Team preview: Southern

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

We've all heard the old saw, "If you can't beat them, join them.''

Southern University put a little different twist on that in May when it went after its new men's basketball coach: "If you can't beat him, then hire him.''

The "him" in question is former Alabama State coach Rob Spivery, who guided the most successful program in the Southwestern Athletic Conference the last five seasons. He led the Hornets to the SWAC Tournament championship game four of the last five seasons, winning it twice and advancing to the NCAA Tournament twice. And they are the only team in the SWAC that has won 10 or more league games five straight seasons.

In addition, Spivery's Alabama State teams went 11-2 against Southern in the last five seasons, knocking the Jaguars out of the SWAC Tournament the last two.

Little wonder Southern chancellor Dr. Edward Jackson put the full-court press on Spivery. And he got his man.

"He was the only candidate on my list,'' Jackson said.

Spivery's hiring surprised many around the league, but it was no more surprising than the job being open to begin with.

Southern, under former coach Michael Grant, had its best finish (14-15) since the 1999-2000 season and reached the SWAC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2001.

And Grant, who went 26-31 in his first two seasons after inheriting a program that had back-to-back 20-loss seasons for the first time in school history, had a year left on a three-year contract. But he riled school officials while interviewing for the job at Youngstown State and was fired shortly thereafter.

Not only did he not get the Youngstown State job, he lost his job at Southern. He was temporarily appointed assistant athletic director until his termination on May 15.

In stepped Spivery, Southern's fourth coach in the last six years. He inherits a program that has had five straight losing seasons. The situation is similar to the one he walked in to at Alabama State, where after a few rebuilding seasons he was able to turn that program around. The folks in Baton Rouge are banking on Spivery to do the same thing at his new location and return the Jaguars back to the glory days of Ben Jobe's first tenure.

"It was a tough decision for me to leave Alabama State after being there for nine years,'' Spivery said. "But I was looking for another challenge. We met the challenge before at Alabama State, so hopefully we can do the same thing here at Southern. I'm looking forward to it.''

If Spivery is able to right the ship at Southern as he did at Alabama State, it's highly likely he'll do so by having his team get after it on the defensive end of the floor. His teams at Alabama State thrived on the defensive end. That was the case again last season as the Hornets led the SWAC in scoring defense (61.3 ppg).

While Alabama State's game weren't always pretty—the Hornets averaged only 58 points a year ago—Spivery's methodical, sometime boring system produced Ws. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"Defensively, we will be the same,'' Spivery said. "Offensively, I'd like to see us create a little bit more in the open court, get some easy baskets off turnovers. If the fast break isn't there, then you'll see us pull the ball back out and work for a high percentage shot.''

The good news for Spivery is that's he's got a couple of big men to work his halfcourt offense through. Peter Cipriano, a 6-9 senior forward/center, averaged 10.0 points and 9.2 rebounds last season.

It was widely thought last season would be Cipriano's last. But the first-team All-SWAC selection will have another year of eligibility thanks to a new NCAA rule concerning non-qualifiers.

The rule, enacted in April, allows athletes to be eligible for a fourth year of eligibility if they have 80 percent of his coursework completed through four years. Previously, non-qualifiers had to graduate with their class in four years in order to get another year of eligibility.

Cipriano had considered moving to a Division II school in order to have a fourth season of eligibility.

"Obviously, we're glad to have him back,'' Spivery said. "I'm very pleased we'll get a chance to coach him.''

Jerrid Campbell also returns along the frontline. The 6-8 senior forward averaged only 1.4 points and 1.8 rebounds a year ago, but he figures to play a much more prominent role under Spivery.

As a freshman, he averaged 10.8 points and 8.0 points per game, and many expected him to blossom into one of the best big men in the league. He tore a ligament in his foot early the next season, though, and has never been the same.

Alvin Mott (6.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg), a 6-6 senior swingman, also returns. Although he came in with the reputation as a three-point marksman upon his arrival from Perimeter Junior College in Atlanta, Mott shot just 36.3 percent from the floor and 27 percent from three-point range.

"We expect him to shoot it much better this year,'' Spivery said.

The heaviest losses came in the backcourt where Trayvean Scott and Jerimie Collier departed. The duo averaged 14.5 points per game.

Leading scorer Chris Alexander (14.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.8 apg) is back, though. Alexander, a 6-1 senior combo guard, played a team-high 33.4 minutes per game. He emerged into one of the top newcomers in the league in his first year after transferring from Redlands (Kansas) Community College.

Alexander is expected to be moved to the two-spot to make room for Brandon Wardlow at the point. Wardlow, a senior, was injured early last season and didn't return. He averaged 4.6 points in the five games he played.

"We think that's going to be the thing to do with those two guys,'' Spivery said. "We think that will work out the best. I wish I had more players coming back, but that's a pretty good five to start with.''

Spivery, who had a large signing class in his next-to-last year at Alabama State, brought in six newcomers despite not coming on board until May. A couple of the signees were players he was recruiting for Alabama State.

The most highly touted newcomer, Deforest Riley-Smith, was already on campus. He sat out a year ago after transferring from Xavier. Riley-Smith, a 6-5 junior swingman, played at Penn State as a freshman before transferring to Xavier, where he never played before moving on to Southern. He averaged 10 points per game at Penn State and made the All-Big 10 Freshman team.

"We're depending on him to help us a lot,'' Spivery said.

Spivery's first signing class at Southern also includes: 6-7 junior forward Ralph Highsaw of Redlands (Kansas) Community College; 6-4 freshman swingman Jazz Williams of Marshall High in Houston, Texas; 5-11 guard Javaris Bradford of Carver High in Atlanta; 6-10 junior center Jefney Anderson of Lake Region (North Dakota) Community College; and 6-1 freshman guard Steffon Wiley of Carter High in Dallas.

Highsaw, who was signed by the previous staff, is expected to play mostly at the four-spot.

"He's a good athlete,'' Spivery said. "He's very capable of helping us.''

Spivery calls Williams "an excellent shooter'' and Bradford "more of a scorer.''

As for Wiley, Spivery expects him to play early and often.

"He's going to be a good one,'' Spivery said. "He's going to play right away.''
So, too, will Anderson.

"He runs the floor well, and he's a good shot-blocker,'' Spivery said.


Southern hasn't had a winner in a long time and the natives in Baton Rouge are hungry for a winner. The hiring of Spivery, a highly successful coach in the league who knows the league well, is a good move.

It may take a while, but don't be surprised to see the Jaguars among the league's elite before long. He's got a good nucleus to work with this year.

Alexander is one of the top guards in the league and Cipriano is one of the best forwards. Mix in Riley-Smith and Spivery may have the makings of a team that can compete this year.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).