It all largely clicked for Prairie View A&M on Tuesday night.
Junior point guard Cam Mack got to the soft spots of Arkansas Pine Bluff’s zone, picking the Golden Lions apart to the tune of 11 assists, and helping set up a career scoring night for junior forward Jawaun Daniels (26 points). On the other end, the Panthers were at their disruptive best, forcing UAPB into 19 turnovers despite a relatively slow-paced game.
Put together, it was business as usual for a PVAMU team leading the SWAC with a 8-0 record. More over, it was the latest edition of a formula wedged around a chaos-causing defense that has allowed Byron Smith to quietly pile up wins in Southeast Texas for the last half decade.
The Panthers’ harassing defense has been the hallmark under Smith, and has helped make the Baby Dome into one of the toughest places to play in the country. PVAMU has won 32-straight home games, and over the past month has done so in dominating fashion. The 72-56 win over the Golden Lions on Tuesday was the Panthers’ third straight home win by 16 points or more.
And as always, forcing turnovers was at the heart of it.
The 19 miscues the Panthers forced UAPB into were something that have been the norm under Smith. Since he took over on a permanent basis ahead of the 2016-17 season, the Panthers have forced the opposition into 19 or more turnovers a whopping 42 times. Only five programs — included renowned chaos-inducers like Stephen F. Austin and, of more recent vintage, Mike Anderson’s St. John’s — have reached that figure in more games.
This season, the Panthers rank second in the country in turnover percentage, forcing the opposition to cough it up on 26.2 percent of their possessions. PVAMU has ranked 22nd or better in the country in each of Smith’s five seasons, peaking at number one in the NCAA Tournament campaign in 2018-19.
“For one thing, it’s kind of like a mosquito on a hot day. We’re always in your face, and we like to piss you off. We’re like a bunch of gnats on a hot day on the lake that won’t go away. One of the things that’s caused us problems that’s documented is that we foul a lot. We are aggressive, and sometimes fouls happen, but that’s part of what we do. We like to take the fight to you. We’re that little kid coming to school that gets bullied a lot and is starting to fight back. It’s not ‘press’ for us, it’s pressure. We deny the wings, we trap the corners, and we swarm the posts. We want our defense to dictate our offense.”
It’s allowed Smith to pile up a 73 percent winning percentage in league play, and an especially potent three-year run. The Panthers logged their second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history in 2019, and appeared a strong contender to do so again last year before the pandemic took hold as the SWAC regular season champion.
Throughout his tenure Smith has been able to draw out star performances.
During the 2019 tournament run it was Gary Blackston — who scored 26 points in the First Four loss to Fairleigh Dickinson — playing the leading role, and in total Blackston spent two seasons as one of the SWAC’s most dynamic players. Ditto for Devonte Patterson, who provided a front court punch next to Blackston during 2018-19, and then won SWAC Player of the Year last season as the program’s main offensive option.
This year Smith found another POY-type talent in the offseason, landing Mack after one season at Nebraska. Mack, who also spent time at Stephen F. Austin, was one of the Cornhuskers’ most relied upon players, putting up great production (12.0 PPG, 6.4 APG, 4.5 RPG) in a dim team campaign. He ran into frequent disciplinary issues and was suspended for the final four games of the season before leaving the program.
His redemption story took root in Prairie View, and gave Smith a player that HBCU Gameday lauded as having the potential to be the best in the SWAC. That has borne out on the court this season, as Mack’s playmaking has been instrumental in creating the league’s most efficient offense. His 11-assist outing against UAPB was the third time he’s logged double digit assists in conference play.
But, as was the case Tuesday, he’s had a tremendous running mate in Daniels.
The redshirt junior has been brutally effective around the rim, scoring 76.5 percent of his “close” — as defined by barttorvik.com — two-point field goal attempts in league play. Paired with an ability to keep the opposition honest from beond the arc (11-23 3FG), and Daniels has emerged as one of the SWAC’s most versatile offensive threats. Sophomore guard Jeremiah Gambrell (11.8 PPG) has had own his breakout after being a rotation contributor on last year’s team, and JuCo transfer D’Rell Roberts (9.3 PPG) may well be the best sixth man in the league.
Does that all add up to a team capable of yet again conquering the field when it matters most? That remains to be seen, especially with a similarly-undefeated Jackson State team (7-0) having its own great season. But the Panthers are not only in the mix, but yet again at the head of the table, a place they’ve often been with Smith and his chaos-causing system at the helm.