Tuesday , Nov , 01 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Southwestern Athletic Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Southwestern Athletic Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: What a season it was for Alabama A&M in 2004-05, as the club captured
both the regular season and SWAC Tournament titles en route to its first-ever
trip to the NCAA Tournament. With two of the league’s top five players back in
the fold, A&M remains the team to beat. Expect the stiffest competition to
come from Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State, a pair of teams that
tied for second place last season. Alabama State also earned a share of second
place last year, but the squad suffered some key losses and figures unlikely
to duplicate that success. Jackson State and Southern are a couple of programs
that reached double figures in league wins a year ago, and they will once
against be competitive. Texas Southern split its conference games in 2004-05,
and another middle-of-the-pack finish seems likely. As for Alcorn State,
Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Prairie View A&M, a sub-.500 campaign seems likely. No
team won more than 12 games during the 18-game conference slate a year ago,
proof of the parity that exists in the league.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Alabama A&M

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Alabama A&M; 2. Grambling State; 3. Mississippi
Valley State; 4. Jackson State; 5. Southern; 6. Texas Southern; 7. Alabama
State; 8. Arkansas-Pine Bluff; 9. Alcorn State; 10. Prairie View A&M

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

ALABAMA A&M: With sensational guard Obie Trotter and talented swingman Joseph
Martin back in the fold, it is difficult to bet against A&M this season.
Trotter was the league’s Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in
2004-05, averaging 15.3 ppg, 4.8 apg and 3.9 spg. He led all of Division I in
steals and is without question the face of the SWAC right now. As for Joseph
Martin, he came through with 13.7 ppg and 7.7 rpg a year ago, and there is no
reason to expect a dip in those numbers. Another player to keep an eye on is
Marcus Jones, SWAC Freshman of the Year in 2004-05, who is just 5-8 but brings
a great deal of heart and quickness to the floor. A&M loves to play a high-
paced game at both ends of the floor, as the club rarely runs down the shot
clock and prevents opponents from milking the clock as well. Coach Vann
Pettaway has reason to be confident in his squad this year, but there will be
some stiff competition along the way.

GRAMBLING STATE: There is every reason for Larry Wright to be confident in his
Tigers, who finished strong in last year’s regular season and return a number
of key contributors. Brion Rush is one of the SWAC’s most explosive offensive
performers, as he averaged 17.6 ppg a year ago while also pulling down 5.6 rpg
from his guard position. He is one of only a few solid free-throw shooters on
a team that has struggled mightily from the charity stripe recently. Andre’
Ratliff is another solid free-throw shooter, and the 5-10 sophomore point
guard figures to play much better this season after a full year of experience.
For Grambling to challenge Alabama A&M for league supremacy, better play from
the frontcourt performers will be needed. Anthony Williams missed most of last
season, but he is back and ready to make an immediate impact. The Tigers are
rather small, as only one starter figures to be 6-7 or taller. That could
prove costly against some of the league’s larger squads.

MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE: James Green is in as head coach, replacing the
departed Lafayette Stribling. With Green comes a change of philosophy, as
Stribling’s fast-paced tempo is replaced by a deliberate style predicated on
strong defense. The adjustment period may be a bit lengthy, but the hope is
that the players will be in the groove by the time league play rolls around.
Soloman Forbes will be the team’s go-to guy at the offensive end, as he netted
11.5 ppg as a junior. Sandford Speech showed a great deal of promise as a
rookie, and the point guard figures to run the offense with more confidence in
2005-06. Jessie Taylor, a 6-5 senior swingman, is the club’s most capable
three-point shooter. As for the front line, the hope is that 7-0 senior center
Ronald Alexander can become a more aggressive force on the low block. He
averaged 7.9 rpg and 3.7 bpg a year ago and clearly has the potential to be
effective. The Delta Devils won the SWAC regular season title two years ago
and should finish near the top of the standings this time around.

JACKSON STATE: Expect the Tigers to lean heavily on their backcourt this
season, as the duo of Charlie White and Trey Johnson has a chance to be
special. White is a 5-11 sophomore who showed tremendous promise as a rookie,
and Johnson is an Alcorn State transfer who is eager to get on the court after
sitting out last season. Dakari Wallace is a senior guard who showed a great
deal of improvement last season. While the backcourt is set, there are
questions up front. Ernest Hassell and Jeremy Caldwell figure to be the
starting forwards, but neither is a proven commodity at the offensive end.
Jackson State will be mediocre at best if those two players do not prove to be
capable scorers.

