SWAC tired of just playing for cash AP Photo/Tim LarsenTrey Johnson and Jackson State's wins over Rutgers, Illinois-Chicago and UTEP helped it to a surprisingly high nonconference RPI of 109. They are the SWAC exception, not the rule.
"If all of us need money that bad, then maybe we shouldn't be Division I."
The comment from Alabama A&M head coach Vann Pettaway was jolting. In an era when schools of all shapes and sizes are staking their institutional reputations on a plunge into the NCAA's biggest pool, you rarely hear anyone questioning whether that move is prudent. Especially someone who brought his school's program up from Division II just eight years ago.
To make sure he was clear, Pettaway said it again.
"To play eight or nine or 10 guarantee games, that's too many," he said. "If the school needs money that bad, then they probably shouldn't be Division I."
Welcome to SWAC basketball, circa 2007, when cash rules everything around it and the teams regularly get creamed.
It would be naive to think that money isn't the primary driver in many of the nation's basketball conferences. That's why the Mountain West exists. That's why there's the Whatever Soft Drink Holiday Jam Presented By Some Office Supply Chain. That's why more than 1,000 basketball games each season are televised on ESPN's networks alone.
Almost always, though, the leagues and their members are battling over extra income. Rarely are the dollars a matter of figurative life and death, like they are for many SWAC athletic departments, where the basketball bottom line quite often has nothing to do with the scoreboard.
Years of hoops profiteering have the league at a breaking point, and guarantee games are the chisel. The annual series of unwinnable nonconference games have made the SWAC the nation's lowest-rated conference in each of the past three seasons. The losses chip away not only at the league's RPI but also at its collective psyche. Coaches are caught in the institutional crossfire, forced to play games their teams can't win and then deal with the aftermath.
"I hate it. I wish we didn't have to play those games," said Grambling head coach Larry Wright. "I think somewhere down the line, our conference, our institutions have to come up with some type of way so we don't have to play those games and take that money. I don't care what you say, I don't think you get better getting beat by 30 points."
What about getting beat by 74 points (101-27), like Grambling did at Texas A&M last season? Or having the league lose 47 nonleague games last season by 20 or more points? Or, outside of Jackson State, going a combined 6-76 record in Division I nonleague play?
"You [also] have to deal with the psychological deficit of your team when you go out and play those people who honestly are more talented than you are, for the money," Wright said. "You go 0-5, 0-6, you're at a psychological disadvantage for the rest of the season trying to rebuild your team."
A number of SWAC coaches noted that it has to be up to the league office to fix the mess, as many of the individual schools are showing little inclination to change their ways. After years of fruitless discussion, it seems that newly hired interim commissioner Duer Sharp sees the problem and is willing to address it. The former four-year football starter at Wisconsin knows that the reputation of basketball in the conference is at stake.
"A lot of people say the SWAC is just football. It's about the bands and halftime and football and that's what they do," he said. "That's true to a certain extent, but we're in the process of making adjustments to our basketball. Jackson State did a very good job last year, beating Rutgers at Rutgers. They did some things that kind of shocked everybody. But I feel like if you're going to do something, everybody needs to take that Jackson State lead."
Jackson State balanced the ledgers and the games pretty well last season. The Tigers played all 12 of their Division I nonconference games away from home. They opened the season at Alabama, at Georgia Tech, and then, on back-to-back nights, at Illinois and Memphis. The net result? An 0-4 record, a minus-124 point differential and a likely six-figure stash for the bottom line. Then they won at Rutgers. They beat Illinois-Chicago of the Horizon League. They stunned UTEP in its own tournament with a 49-point Trey Johnson explosion. They finished nonconference play with an extremely credible RPI of 109.
"We're not one of those schools that have plenty of money, but at the same time, we don't have to play a lot of guarantee games," said Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson. "We can play one or two guarantee games and we're OK. [Our athletic director will] never say, 'Go in and bring me $250,000.' He never says that at all. To play a competitive schedule is based on what I want to do with my program. I want to improve these kids."
Unfortunately, Anderson's kids didn't improve in league play, where the Tigers lost six times, including twice at home. They didn't even win the SWAC regular-season title and saw their RPI plunge to 168. After winning the conference tourney, only the NCAA tourney selection committee's admitted effort to avoid an all-black-school game in Dayton saved the Tigers from an opening-round date with Florida A&M. Sharp knows the Tigers were punished for their weakened RPI, caused in part by conference opponents' RPIs that were so poor because of all those guarantee games.
"It all starts with one [thing], which to me is the scheduling and how you schedule," Sharp said. "If you're going to play eight games and come out 0-8 but have a nice little chunk of change, that doesn't benefit our league. It doesn't at all. I also do understand that you do have financial guidelines you have to abide by. I'll allow you to play four revenue-driven basketball games. After that, you have to go try to get better. You have to go play these teams that can raise our RPI. Once we do that, I think we'll be fine."
What Sharp wants to see, sooner rather than later, is for the league office to come up with a battle plan to address the conference's basketball woes. Then he wants the presidents to buy in and push that emphasis to the athletic directors and coaches. He knows the process will take some time -- and likely create some collateral damage -- but he believes the progress will be well worth the cost.
