It’s no mystery that Derrick Griffin and Texas Southern are the SWAC’s clear favorite. The Tigers will have a bright target on their backs, and are a team that could cause a high-major trouble in March.
But a conference title isn’t a given.
Griffin was excellent alongside a good senior core last season, yet it was Roman Banks and Southern who earned the league’s coveted NCAA Tournament bid. This year, the Jaguars are one of several teams capable of making a run and sending Texas Southern home earlier than expected.
SWAC Preseason Power Rankings:
1. Texas Southern
Anything written about the Tigers starts with Griffin, the two-sport star who was AP All-American honorable mention as a redshirt freshman. He should average a double-double and it’d be shocking if he wasn’t the upcoming SWAC Player of the Year. But despite some significant losses in Chris Thomas, Malcolm Riley, and David Blanks, the Tigers’ story doesn’t end with Griffin. Davis yet again has an infusion of talented transfers coming in, including guards Zach Lofton (Minnesota), Dulani Robinson (Pacific) and Stephan Bennett (Robert Morris). The Tigers posted the best offensive and defensive efficiency in league play last year, and should be talented enough to do so again.
2. Jackson State
Fresh off a contract extension, Wayne Brent will have a deep, experienced team that can challenge for the league title. Senior Chace Franklin is set for a huge year after landing in the conference’s top 10 in three-pointers made, defensive rebounds, assists, steals, and points last season. He’s joined by All-SWAC Second Team guard Paris Collins and a solid frontcourt tandem of Janarius Middleton and Treshawn Bolden. If the Tigers can defend as well as they did last year (94.1 defensive efficiency in SWAC play), they’ll be Texas Southern’s chief competition.
All-SWAC First Team forward Adrian Rogers and guard Christopher Hyder, who led the team in minutes, are gone. But the Jaguars should still be competitive with seniors Trelun Banks (12.4 points per game) and Shawn Prudhomme (9.7 ppg, 3.4 rebounds per game). Junior Chris Thomas played well against Holy Cross in the First Four (nine points on 3-for-7 shooting, six rebounds) and should be ready for a bigger role.
4. Alcorn State
Second-year coach Montez Robinson loses four key seniors, including All-SWAC second-teamer Tamarcio Wilson. APR issues take the postseason off the table immediately, but there are glimmers of hope. Robinson presided over a huge defensive improvement in his first season and has explosive Western Kentucky-turned JuCo transfer Avery Patterson entering the mix. Look for a breakout season from senior forward DeAndre Davis as he steps into an increased role.
5. Prairie View A&M
The Byron Smith era is already off to a good start. After Smith stepped in for Byron Rimm on an interim basis in January, the Panthers finished the season 6-6 with wins over Texas Southern and Southern. The job is now his, and there’s reason to believe the Panthers can build on that late-season run. The top three scorers are back — led by Jayrn Johnson -- and the program adds two talented graduate transfers in former UNLV guard Daquan Cook and former Vanderbilt and Towson guard A.J. Astroth.
6. Alabama State
Lewis Jackson challenged Jamel Waters to become more of a leader last season and the now-gone senior did just that. The Hornets lose both Waters, their leading scorer, and forward Bobby Brown, their leading rebounder. But Alabama State should be able to rely on its frontcourt with three players -- Tony Armstrong, Corvon Butler, and Mikel Tyson -- who posted an 18.4-percent or better defensive rebounding percentage last season.
7. Mississippi Valley State
Four players transferred from a team whose sluggish offense posted the second-to-last effective field goal percentage in the conference. But the pieces could be there for much better offense in 2016-17, starting with Marcus Romain (18.6 ppg). Andre Payne played a much slower pace in SWAC play, and doing so again this year would make the Delta Devils a pain, since Romain is a free throw machine. A small improvement from senior Isaac Williams and a breakout year from sophomore Kylan Phillips would give Payne a backcourt to build on.
8. Alabama A&M
Willie Hayes has one of the best playmakers in the nation in senior Rakiya Battle (5.3 assists per game), who had the seventh-best assist rate in the country in last season. The question is who will finish the chances he’ll create. The Bulldogs’ top two scorers are gone and they’ll rely on a number of seniors, such as Quinterian McConico and Christopher Thomas, to take big leaps forward. One piece of good news: an APR ban was lifted in mid-August, keeping the NCAA dream alive.
9. Arkansas Pine-Bluff
The Golden Lions return leading scorer Ghiavonni Robinson (11.1 ppg), but the SWAC’s worst offense needs an overhaul. George Ivory brings in a five-member recruiting class, including three JuCo players who could make an instant impact. Trenton Steen, Joe’Randle Toliver, and Travon Harper each had their moments during the team’s four-game tour against Canadian colleges, and need to upgrade an offense that turned the ball over on 23 percent of its possessions in conference play last year.
10. Grambling State
The term “total rebuild” doesn’t go far enough for the job Shawn Walker took on three years ago. He’s making strides, and last year’s 4-14 SWAC record was a success for a program just a few seasons removed from a winless campaign. The offense needs improvement, but Walker may have two young headliners in sophomore guard Nigel Ribiero and explosive freshman Ivy Smith Jr.