SALT LAKE CITY – When the 16th-seeded Southern Jaguars of Baton Rouge, La., take the floor for their NCAA tournament opener against No. 1 seed Gonzaga today, one of their best players will be absent from the starting lineup.
Just like he has been all season.
And that’s just fine with Malcolm Miller, Southern’s junior guard who led the team in scoring in Southwestern Athletic Conference play this season but hasn’t started a single game.
“Coach told me he needed a spark off the bench,” said Miller, a transfer from South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, “and I never had a problem with it. I just wanted to come in and play my role and keep things going.”
Miller has one of the fuller stat lines of any reserve player in the country, boasting per-game averages of 15.8 points and 6.0 rebounds while playing an average of 26.2 minutes.
So why does he come off the bench?
“It unfolded differently,” said coach Roman Banks, explaining that a wrist injury prior to the season forced Miller to miss a chunk of practice time, along with the team’s first preseason scrimmage.
Plus, Banks said, the Jaguars emphasize defense – they allowed just 57.1 points per game this season – above all else. And since Miller took some time adjusting to that aspect of the game, he didn’t necessarily fit into Banks’ defense-first starting lineup.
But he certainly still fit in.
“We started bringing him in and it worked,” Banks said. “It fit him. He had the same role in junior college. He came off the bench, and Malcolm started embracing it and the team started embracing it. So if it wasn’t broken, I wasn’t trying to fix anything, and it led to where we are now.”
At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, Miller is also the team’s best 3-point shooter at 46 percent, and has only committed 32 turnovers in 32 games. His ability to shoot the ball “bailed him out at times” early in the season when he didn’t fully understand the system, Banks said.
Miller was able to catch teams by surprise, too. He started conference play by scoring 26 points in 26 minutes against Texas Southern, then scored 21 or more points in four of Southern’s next five games.
“But we got to the second half of conference play, and he struggled a little bit because people knew who Malcolm Miller was,” Banks said. “And that gave me a chance to reiterate that you have to use the system and get a better understanding so we can free you up and do some other things.”
He’s done those things well enough that his teammates get excited when they see him sitting in front of the scorer’s table.
“To this point, it has given us extra motivation when he comes in the game,” Banks said. “We’re a different type of team offensively, and he’s a tremendous player.”
He’s not just a spark. At times, he’s the spark.
“It does everything for us,” said senior guard Derick Beltran, who has started every game and averages 15.9 points. “He’s the key to our success. He plays really big in situations like this, and I know he’s going to come through (today).”
Like Gonzaga, like Southern?
The Jaguars have heard plenty about Gonzaga before.
Much of the talk has come from Banks himself, emphasizing that the Bulldogs used to be considered little guys, too, before building their program into one of the most respected in the country.
So when Gonzaga’s name popped up as Southern’s first-round opponent, it resonated in the Jaguars’ locker room.
“I’ve been using these guys all year long as an example to building a program – in my respect, I think, rebuilding a program,” Banks said. “I think they are a true example of what we’re trying to do at Southern University. Actually, when you watch their program and how they play, we’re similar in many ways.”
Banks acknowledges that his team’s size obviously doesn’t compare to Gonzaga’s, but “a lot of times as we are watching them and scouting them, we try to do some of the same things. It will be a great contest for us.”
It’s a fact that this kind of season wouldn’t have been possible at Southern in 2011-12. Mostly because the Jaguars weren’t eligible for postseason play.
The program’s Academic Progress Rate was so poor when Banks took over prior to last season that the team was banned from postseason play for a year, and was also docked four scholarships during the 2011-12 season. They weren’t far from suspending the program entirely.
The basketball was just as bad. Southern won only four games the year before Banks’ arrival – while averaging 580 fans per home game – and won only five games the year before that.
“I think when I walked on campus during summer school (his first year), we had one eligible player,” Banks said. “So the assistant coaches came in, worked, and did a great job of walking kids to class and trying to make sure that we can get out of this dire strait that we are in academically.”
After playing with nine scholarship players when Banks arrived, the Jaguars are up to 11 now, and Banks expects them to regain the last two and move back up to the full allotment of 13 next season. He also won almost as many games (17) in 2011-12, his first season as coach, than the team had won in the three years prior (20).
“To get to this point, I thought it would be a four-or-five-year period to get to this point,” Banks said. “Actually, we still have a lot of work to do. But we will enjoy this one along the way.”
Considering the program’s humble pre-Banks roots, maybe it’s not surprising that Southern’s players don’t bother much with all the underdog talk.
“I think coming into the season, we were going to be underdogs overall, being that this was the coach’s second year here and a lot of people felt that he was rebuilding,” said senior guard Jameel Grace. “So a lot of folks felt we were underdogs, but at the same time you’ve got to go out there every night and take care of business.”