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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SWAC Tournament Preview

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The Southwestern Athletic Conference was the worst conference in the country, finishing behind even the Independents in the RPI. Furthermore, it didn’t even feature that much of a conference race, despite the fact that Alabama State finished just one game ahead of Jackson State in the standings. ASU fell to JSU in the final week, but just had to beat last-place Grambling to clinch a title. Only one team, ASU, finished more than two games over .500, with Jackson State and Prairie View A&M finishing two games and one game, respectively, above that mark.

Favorite: Alabama State played Illinois State, Mississippi State, Mississippi and Auburn to single-digit games in the non-conference season, leaving no surprise as to why the Hornets ran roughshod over the SWAC en route to a 16-2 record. They have a fantastic backcourt in Brandon Brooks, an excellent scorer and distributor, and Andrew Hayles, a scorer who can really shoot. Wesley Jones and Chick Kickingstallionsims anchor the frontcourt, while Roland Fitch is a double-figure scorer.

Contenders: Jackson State made a late run at the league title, winning 11 of its final 12 games to finish just one game back of Alabama State. The Tigers love to push the ball and take it to the basket. They are led by the dominant interior duo of Grant Maxey and Jeremy Caldwell, who combine for over 28 points and 13 rebounds per game. Garrison Johnson is another frontcourt performer who can score and rebound. Versatile guard Darrion Griffin can fill it up. Prairie View A&M had five players average at least nine points per game this season, showing their explosiveness and balance. Forward Darnell Hugee is one of the better forwards in the SWAC, but the Panthers’ perimeter steals the show. Sixth man Michael Griffin can shoot, Chris Jones is a terrific all-around producer and Derek Johnson averages double-figures.

Sleeper: Arkansas-Pine Bluff won nine of its last 14 conference games and lost to Alabama State by a combined 11 points in two games. The Golden Lions love to force turnovers and force the tempo. Terrence Calvin is a very solid all-around player who can contribute in a variety of ways. Six other players average at least six points per game; Pine Bluff loves to take it to the basket and score in the lane.

Prediction: The winner of this conference is very, very likely headed to the play-in game of the NCAA Tournament, which is unfortunate but the truth. It is going to come down to the league’s top two teams in the regular season, Alabama State and Jackson State. ASU has excellent inside-outside balance in its starting five and a phenomenal backcourt, while JSU counters with a dominant frontcourt and some perimeter firepower. In the end, I think Brandon Brooks will be the difference; he is the best playmaker in the conference and will guide ASU to the automatic bid.

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