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Surging Southern closed last year as one of nation’s hottest teams

Sean Woods and the Jaguars finished the season on a tear, and should be the upcoming SWAC favorite.

NCAA Basketball: Southern at Marquette Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Woods knows a thing or two about comebacks, in no small part because he was wrapped up in college basketball’s most famous comeback.

It was Woods — then a Kentucky guard — who banked in a driving shot to give the Wildcats a 103-102 lead over Duke with 2.5 seconds left in the 1992 Elite Eight. It was the third lead change between the blue bloods in the final 30 seconds and, as it would turn out, went down in history as the appetizer for Christian Laettner’s etched-in-lore heave that followed.

That, however, is in the past. But Woods hasn’t stopped being in the middle of college basketball comebacks. The now-longtime Division I head coach engineered a 10-win turnaround in his second season at Southern University, putting the Jaguars on a blistering path to the SWAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament before the coronavirus pandemic extinguished the season.

Breaking that news was a tough moment for the second-year Southern coach.

“One of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a coach is to go in that locker room after talking to the administration to tell them that it was over,” Woods said. “We felt like we were invincible, especially in conference. We just thought that we were the best and hottest team going and everything was starting to click. For it to just stop to come to an abrupt halt was devastating.”

And Woods had good reason to feel that way.

The Jaguars were in the midst of an eight-game winning streak — punctuated by a SWAC Tournament quarterfinal win over Alabama State — when the sport jarred to a stop on March 12. In total, Southern had won 14 of its last 16 games, and was on its way to the semifinal neutral site in Birmingham before having to turn around. Like so many teams, it left a giant “what if” hanging over the season.

“We didn’t lose, we were playing our best basketball and having fun, and then all of a sudden we have nothing to show for it,” Woods said.

The torrid stretch wasn’t necessarily a given for the Jaguars heading into the year. Woods stepped in at Southern during the 2018 offseason, two years after resigning at Morehead State amid an incident with two players that involved a misdemeanor battery charge against Woods that was later dismissed through a court diversion program. After serving as an assistant at Stetson in 2017-18, newly-minted Southern athletic director Roman Banks tapped Woods to lead the Jaguars.

Woods talked about the Morehead State incident with the Lexington Herald-Leader upon being hired in Baton Rogue.

“That’s something that’s totally behind me now,” Woods said of his past troubles. “You live and you learn, and, you know, you just move on and you become better. Like I told you before, God had a plan. And his plan for some odd reason the way he did it was to make sure I became Southern University’s basketball coach. And that’s all I’m thinking about right now.”

The move landed Woods in a conference he knew well. The former Kentucky star first made his name as a head coach in the SWAC, deploying a break-neck system over four seasons at Mississippi Valley State that culminated with the Delta Devils storming to a 17-1 conference record and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. That success in Itta Bena led him to Morehead State, where he had the task of restocking the program after its Kenneth Faried days.

He did just that, never registering a losing record in conference play, and going 31-17 in the OVC over his final three seasons — including two 20-win or more teams. As he said he had done at MVSU and Morehead State, there was the traditional new coach, roster overhaul dance when he got to Southern. After a 7-25 (6-12) debut in 2018-19, Woods and the Jaguars entered last offseason with 14 new players.

It was truly a blank slate.

“We knew we were talented and we knew it was there, but it took us a minute to gel and get everything down with what I wanted, and to play with each other,” Woods said. “There was never ever a dull day, never a dull practice. They knew that they had something and every day they came to practice trying to get it right.”

Woods went for an injection of experience in remaking the Jaguars roster. He brought in Micah Bradford, a graduate transfer who had spent two years as a backup point guard at Valparaiso before missing essentially the entire 2018-19 season with a back injury. He also added veteran size, landing graduate transfer center Amel Kuljuhovic from Cal State Fullerton and forward Darius Williams from Cal State Bakersfield.

Those three slotted in a starting lineup with guard Ahsante Shivers, a slashing wing that sat out Woods’ first season after transferring from Siena. Shivers had spent two years as a part-time starter and reliable scorer for the Saints, and seemed primed to grab a heavy amount of offensive responsibility for his new team. And he did, but not in the conventional sense.

