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Monson: Southern overcomes huge obstacles to get to NCAAs

Published March 20, 2013 4:43 pm

College basketball • Though short on scholarships, Jaguars grit their way to postseason
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's only one NCAA Tournament team playing here at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday that is facing the impossible.

That's a lie.

Only one team that is facing that which never has been done.

That's truer than true.

Never, as in not ever.

No team seeded 16th has taken out a No. 1. The top seeds are 112-0 against the 16s since the tournament initially was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Games have been within shouting distance a mere four times: Princeton lost by a point to Georgetown in 1989. East Tennessee State lost to Oklahoma by a point that same year. In 1990, Murray State lost to Michigan State in overtime. Western Carolina lost to Purdue by two points in 1996.

Other than that, the hatch always was slammed shut early. And even in those rare close exceptions, dreams went ahead and ducked on down a back alley for the littlest guys.

At least from a symbolic standpoint, maybe the Southern University Jaguars are the perfect team to stare down that ridiculous challenge and haul the dreams back.

Despite the towering stack of evidence suggesting that they can't and won't beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs, that they, competitively speaking, have wasted their time by showing up, the Jags were having none of that negativity Wednesday. Believers often are fools. But these believers already had been fool enough to scale a sheer cliff in getting this far.

The fact that Southern won 23 games against nine losses this season is story enough. It played this season with just 11 scholarship players, after playing last season with only nine, all in the wake of an APR mess bigger than any heretofore.

Over a period spanning a fistful of years back, the Jaguars had been a burning building of a program, with players in a rush coming and going. Many of them viewed going to class as more of a guideline than a rule. Graduation was a myth. It got to the point where Southern was banned from postseason play.

Then a couple of things happened. The school hired coach Roman Banks two years ago. Banks had deep ties to the program, his father having played there. The first thing he and his new staff did upon arrival was beyond basic: escort their players to their classrooms.

"I think when I walked on campus during summer school, 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.

"What happened is that the guys that we kept ... made a commitment. It wasn't about the talent, it was about working hard. It's a testament to a group of guys that came together and believed in something and trying to achieve a goal."

Not only had academics on the team bottomed out, but also success on the court.

"This team started last year winning 17 games," Banks said. "Wasn't able to go to any postseason play. Remarkable from where the program came from. They had won more games in that year than they had in the last three years."

According to Chris Jones, an assistant athletic director at the school, Banks lifted spirits and expectations and discipline among his players — with a tough-and-tender touch. He insisted on them getting three things straight: studying, playing defense, winning.

"He's interested in making them men," Jones said.

Turns out, Banks rather quickly is making them men and ballers.

Southern hopes to get back a full stock of scholarships — 13 — after this season.

"To get to this point, I thought it would be a four- or five-year period," Banks said. "Actually, we still have a lot of work to do, but we will enjoy this one along the way."

Even if they are playing Gonzaga, a team that precedent says will crush them. Ironically enough, Banks has used the Zags as an example of inspiration for his players since before the season started. When the Jaguars drew the Bulldogs in their first tournament game, his players turned to him collectively and said, "Coach, Gonzaga?"

"They are a true example of what we're trying to do at Southern University," Banks said. He added, though, that in regard to talent and technique, the teams aren't that far apart.

"When you watch their program and how they play, we're similar in many ways," he said. "I think they have bigger size and some quality players, but you know, 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."

No, it won't.

Say a prayer, then, for the Southern Jaguars.

They're trying real hard to do the impossible, to do that which never has been done, and do it the right way. No matter what happens against No. 1, it will be better than the road they've already traveled.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson. —