"It's a difficult task. I'm not going to say it's not difficult, but you have to be committed to it," Sharp said. "I think our league, our council of presidents, our athletic directors, our coaches are committed to it. They just don't want to be the coaches who commit it. They say, 'You're going to cost me my job. In the process of bettering SWAC basketball, you're going to lose me my job.' In the process of bettering SWAC basketball, I'm probably going to lose my job. But you have to do it. You have to be committed. No one wants to be there on Sunday afternoon [watching the MEAC final] and saying, 'If Delaware State wins this tournament like they are supposed to, we're going to be playing on Tuesday [the NCAA opening-round game].'"
Regularly avoiding that opening-round game is just a first step. Better scheduling eventually may help change the SWAC's annual "16 seed" next to the name of its NCAA Tournament representative. In most conferences nationwide, a 15-seed would be cause for alarm. In the SWAC, it would be money.
Grambling's new den
If scheduling is one big piece of the SWAC puzzle, facilities is the other, which makes the opening of Grambling's brand-new arena last month a big story.
The Tigers' new assembly center seats 7,500 and puts the program in good company with Southern, Texas Southern and Alabama State, all of which enjoy buildings that outpace league rivals. Grambling coach Larry Wright says his program is already reaping benefits from the new building.
"I think our facility has helped us somewhat already," he said. "We were able to sign some kids out of Georgia, a kid from Mississippi, a kid from Texas -- [the kind of player] we hadn't been signing before. Then, when you're trying to encourage teams to come in and play you and they know you have a decent facility, now it's not as hard. They used to use our facilities [to say], 'Oh, we're not coming in there to play.' I understood that, but now they can't say that anymore, so maybe we'll get somebody to do a home-and-home."
The need for guarantee games, though, underscores that not every school in the conference can undertake such a capital project. That's relevant, because better arenas improve the overall sell of SWAC basketball. League interim commissioner Duer Sharp noted that the league's relative lack of facilities -- along with the rough travel -- is a prime reason why the overall talent in the league has waned.
"It's all keeping up with the Joneses," Sharp said. "If you have an indoor practice facility, I have to have one too, or I don't get that recruit. It's as simple as that. They had the 50-inch HD [TV] in the players' lounge and the other school only had the 23-inch. It's basically like that. I'm not trying to make a joke out of it, but everyone's trying to keep up with the next institution."
How I spent my summer
Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson has had an unusual experience this year: The best team he has coached against was not the national champion.
His 16th-seeded Tigers drew Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but acquitted themselves well -- at least for a half. Even with star guard Trey Johnson struggling, Jackson State headed to the locker room trailing by only six in what became an eventual 112-69 loss.
So how could Anderson face anyone better than that? Well, he spent his August coaching his "other" team, the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the FIBA Americas tournament. USVI's first opponent there? You guessed it: The United States. Let's just say it wasn't a six-point game at the half as USVI lost 123-59.
"This [U.S.] team, this year, was an outstanding team. This was, perhaps, the best team we have played against in our 22 years down there," said Anderson, who has coached the USVI national team since 1985. "... The one Larry Brown had four years ago, this [team] is much better than that team."
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
Why did the Bulldogs finish last in the SWAC last season? Simple: They couldn't shoot. At all. From anywhere on the floor. A&M was the worst 3-point shooting team in the nation at only 26.2 percent. The Bulldogs weren't much better inside, making only 43.2 percent from 2-point range. The free-throw line? You guessed it: 63.5 percent. Playing at one of the nation's quickest tempos just meant there were more misses for everyone. The good news is that five of the Bulldogs' top seven scorers last season were freshmen, and head coach Vann Pettaway expects much more from them this season. They also have shot-blocker extraordinaire Mickell Gladness on the defensive end. The lanky 6-11 center rejected an absurd 6.3 shots per game last season, including a four-game stretch in which he had 49 swats. Since the Bulldogs went to the NCAAs as recently as 2005, a quick rebound in Huntsville this season is possible. That's one rebound the Bulldogs would be happy to grab.
The Hornets' offensive profile wasn't very different from A&M's, but State doesn't have the excuse of youth. Six of the top seven scorers last season were upperclassmen. While the Hornets return five of their top seven in the rotation, including leading scorer Andrew Hayles, they have to make up for the loss of point guard Dustin Richmond, the only Hornet to average more than 1.3 assists per game last season. Bama State was much stingier on the defensive end, though. The Hornets held foes to 29.4 percent from the arc. Unfortunately, they had a hard time keeping opponents from grabbing those misses, allowing a costly 36.4 percent of missed shots to end up back in their opponents' hands.
The Braves were another up-tempo SWAC team that really struggled to make shots and limit turnovers last season. Typically, if you can't shoot or hold on to the ball, you're not going to win games. But the Braves somehow did. After going 0-10 in nonconference D-I games, Alcorn started 1-3 in league play before ripping off an unexpected six-game winning streak, which included victories over eventual league champ Mississippi Valley State and league tourney champ Jackson State. The Braves will have to overcome the loss of their two double-digit scorers, Delvin Thompson and Juan Wyatt, who also were third and first, respectively, in rebounding. That means senior wing Alex Owumi (9.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and senior guard Cornell Landry need to pick up the slack.