SOUTHERN: Rob Spivery led Alabama State to the SWAC Tournament title game in
four of the past five years, but he decided this past offseason to jump ship
to Southern. Now, in his first season as leader of the Jaguars, Spivery has
some tools in place to make a serious run. Perhaps the best player of all for
the squad is DeForrest Riley-Smith, a Penn State transfer who brings Big Ten
experience to the fold. He will be flanked up front by 6-9 senior forward
Peter Cipriano, who averaged 10.1 ppg and 9.2 rpg a year ago while shooting
56.8 percent from the field. Those two forwards will serve as a solid
complement to standout guard Chris Alexander, a 6-1 senior who posted 14.5 ppg
a year ago. Brandon Wardlow is back from a foot injury, and his return to the
point will allow Alexander to play shooting guard. Don’t be surprised if
Southern proves to be Alabama A&M’s stiffest competition.

TEXAS SOUTHERN: Ronnie Courtney’s team was extremely inconsistent last season,
a statement backed up by a six-game winning streak and six-game losing skid.
We could see more of the same in 2005-06, as the squad has many questions in
need of answers. One thing that we can say for sure is that Sean Walker will
put up a ton of shots and rank among the league leaders in scoring. Last
season, Walker tallied 17.8 ppg to go along with 4.7 rpg, and the 6-3 guard
shoots the ball well from behind the arc as well as from the charity stripe.
Aside from Walker, there aren’t any other players on the roster who have
scored consistently at the collegiate level. Arkansas State transfer Chris
Moore has a chance to be an effective contributor for the club, as does prized
recruit St. Paul Latham. If those two newcomers can take some offensive
pressure off Walker, Texas Southern will benefit tremendously. Still, a .500
finish is about all that can be expected.

ALABAMA STATE: With coach Spivery gone to Southern, former Alabama State
assistant Lewis Jackson takes over at the helm of his alma mater. While
Jackson plans to continue the strong defensive approach that Spivery
established, the new coach will attempt to push the tempo at the offensive
end. Of the eight players that are back from last year’s squad, Joel Bosh and
Alexander Oliver figure to be the best of the bunch. Bosh is a 6-7 sophomore
forward who has the best potential of anyone on the team. As for Oliver, he is
a 6-1 senior who brings strong play and leadership to the court. Tyler Ray is
an intriguing prospect, as the 6-8 juco transfer has the athleticism to make
an immediate impact. With a pair of 6-7 players and a 6-8 guy in the starting
lineup, there is some decent size for Alabama State along the front line.

ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF: The Golden Lions surprised quite a few teams by being
competitive last season. In fact, they knocked off Alabama A&M, the league’s
top squad, on two different occasions. Tamarius Brown is back to lead the
charge in 2005-06, and the 6-1 senior guard has never seen a shot he didn’t
like. Brown netted 14.1 ppg a year ago and is a strong rebounder for a player
his size. Martese Coleman dished out 4.2 apg last season, and the team will
benefit significantly if he is able to take some of the backcourt scoring
pressure off of Brown. Up front, William Byrd (7.3 rpg) and Jarvis Gunter (6.9
rpg) are a pair of juniors who both crash the boards with authority, but they
need to develop into more consistent scoring options. Gunter is one of the
bigger starters in the SWAC at 6-10, and he needs to use that size to score
some points.

ALCORN STATE: The Braves had a number of problems last season, and most of
them seemed to be at the offensive end. For instance, they turned the ball
over nearly 20 times per game, a stat that will lead to few victories. Also,
they scored fewer than 60 ppg and shot below 40 percent from the field
overall. The lone bright spot from an offensive standpoint was the play of
SWAC Newcomer of the Year, Delvin Thompson. A 6-1 guard, Thompson tallied 14.9
ppg as a sophomore and figures to rank among the league leaders in scoring
this season. He will have to be outstanding, as the lineup lacks a proven
second scoring option. Alleo Frazier will run the team from the point, and
Almaad Jackson is back at one forward spot. Both have talent, but neither will
garner a double team. The Hornets last won the league’s regular season title
in 2002, and they reached the NCAA Tournament that year as well. This season,
they will be lucky to win seven league games.

PRAIRIE VIEW A&M: Darrell Hawkins takes over a Prairie View program that has
nowhere to go but up. There are a couple of capable scorers on the roster, as
Phillip Scott (12.0 ppg) and Oscar Thompson (11.8 ppg) can both get it done
offensively. Still, their combined average of 23.8 ppg isn’t enough to get the
job done. The hope is that Blaise Louh, a 6-10 senior center, can provide an
interior presence for the club. That remains a big “if”, however, as he has
proven nothing in his career. Considering that the rest of the starting lineup
may not feature a player over 6-3, Louh will be under a great deal of
pressure, especially at the defensive end. Hawkins appears capable of
injecting some life into the program, but needs to be given time to succeed.
With that, expect this season to be a learning experience featuring many more
losses than wins.