tons of upside. Another formerly-high-major piece in Harrison Henderson is also worth watching – he was disappointing down a level at Milwaukee but should be steady in the middle for Southern.
- Jackson State – Jackson State features the league’s leading returning scorer in Tristan Jarrett, a high-usage guard who isn’t great as a shooter but can really score the ball. Wayne Brent will most definitely build this offense around Jarrett once again, allowing him to create both for himself and others. His role might even grow given the graduation of Roland Griffin, who was a huge part of JSU’s success last season thanks to his versatility at the PF spot. Look for Brent’s club to play two traditional bigs more often this season, as high-level rim protector Jayveous McKinnis will remain at the five while EKU transfer Darius Hicks also seems likely to see the floor often. Hicks has been constantly injured throughout his career and not that productive when healthy, but his pedigree and size make him a worthwhile gamble at the SWAC level. A defense anchored by McKinnis should once again be among the league’s best, but does this team have enough firepower next to Jarrett to compete with the big dogs at the top of the conference?
- Grambling State – The Tigers lose a pair of double-figure scorers including starting PG Ivy Smith, but Donte Jackson has enough pieces here to remain competitive in 2020-21. Returns like Cam Christon, Prince Moss, and Kelton Edwards provide plenty of experience on the wing, and multipositional forwards Cameron Woodall and Reyhan Cobb join from the JUCO ranks to give this group even more versatility. But questions at PG and center cap the upside for me. Trevell Cunningham was very much a role player last season, and asking him to step up big at PG for Smith may be too much to ask. Unproven youngsters like Tra’Michael Moton and Dwayne Walker COULD give Jackson a ballhandling boost, but both are far from sure things. There are also questions at the 5 – it’s conceivable that Cobb could plug in at that spot, but a waiver for Brian Thomas (FGCU) would certainly help, particularly on the defensive end.
- Alabama A&M – The build continues for Dylan Howard at Alabama A&M after two rough seasons to begin his tenure, and that build gets even harder with the loss of Cameron Alford to transfer after leading the team in scoring a season ago. Howard has attempted to build this program with freshmen in a JUCO-heavy league, and that can make it take more time to get things rolling. He has a few building blocks in Garrett Hicks, Cameron Tucker, and EJ Williams, but holding those guys for four years and continuing to develop them will be critical to long-term success. Howard also adds a few more potential impact newcomers in Auburn transfer Myles Parker and freshmen Dailin Smith, London Riley, and Abba Lawal. The disrupted offseason without a doubt hurts this group given how important a developmental period the time between freshman and sophomore year is, but I do believe Howard will get it done here eventually.
- Alcorn State – Landon Bussie takes over at Alcorn, and we can expect that he’ll play a similar style to the one he ran as an assistant under Byron Smith at Prairie View. To do that, Bussie will need guards to can create shots and attack, and he hopes to have found that in a pair of transfers in Jacoby Ross (Alabama State) and Kurk Lee (Drexel). Lee is the ultimate wild card – once destined for stardom in the CAA, injuries have derailed his career, but when healthy he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands and fearless firing up shots from deep. JUCO product David Pierce from consistent NJCAA power Chipola is another guy who could bring some firepower in the backcourt, and I’d expect Bussie to play plenty of smaller lineups with Troymain Crosby at the 4 to get as many playmakers on the floor as possible. The frontcourt looks very thin though, with solid rebounder Kobe Wilson the lone proven big man in tow.
- Alabama State (Conference-only) – Former NBA guard Mo Williams takes over at ASU with little coaching experience but a name that will have some cache with recruits. But as Williams gets accustomed to being a head coach and gets a better sense of the guys he needs to recruit to win in the SWAC, it may take some time. And with no returners who averaged more than 6.8 ppg last season, Williams is essentially starting from scratch. I like the addition of former Wyoming wing/forward Trace Young, who spent last season next to an NBA player in Jay Scrubb at the JUCO level and is a high-level athlete who can shoot it at 6-8. Young could be this team’s best player from day one. Meanwhile, I’m excited to see what Williams can do with a returning point guard in DJ Heath, who should be a steadying force at the point guard position as one of the few veterans on this club.
- Arkansas Pine Bluff – The 353rd-ranked offense in the land in KenPom, Pine Bluff brings a lot back, but running it back from a team that was as bad as they were last season isn’t always a good thing. Getting back a healthy Shaun Doss certainly helps – a talented wing who can slash to the rim and hit outside shots. The Golden Lions also bring back a double-figure scorer in Markedric Bell, who isn’t the most efficient scorer but is active on both ends. But what UAPB really needs is help at the point guard spot – a pair of JUCO imports in Jalen Lynn and Joshuwan Johnson are the likely options. I like Johnson for that spot, a better passer and high-level shooter who could provide the type of spark this offense could really, really use.
- Mississippi Valley State – The Delta Devils pushed the pace into hyperdrive under former NBA coach Lindsey Hunter, but that pace didn’t lead to wins. MVSU lost 143-49 to Utah in Hunter’s second game and simply couldn’t stop ANYONE. The good news – Caleb Hunter returns in the backcourt after a terrific freshman season. For a young player to take care of the ball as well as Hunter did considering his usage is impressive and a very good sign for the future. Still, the rest of the roster is very unproven. I’m hopeful that Louisiana transfer Tirus Smith can give this team a big-time boost up front: a big, physical post player who could put up huge numbers in his grad transfer campaign.
All-Conference First Team:
- Michael Weathers (Texas Southern)
- Cam Mack (Prairie View)***
- Tristan Jarrett (Jackson State)
- Ahsante Shivers (Southern)
- Troymain Crosby (Alcorn State)
Player of the Year: Cam Mack (Prairie View) – Weathers is the choice here if Mack isn’t eligible, but both guys are simply too talented to wind up at this level normally. Mack will be put in a system that allows guards to thrive, and getting encouraged to push the pace and attack at all times will be the best thing for his game. Expect a huge season from him, assuming he gets that waiver.
Breakout Player: Garrett Hicks (Alabama A&M) – Hicks started 29 games as a freshman for the Bulldogs and will be thrust into an even bigger role as a sophomore following Alford’s departure. Hicks needs to continue to improve as a shooter and continue to make good decisions with a bigger role handling the ball in the offense, but he has a bright future and should continue his development during his sophomore campaign.
Newcomer of the Year: Cam Mack