The SWAC almost had to send out an APB for Jackson State in the conference tourney semis before the Tigers held off APB by two. The Golden Lions tried to overcome truly bad offensive production last season with defense that was more than adequate by SWAC standards. APB couldn't shoot, but it made sure you couldn't either, holding foes to a thrifty 45.3 percent effective field goal rate (19th in D-I). A lot of that was due to the inside presence of 6-7 forward William Byrd (41 steals and 78 blocks). Byrd actually pulled off the rare feat of leading the Golden Lions in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Now he returns along with second- and third-leading scorers Terrance Calvin and Larry Williams, making Pine Bluff a dark-horse league favorite. With that core, APB shouldn't have to put out an all-points bulletin for points this season.
The departure of main scorer Brion Rush after the 2005-06 season opened the door for mighty-mite guard Andre Ratliff (16.4 ppg, 3.9 apg in 2006-07). He's back, which is a good thing since he played almost 36 minutes a game last season. More good news: Essentially everyone else returns, too, including Anthony Williams (14.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder. Mix in junior center Jamal Breaux, who hauled in 6.4 rebounds per game last season, and the Tigers have to be considered in the mix for the league crown. Weird scheduling note from last season: The Tigers played only five D-I nonconference games, with head coach Larry Wright noting that "you have to take guarantee games when you can get them." They lost all five of those but won two non-DI games and finished the season at 12-14 overall. For reference, national champion Florida played 40 games last season.
The defending conference tournament champs have three starters coming back and return everyone else from the rotation. So why isn't the rest of the SWAC quivering as much as you'd think? One of the missing starters is Trey Johnson, the nation's second-leading scorer last season at 27.1 points per game. While the Tigers should be a lot more balanced this season, without Jackson's star power it's hard to see a repeat of last season's nonconference performance; the Tigers won seven D-I games (including at Rutgers and UTEP). They could still win the league, though. Head coach Tevester Anderson expects forward Grant Maxey, the team's (distant) second-leading scorer last season, to play a key role. A possible X factor is senior center Stanley Turner, who has recovered from injury and is in much better shape than last season.
Mississippi Valley State
With the relative hype Jackson State and Trey Johnson received last season, few people probably realize that the Delta Devils, not the Tigers, won the SWAC regular-season title. They almost certainly are the only team in the nation to win a league with a second-leading scorer averaging less than eight points a night. They might not be much to look at offensively, but on defense, these Delta Devils were more annoying than Delta Burke, stifling shooters on all areas of the floor. The rotation takes a number of hits from departures, but this is still an upperclassmen-oriented team, so don't expect the defense -- or the title defense -- to rest in Itta Bena, Miss., this season.
Prairie View A&M
Another team mentioned as a possible contender, the Panthers will have to correct some things -- OK, a ton of things -- offensively to live up to that billing. It's hard to imagine a team that was the second-worst in D-I from the 3-point arc (26.7 percent) and third-worst from inside it (41 percent) could have an even bigger Achilles' heel. But the Panthers' true Kryptonite was the free-throw line, where they shot a nation's-worst 56.5 percent. What does that all add up to? Seventy-one possessions a game that yielded an average of 60 points. Ick. That said, the A&M defense was opportunistic, forcing opponents into 20.1 turnovers a game. So perhaps there will be some more easy baskets in the Panthers' future. They sure could use them. Leading scorer Brian Ezeh barely cracked double figures last season.
The Jaguars lose former Penn State transfer Deforrest Riley-Smith, their leading scorer, but they have other options, like bookend junior guards Chris Davis (10.3 ppg) and Steffon Wiley (7.6 ppg). It wasn't the Jags' shooting that was the problem. It was the combination of that and the team's Southern hospitality; Southern gave the ball away on 26.6 percent of its possessions (fourth-worst in D-I). Defensively, the Jaguars were solid, at least on the initial shot. The defensive efforts were undermined by allowing opponents to grab nearly 14 offensive boards a game. Statistical oddity: Chike Ekweozor played a tick under 400 minutes last season and compiled a total of one assist.
Feted as having the nicest gym in the league prior to Grambling's grand opening last month, TSU also has some nice pieces returning. Now the Tigers just need a head coach. The timing of Ronnie Courtney's dismissal in mid-July was odd, but the school claims it just decided it wanted to go in a different direction. Early reports said the program was interested in former Houston Rockets star Calvin Murphy, who has no coaching experience but was interested. The school said last week that there is no update on the search. Whoever is chosen will have 6-7 forward Jacques Jones (14.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg last season) to build around but will have to find a way to replace Chris Moore, whose 9.9 rebounds per game last season actually helped TSU be the rare SWAC team that could hit the glass at both ends. These Tigers also have a candidate for any all-name team in sophomore wing St. Paul Latham.
The SWAC just can't escape the 16-seed or the opening-round game, so who gets the honor this season?
-- Joe Lunardi
To check out all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.