Top SWAC storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. Texas Southern has won an unprecedented three straight SWAC regular season titles, and Mike Davis’ squad has won three of the past four SWAC tournament titles. The Tigers are the odds-on favorite to quadpeat, as Davis has once again reloaded with high-major transfers.

2. Southern’s Roman Banks, one of the league’s top coaches, is moving up to athletic director. Assistant Morris Scott takes over as interim head coach for the Jaguars.

3. Grambling and Alabama A&M also have new coaches, with Grambling replacing Shawn Walker with Donte Jackson and A&M poaching Mike Davis’ top assistant, Donnie Marsh.

4. Both Grambling and Alabama A&M are ineligible for postseason play due to APR scores, but both can still compete in the SWAC tournament.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Texas Southern– Mike Davis lost nine players from his 12-man rotation last year, but the Tigers should remain the team to beat in the SWAC thanks to Trae Jefferson and Kevin Scott returning in the backcourt and the addition of UMass grad transfer Donte Clark, who led the Minutemen in scoring the past two seasons. Jefferson is an electric point guard who can penetrate at will and open up the floor. He’s certainly not gun shy, and despite having the 10th-highest assist rate in the SWAC, he’s far more of a scoring point guard. Scott is a 6-foot-4 rangy guard who can score from all three levels and is the key defensively to a Davis defensive scheme that revolves around completely taking away the 3-point line and disrupting dribble drive heavy offenses by switching on everything with their backcourt versatility and athleticism. The addition of Clark is a perfect fit in that regard, and he’ll compete with Jefferson to be TSU’s leading scorer. Davis’ most intriguing addition is 7-foot-2 Trayvon Reed, a former four-star Auburn recruit. It will certainly be interesting to see what Davis can get from the athletic big man, as the frontcourt is thin and the Tigers were woeful on the glass after Derrick Griffin left the team. The league’s top-rated offense should be just fine, but the top-rated defensive efficiency from last season likely takes a hit unless Reed can capably fill in for Marvin Jones. With Davis’ typical strategy of luring transfers and loading up the schedule with brutal nonconference opponents (including 13 straight on the road to open the season), it should be business as usual in Houston.

2. Alcorn State– Montez Robinson pulled off one of the more underrated coaching jobs in the entire country last season, as the Braves finished second in the league in Robinson’s second season in Lorman despite returning just three regulars. This year’s Braves are more experienced and ready to avenge three excruciating losses to league heavyweight Texas Southern, and to add fuel to the fire, Alcorn State is postseason eligible after two seasons of APR forced bans. The strength of this year’s Braves squad is a veteran backcourt led by dual ball handlers Avery Patterson and AJ Mosby. Patterson is the best perimeter defender on the team, while Mosby is the top perimeter threat and best shooter. Raha Katumbusi and Maurice Howard round out the solid backcourt. Katumbusi missed most of last year with an injury, and his length will be valuable this year, while Howard proved to have a plus jump shot in his freshman year, hitting at 40 percent in SWAC play. The frontcourt is a typical SWAC frontcourt, small but versatile. Reginal Johnson came off the bench and provided instant offense and outstanding glass work for a 6-foot-5 player. Johnson netted a sparkling 116.8 ORtg in SWAC play despite having the third-highest usage rate and taking the highest pecentage of his team’s shots in league play. He’ll be joined by former New Mexico State forward Harold Givens, who should immediately slot in as Robinson’s best interior defender, a priority for Robinson in his first two seasons in Lorman. The Braves are hungry after two years of postseason ineligibility, and if their battles with TSU last season are any indication, their two meetings this year will be appointment streaming (hopefully at least one is on ESPNU’s SWAC Monday coverage).