Shivers began the season with an 18-point effort in a win over NAIA Loyola University New Orleans. On the season, the junior guard led the Jaguars in scoring with 9.5 points per game, a relatively low number for a top offensive option. That, however, typified the depth that fueled a Southern team that smothered the opposition in SWAC play. Woods’ rotation could go 13-deep on a given night, and while the team had no one average double figure scoring, nine players averaged 4.7 points or more.

“It became fun, everyone was a part of it, everyone was playing 10-15 minutes apiece and having a significant part in the success,” Woods said. “The locker room was jubilant and upbeat. We knew we had something going.”

But it took a chunk of the season for the Jaguars to get into that rhythm.

As is the SWAC ballad, Southern spent the majority of the non-conference season criss-crossing the country playing buy games. They did snag a neutral court win over IUPUI around Thanksgiving, but came into league play at 3-10, and then dropped their first three games in a tough part of the schedule that included road games at conference heavyweights Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M.

The season would, however, turn around.

The Jaguars outlasted Jackson State in mid January behind junior guard Lamarcus Lee’s 18 points in a back-and-forth game that featured 10 lead changes. That broke the seal in the SWAC win column, and the team gobbled up five more wins — all of which came by nine points or more — to run its winning streak to six heading into an early February game against Grambling State.

In trying to reverse the tide, Woods had narrowed his rotation following that three-game losing streak to start conference play. And while it had gotten results in the win column, things still just didn’t seem right to the longtime head coach, even as the Jaguars were buoyed by that six-game hot streak. Woods’ intuition would prove right, as Southern dropped that game to the Tigers and followed it up with a 16-point loss in the return game at Jackson State.

Then, the season turned for the final time.

“We had a come-to-Jesus meeting,” Woods said. “I told them we’re going to go back to playing my style of play, and if you guys can’t do it then you won’t play. So what we did was increase the pace, start pressing more, start playing faster and man, they bought into it. We subbed and weren’t missing a beat. [We] just started wearing teams down.”

The change took immediate effect. Woods ran out 13 players in waves the following game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and the Jaguars walked away with a 24-point win while holding the Golden Lions to just 35.5% shooting. They wouldn’t lose the rest of the way, winning their final eight games, all of which fell into the blowout category besides an overtime win over Prairie View A&M.

The deep, unrelenting rotation produced the SWAC’s most efficient defense which, among other things, throttled the opposition into shooting under 29% from three. The final uptick also coincided with the return of sophomore point guard Jayden Saddler (6.1 PPG, 2.0 APG), who came back from a mid-season injury to make the Jaguars’ bench unit dangerous.

“When Jayden came back, that’s when we really hit our stride because he’s such a great defender, great camaraderie guy, great leader, makes all the right plays,” Woods said.

In whatever form the 2020-21 season takes place, Saddler should return along with Shivers and Bradford (8.8 PPG, 3.3 APG) to form the backcourt nucleus of a Jaguars team that may be the early favorite in the SWAC. Rising sophomore Damiree Burns also seems primed for an explosive career after a great freshman season (8.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG).

With a chuckle, Woods thinks next year’s team may actually be deeper than the team he just ran out. The Jaguars add one-time Arizona State forward Andre Allen, who became a top junior college recruit, as well as forward Andre Toure, who averaged 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game as a rotational player at Howard the past two seasons. They’ll also add high-scoring junior college guard Samkelo Cele and Woods’ son, DeSean, to the backcourt.

And then there’s 6’11 Harrison Henderson, a one-time top prep prospect who spent time at USC and Milwaukee, and who Woods said he’ll push to be one of the best rebounders in the country.

The pandemic has obviously affected Woods’ usual offseason routines, but he said that the team was able to adapt and succeed academically through summer school. Now, they’re nipping at the bit to continue building on the surge of momentum Southern finished the season riding.

“You try and build a culture and build consistency, and I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “For us to not be able to do anything has been disheartening.”

Like so many teams, Southern will try and turn that heartbreak into redemption whenever and however the 2020-21 season kicks off.