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South Alabama, Rodrick Sikes off to great Sun Belt start in pivotal season

An emerging JuCo star is leading the Jaguars.

Rodrick Sikes has emerged as a star for USA.
Brad Puckett/South Alabama Athletics

The Sun Belt has three undefeated teams left standing after the opening weekend of league play. One of that trio of 2-0 teams was expected (Louisiana). The other two? Not so much.

Appalachian State entered conference play riding a four-game losing streak, but shrugged it off with home wins against Texas State and suddenly-reeling UT Arlington. That was an impressive start for Jim Fox and the Mountaineers, but a perfect weekend in Mobile gets a slight edge.

South Alabama had a bland non-conference. The Jaguars went 6-6, but dropped a very winnable game at home to Stetson in overtime, as well as two seemingly-winnable road games at FAU and SIU Edwardsville. For Matt Graves, it was a less than ideal start to a pivotal season.

The fifth-year USA coach checked into the season with a 51-79 overall record and just one year remaining on his contract. His athletic director — Joel Erdmann — talked about his job status when the Jaguars season ended last year in the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament.

"Coach Graves will be with us next year," Erdmann said. "I think if you start with him, he knows and understands that where we ended up from a competitive standpoint is not where we want to be. He, myself and our entire fan base know that's not our expectations and our goals. I believe that he has a plan in the world of recruiting. Some of the younger student-athletes that we have, and some of those that we have coming in, I'm excited to see what that will result in.

"So coach Graves will be returning. We're going to support him with all that we can to help him and the basketball program be successful."

In the first weekend of Sun Belt play, his basketball program was very successful. The Jaguars hosted two of the league’s presumptive favorites — Georgia State (9-6) and Georgia Southern (10-5) — and held serve.

"I'm very excited and proud of our team protecting our home court," USA coach Matthew Graves said. "(We're) 2-0 in league play, it's hard to win in league play, but especially when you go on the road it's hard to win. Every game at home matters. Our guys are starting to value that and appreciate that. We played really good defensively.

Their defense, which has been their strong suit this year, decimated the Panthers, holding Georgia State to its least efficient performance (0.84 points per possession) of the season. D’Marcus Simonds ended up getting his points (27 points), but it took him 25 field goal attempts in a 22-point loss.

The Jaguars then followed it up in a tight 69-67 win over Georgia Southern, which they locked up with a Nick Davis put back with under 30 seconds left. In a sluggish offensive game, USA’s emerging star — Rodrick Sikes — was able to outduel a deep and experienced Eagles’ squad. The JuCo transfer guard had 27 points, and a three-game surge (92 points) has him up to fifth on the Sun Belt scoring leader board (18.4 PPG).

Sikes has been a gem of a find by USA. Graves praised his three-point shooting when he signed, and it hasn’t disappointed (43.6% on 101 3PA). Overall the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Week has been a boon to a team that, while it has struggled offensively at times, needed to replace three of its four top scorers from last season.

And there’s reason to believe the Jaguars have room to grow. Four sophomores — Josh Ayaji, Jordan Andrews, Trhae Mitchell and Herb McGee — are in key roles and averaging at least 23.1 minutes per game.

USA goes out on a two-road trip to Texas State and UTA before returning home for a four-game home stand (which includes a non-Div. I game). So far, the Jaguars have taken care of business in Mobile. If they keep that up, Graves may well find himself with more time to continue building his program