3. Jackson State– Few teams were hit harder by the injury bug than Jackson State last season. Four regulars, including two starters, missed significant amounts of time, and it totally altered the way Wayne Brent had to coach his team. Under Brent, the Tigers have been one of the more pressure-reliant defenses in the SWAC, and that’s in a league built on up the line ball pressure. But with so many injuries last season, Brent was forced to use a lot of zone just to conserve injury and fouls. With everyone back and presumably healthy, this should be a typically aggressive JSU defense. Despite all the injuries, JSU still managed to finish third in the league (with three other teams at 10-8), so at full strength, they should make the SWAC an interesting three team race. I would even consider the Tigers to be 1c in the league instead of simply "third." JSU will be led by a healthy Paris Collins and Chace Franklin this year. Collins is one of the steadier point guards in the league, and he’s Brent’s most harassing on-ball defender. Franklin missed almost all of last year, but is the prototypical undersized but versatile SWAC frontcourt player who can rebound and step out on the perimeter. Maurice Rivers has to reduce his foul rate and stay on the floor as Brent’s most likely replacement for Derek Roscoe in rim protection. Treshawn Bolden is a big body who is also returning from injury, and should slot in next to Rivers to form a solid frontcourt nucleus.

4. Prairie View A&M– With a pair of 6-foot-4 wings in Zach Hamilton and Troy Thompson returning, Byron Smith has the luxury of two volume 3-point shooters who hit them at 40-plus percent, an exceeding rarity in the SWAC. The Hamilton/Thompson duo is the best wing corps in the league, by far, but Smith has to replace his dual point guards Tevin Bellinger and Ja’Donta Blakely. Not only were they the table setters for Hamilton and Thompson, but they spearheaded the league’s most potent full-court pressure defense. Gary Blackston, Shaq Preston and Devin Campbell will have to fill those vital roles in Smith’s system, while veterans Shay’rone Jett and a healthy JD Wallace will have to improve one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. Wallace was a premier rim protector on the back end of the press when healthy.

5. Southern– Usual league powerhouse Southern is undergoing some major changes, as Roman Banks moves into the AD office full time and assistant Morris Scott takes over the day-to-day coaching duties. I fully expect Scott to be an extension of Banks and for one of the league’s more distinct styles to continue. Under Banks, the Jags have consistently been one of the more paint-heavy offenses in the country, and with the return of the best pure post player in the league, Jared Sam, I highly doubt that philosophy shifts at all. Scott does have to replace one of the league’s best scorers in Shawn Prudhomme, and he doesn’t have a proven point guard with the graduation of Tre’lun Banks. However, the real issue for Scott is improving the defense. Banks’ Southern teams have routinely been elite defensively, even on a national level, but last year’s team surrendered 1.05 points per possession in league play, by far the worst mark of his tenure. Chris Thomas returns as the team’s most versatile defender, but Scott will need JUCO transfer Eddie Reese to step in immediately at the point (although I’m not sure he’s a full qualifier yet). 6-foot-4 wing Richard Lee, a former three-star recruit from UT Martin, should shoulder the bulk of Prudhomme’s scoring load. Emanual Shepherd returns in the frontcourt, and with Sam, forms the league’s most potent paint unit.

6. Alabama State– Last season was a total disaster for Lewis Jackson and ASU. Jackson, one of the league’s better coaches and the longest tenured, had to coach through multiple key injuries and one of the least efficient offenses in the entire country. If the Hornets are going to see a significant turnaround this year, Jackson might need to switch up his general offensive philosophy, which has almost always seen the ball filtered through a big. Last year it was the graduated Tony Armstrong, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear heir apparent on Jackson’s roster this year, as Mikel Tyson is more of a defensive presence than an offensive threat. The strength of the Hornets is clearly the backcourt/wings, with Rodney Simeon leading way. Simeon can be a prolific if inefficient scorer, and he’ll be joined by slasher Reggie Gee to form the core of ASU’s offense. Jacoby Ross and Terrance LeFlore should allow Jackson to play a smaller, quicker dual point lineup – it’s just a matter if that’s how he wants to play.

