The Texas Southern Tigers made school history by winning the program’s first NCAA Tournament on Wednesday night in Dayton. The 64-46 win over NC Central gives the Tigers a chance at more history: Becoming the first sixteen seed to knock off a one-seed.
The adversity the team faced earlier this year that has undoubtedly propelled them to these great heights.
Texas Southern somewhat famously (or perhaps infamously) began the season by going 0-13 in its non-conference schedule. But while the team’s record was certain poor, the Tigers had played some of the best teams in the nation. Eight of the games were against power conference squads and nine were against teams who finished the year in the top 75 in KenPom. All 13 contests were played on the road.
At the very least, these road losses were a revenue generating strategy: By taking as many “buy games” as possible, Texas Southern funded their basketball program. Playing buy games is often a necessary part of life for mid-majors, particularly HBCU’s in the SWAC and MEAC.
Yet this strategy came with the added benefit of pitting the Tigers against tough competition in hostile environments.
The idea was that the Tigers would take their lumps in non-conference play in order to come out a better team for it on the other side. However, Texas Southern struggled with injuries and suspensions that prevented them from reaching their potential for a large portion of conference play. Both the team’s leading scorer, Demontrae Jefferson, and 7’2 rim protector Trayvon Reed missed time due to suspensions. The Tigers sputtered to an 8-6 start in SWAC play as a result.
But the only thing that matters in the mid-major world is how well you are playing come conference tournament time. As its roster became whole again, Texas Southern ripped off four straight wins to close SWAC play, then carried that momentum by storming through the SWAC Tournament.
Jefferson identified the return of the whole roster as a turning point in the season.
“We didn’t really have our team this full season,” Jefferson said. “We didn’t have our team really until the conference tournament.”
With the full team back in the swing of things, Texas Southern made quick work of NC Central in Dayton. But now the biggest test looms: a Friday evening showdown with top-seeded Xavier.
Davis believes team isn’t fazed by the challenge and feels prepared to be tested.
“You can’t train your brain to stay focused unless you go through some tough times,” Davis said after the NC Central win.
He feels that the adversity his team has fought through this season has prepared it for a challenge like Xavier and expect to compete with the best. And that it was all by design:
“That’s why I designed my schedule the way I designed it, for us to get better and for us to be tough as a team,” Davis said. “So if you noticed, nobody on this team celebrated; nobody jumped up and down, high-fiving. We did the same thing in our conference tournament.”
Davis went on to point out that they’ve played teams similar to Xavier already this year.
“Kansas is the number one seed, we’ve seen those type of teams before,” he said, referencing a Nov. 21 game his team played against the Jayhawks.
While Texas Southern has experience against some of the best teams, they were unable to manage a win over one in the non-conference. Friday evening’s game will truly show how much Texas Southern has grown over the course of the year.