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Amid a rollercoaster season, South Alabama may be putting it together

The Jags have failed to live up to preseason expectations, but there’s still time to make up for it.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Trinity Baptist at South Alabama Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Down in the Empire of the Sun Belt, it was finally supposed to be the Jaguars’ time to reign. For the first time in a while, South Alabama finally had some expectations, in no small part due to some assistance from elsewhere in the league. Ron Hunter had packed up his bags for greener Waves, and the Panthers were expected to be in a bit of a rebuild.

That left the Jags as a logical choice for Sun Belt supremacy this season. They are a veteran team, returning three of their top five scorers, all seniors averaging in double figures. That included forward Josh Ajayi, who averaged 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in 2018-19, and preseason conference player of the year Trhae Mitchell, who averaged 13.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals (leading the team in the latter four categories). Mix in a few key transfers who all sat out a year, in former Cal Bear Don Coleman (14 points per game), sharp-shooting Andre Fox (15.7 ppg for High Point) and Chad Lott (14.3 ppg for Howard), and it’s easy to see why they were picked to finish first in their conference by eight of 12 head coaches.

The start of this season brought promise. The Jags played a competitive exhibition at Mississippi State, won their first two regular season games, and then prepared for possibly one of the most anticipated sporting events ever on-campus.

On Nov. 12, the 22nd-ranked Auburn Tigers, fresh off their first-ever Final Four run, admirably marched into an in-state mid-major’s home gym and engaged in a riveting cat-on-cat battle in front of the largest crowd ever in the Mitchell Center. After trading blows in the first half, Auburn looked to have it sealed when it held a 14-point lead with under eight minutes remaining. Then the Jags stormed back, taking a 69-68 lead on Fox’s three-pointer with 28 seconds left. On the ensuing Tigers possession, they missed two threes, collected two offensive rebounds, and star freshman Isaac Okoro finally put in a wild layup on a third-chance opportunity with a second left to steal the game. Had Mitchell avoided early foul trouble and contributed more than five points, the final outcome could easily have been different. It was a painful way to lose, but no real shame at all in a last-second loss to a an SEC team.

And then?

A downturn. Three days later, it was a disappointing, non-competitive loss at a poor Chattanooga team. South Alabama battled back to an appearance in the championship game of the Gulf Coast Showcase, only to be bested in overtime by La Salle.

Conference play is where the roller coaster really began. Opening with home games against Coastal Carolina and App State, not perceived to be huge threats before the season, USA dropped both by double digits. They turned around and won four of five, including a solid win at current conference leader Little Rock by nine before reversing course and losing four of five. That stretch included a frustrating three in a row by a combined nine points, bringing the pre-ordained leaders to a staggering 5-7.

So, what happened during the skid?

For starters, the Jaguars didn’t get all of the production they may have wanted out of a few key pieces. Mitchell put up strong numbers, but was inconsistent for a player with so much hype coming in. His scoring is down 2.4 points per game, which may be expected with the addition of such high-volume scorers, but his assists, rebounds, steals and blocks are all down, along with his shooting percentage and three-point percentage (significantly, from 42% to 35%). During USA’s 1-4 stretch, he fouled out twice and only cracked double-digit scoring once. He was held to six rebounds or fewer in all but one of those games.

Senior Herb McGee’s production also dropped. The third-leading returning scorer saw his 10-point-per-game scoring clip drop to 6.4 in roughly the same amount of minutes per game, with a significant drop in shooting percentage (from 43% to 34% overall and from 37.5% to 28.5% from 3.) On the transfer side, Fox and Lott are solid contributors, but Coleman — perhaps the one with the greatest prospects — has been disappointing, mainly because chronic injuries have sidelined him for a good chunk of the season. His loss, as well as that of junior transfer Ayeni from St. Bonaventure, has put a lot of pressure on underclassmen to produce down the stretch.

As a team, despite adding all that scoring from the transfer market, the Jags are averaging almost six points less in conference games compared to last year and rank 11th in scoring among Sun Belt teams. While their defense has improved overall, they can’t seem to figure out how to defend the three. They have allowed the most makes and attempts from behind the arc in conference, and are 10th in three-point percentage allowed. They have, in contrast, attempted and made the fewest threes, though they shoot at a reasonable percentage.

But it hasn’t all been bad for South Alabama. It has managed to battle back from that 5-7 conference record to rattle off six straight wins (including two without Ajayi, who is now back). The Jags are now in fourth place and in position for a bye to the quarterfinals in the Sun Belt Tournament, where they would host a game before playing the top seed after that.

Maybe they can stay hot and maybe they can get lucky. Maybe their players can step up and make up for the earlier lost opportunities. But this senior-laden team will have to buckle down if it wants to avoid squandering its best opportunity at success in recent years. With so much talent graduating after the season, it might be their last chance for a while.