7. MVSU– MVSU finished with 25-plus losses for the third time in Andre Payne’s three-year tenure in Itta Bena, but there’s reason for optimism this season. The Delta Devils (best nickname in D1) won three straight to close the regular season and nearly knocked off rival Alcorn State in Lorman in the first round of the SWAC tournament. The optimism would be even higher if Darrell Riley had stayed with the program. He and Kylan Phillips would have been an outstanding dual point guard attack. As it is, Phillips should lead an up-tempo, pressure-heavy defense that will rely on his ball-hawking skills to get out in transition and offset MVSU’s lack of height. Payne also has to replace prolific scorers Marcus Romain and Isaac Williams on the wing, and that onus will fall on veterans Amos Given and Lorenzo Hunt. In the frontcourt, 6-foot-10 Jamal Watson will have to be able to play meaningful minutes without getting in quick foul trouble, as he is wont to do.

8. Grambling– Grambling won 15 games last year, which sadly was their highest total in nearly 20 years. Despite that step up in the program, which also included a SWAC tournament win, head coach Shawn Walker was dismissed late in the offseason, likely because of another APR induced postseason ban. Donte Jackson comes in from Stillman College, where he utilized a pressure-heavy, up-tempo system to rack up turnovers and points – so he’ll basically fit right in with most of the SWAC. Naturally, the late coaching change led to roster turnover (the Tigers were already graduating four key seniors), with the most notable being Avery Ugba, one of the best post players in the league. (He landed at Austin Peay.) Jackson had to scramble to fill the roster with JUCOs, especially in the frontcourt, but he kept a backcourt led by senior point guard Nigel Riberio and rising sophomore penetrator Ivy Smith. Jackson’s biggest coup was keeping Tennessee Tech transfer Shirmane Thomas, who will be key as a bigger on-ball defender in his pressure defense. Kareem Wright should also be a factor in an underrated Grambling backcourt.

9. Alabama A&M– Donnie Marsh replaces Willie Hayes on the sidelines in Normal, AL, and it’s one of the more underrated coaching hires in all of mid-major basketball. Marsh has been Mike Davis’ top assistant from Indiana to UAB to TSU, and he knows the league as well as any head coach in the SWAC. Marsh has a ton of work to do to turn around a 2-27 team, but with a Dooley Petty back for his sophomore year ready to take over the point guard position and a rising junior 5 in Mohamed Sherif, he has a solid core to build on. He also returns 6-foot-5 Tracy Burnett after a season-ending injury early last year. Burnett is the type of versatile 3/4 that Mike Davis has recruited at TSU, so he’s precisely the player Marsh is looking to build with. I’m not going to pretend to know details on Marsh’s JUCO recruits, but I’m certain they’re all versatile, interchangeable wings. First thing’s first for Marsh, and that’s to get A&M postseason eligible and out from under the APR ban in front of them this year.

10. Arkansas Pine Bluff– It was a long, long year for George Ivory and the Golden Lions, who suffered the indignity of losing to an NAIA school at home. They averaged .86 points per possession and a whopping 26 percent turnover rate on offense, both the worst marks in all of D1. The good news is that Trent Steen is healthy after playing through a torn labrum last year. He’ll be one of the better paint scorers in the league now that he’s healthy. Steen will pair with 6-foot-8 Travon Harper to give Ivory a frontcourt that few SWAC teams can match. The issue will lie in the backcourt, where Joe’Randle Toliver is the only known ball handler, but he’s probably not a true point guard. Charles Jackson should see a scoring jump as one of the best perimeter shooters in the league.

FINAL OUTLOOK: It’s a three-way race for the SWAC title between Texas Southern, Alcorn State and a healthy Jackson State. Give me TSU, who can hopefully avoid the trip to Dayton again.

SWAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trae Jefferson, Texas Southern

ALL SWAC FIRST TEAM:
Trae Jefferson, Texas Southern
Donte Clark, Texas Southern
Jared Sam, Southern
Reginal Johnson, Alcorn St
Zach Hamilton, Prairie View A&M

ALL SWAC SECOND TEAM:
Paris Collins, Jackson St
Rodney Simeon, Alabama St
Kylan Phillips, MVSU
Harold Givens, Alcorn St
Dooley Petty, Alabama A&M

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