It’s one of the most impressive turnarounds in college basketball, so swift it even caught coach Roman Banks by surprise.
Banks inherited a Southern University program coming off the worst season in school history, a 4-26 record in 2011 that included a 117-72 loss to Gonzaga. To complicate matters, APR penalties left the Jaguars ineligible for postseason play in Banks’ first season.
Southern, located in Baton Rouge, La., overcame those obstacles to win 17 games. The Jaguars followed that up with 23 wins, a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) tournament title and a spot in the NCAA tournament, where they’ll face No. 1-seeded Gonzaga on Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
Former LSU coach Dale Brown, guest speaker at last year’s team banquet, half-joked that Southern accomplished too much too soon, causing expectations to soar.
“It’s definitely arrived ahead of schedule. I’m thankful for winning a (SWAC) championship before they let me go,” Banks cracked. “I knew when I took the job it was a 4- or 5-year fix and the program still has a lot of work to get where we want to be as a consistent winner.
“I knew these guys had the winning spirit in them. A lot of times we might not be as good, but we believe we can outwork people.”
Banks addressed the academic issues and filled his players’ ears with speeches about Southern’s tradition of NCAA tournament teams and alums playing professionally. He installed an identity, a man-to-man defense that mixes full- and half-court pressure. Opponents made just 36.5 percent from the field, 28.4 percent beyond the 3-point line. Four foes failed to reach 40 points.
“I think it shows whenever you think I’m down I’m willing to get back up, whatever the situation,” said senior guard Jameel Grace, one of two fourth-year seniors who went 9-51 in their first two seasons.
Of the 45-point loss to Gonzaga two years ago, Grace said, “It was a struggle. That was my sophomore year and since I’ve been here we had a new set of players. This year we’re coming off a good stretch at the end of the season and we’re confident with what we’re doing.”
Southern lists only two players weighing above 200 pounds. Banks acknowledged that his undersized team will have trouble matching up with versatile 7-foot forward Kelly Olynyk, but hopes “we can move him away from the basket and take away some of his lateral movement.”
Guard Derick Beltran and wing Malcolm Miller combine for nearly 36 points per game. Miller, who can play the “3” or “4,” makes 46 percent of his 3-point attempts and 87 of his 181 field goals are 3s.
“We have one of the better backcourts in Division I,” Banks said. “If they’re consistent, we’ll have a chance.”
A No. 1 has never lost to a 16 seed.
“We talk about it; it’s always a keep-it-real type of story,” Banks said. “We’re not afraid to be the first with anything. One day it will happen. This gives us a chance to be the first ones to do it.”
GU remains No. 1
Gonzaga (31-2) remained No. 1 in the final AP and USA Today polls released Monday. It’s the first time a non-BCS conference team has finished No. 1 in the AP rankings since Massachusetts in 1996. Louisville jumped up two spots to second in both polls.
Gonzaga received 45 AP first-place votes, down from 54 the previous week. The Zags earned 30 of 31 USA Today first-place votes.
Zags, K-State in Wichita
Gonzaga will face Kansas State next season in the Wichita Wildcat Classic at INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan. The game is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 21.
GU defeated the Wildcats 68-52 in the Battle in Seattle earlier this season. Kansas State thumped Gonzaga 81-64 in November 2010 in Kansas City.
Kansas State shared the Big 12 title with Kansas, the Wildcats’ first crown in 36 years.