Southern University goes from purgatory to the NCAA tournament
For the vast majority of those filling out their brackets this week, the space occupied by Southern University might as well be invisible.
The Jaguars (23-9) face the mammoth task of becoming the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 in NCAA tournament history. It won't take much analysis or number-crunching to pick Gonzaga (31-2) to advance.
But every swift stroke of pen, mouse or keyboard would be skipping over one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college basketball, one coach Roman Banks still has trouble believing days after winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference title.
"Not in my wildest dreams," Banks said. "After all we had to go through when I got the job and finding out how tough it really was, I never thought we would get to this point that quick."
Athletic director William Broussard said, "We're in year five of the five-year plan ... in year two."
Two years ago, this would have been unthinkable.
In April 2011, shortly before Banks was hired, Southern was a long way from March Madness. It wasn't just that the Jaguars were coming off their two worst seasons ever (5-25 in 2010 and 4-26 in 2011), but the team's academic issues had become serious enough to threaten the entire athletic department.
The problem stemmed from the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate, a four-year average that's based on scholarship athletes remaining in school and maintaining academic eligibility. Scores are out of 1,000, and those who fell below 900 risked harsh penalties.
Since the APR was implemented in 2004, Southern men's basketball team had never met the 900 minimum. That April, its score of 852 reflected data from 2006-07 to 2009-10, capped by the most recent season's shockingly low tally of 780.
With the football team also in trouble, Southern was summoned by the NCAA for a hearing. The hoops squad had already been docked scholarships and practice time the year before, and to make matters worse, the coach and athletic director had recently been fired, meaning women's basketball coach Sandy Pugh had to pull double duty as the interim AD.
The NCAA stripped Southern of more scholarships and practice time, adding in a postseason ban for 2012 and a warning that if the basketball team didn't shape up, the school could have its membership restricted and teams in all sports facing bans.
It was then that Pugh hired Banks, a former Southern assistant. The task before him was more about survival than dreaming big.
"When I got this job, it was just a tough time not only for basketball but for the university and the Jaguar family," he said. "We've been able to wrap our arms around this basketball energy and kind of take our minds off other things, and that has helped bring people back. ... All that wrapped up in one melting pot, that's the reason why this has been so huge."
Righting the ship required help from all over. Southern, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La., is a low-resource institution without the big budget of a major program like neighbor LSU, which is home to a 54,000 square-foot academic center for student-athletes.
To compensate, Banks and his staff had to be relentless. They woke players up in the morning and walked them to class, then required them to be 10 minutes early and to sit in the first three rows. During study hall, they broke down assignments, tracked progress and held players out of practices if they fell behind. Sometimes, coaches had to suit up to give the team enough for a scrimmage.
The school took additional measures, like hiring the bright, young Broussard as athletic director, raising GPA requirements for incoming players and upgrading facilities, hardware and software, while aggressively seeking more funding through grants.
It paid off.
The basketball team's 2010-11 single-year APR score jumped 152 points to 932, and the program expects that number to keep rising, along with the four-year average. Still hampered by its older scores, Southern's current average makes it one of six teams in the NCAA tournament with an APR below the new threshold of 930, but based on the Jaguars' fast progress, the NCAA allowed them back into postseason play and has begun phasing out their probation.
After the heavy lifting was done academically, Banks still had that 4-26 record to deal with. Once a proud program, Southern bore no resemblance to the squads that made five NCAA tournament appearances in the 1980s, beat Georgia Tech in the 1993 tournament and produced NBA players Bob Love, Avery Johnson and Bobby Phills.
Not much was expected from Banks in the early days, but he was determined to see his players build more than a floundering academic legacy. He revived old program traditions and brought back stars like Johnson, the former NBA player and coach who returned to Southern this season as the namesake for a new basketball court. And he revamped the playing style, stressing discipline among his inherited players while seeking out transfers who could cut it in the classroom.
That helped spark a 13-win turnaround and second-place finish in the SWAC last season, although APR penalties kept the Jaguars out of the conference tournament.
This year brought another big challenge. Only five of 12 players returned, and Southern was still limited to just 10 scholarships (rather than the full allotment of 13). But behind returning guards Derrick Beltran (15.9 ppg) and Jameel Grace (9.2 ppg, 3.6 apg), along with newcomers Malcolm Miller (15.8 ppg) and Javan Mitchell (9.5 ppg), Southern went 15-3 in the conference, upset Texas A&M on the road and finished as one of the nation's top defensive teams.
And while contenders Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff were ineligible for the SWAC tournament due to their own NCAA punishments, the Jaguars cruised past Alabama A&M and held on for 45-44 win against Prairie View A&M in the final.
It was plain to see what that meant for the team's supporters, known as the Jaguar Nation. Banks looked into the stands and saw fans crying, and he spent the six-and-a-half-hour bus ride home answering more than 500 congratulatory texts.
His first call came from Johnson. "Coach Banks has come into Southern and basically changed what I call the recent culture, a culture of ineptitude, a lack of vision and NCAA academic regulations that were substandard," Johnson said. "He has brought in a culture of discipline, details, hard work and excellence. I just told him I was really, really proud of him for that. Southern University, where we are right now, we're in a position to have a great run now and for years to come."
That pride will be on display for the rest of the nation on Thursday in Salt Lake City, where the Jaguars take on No. 1 Gonzaga, which finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation. "If we can go out and compete every minute, that means we can give ourselves a chance to win," Banks said. "But I don't think that one game is indicative of how far this program has come."
Indeed, after the journey Southern has taken, Thursday's score is hardly the story.
According to the NCAA's online APR database, Southern is the first team to bounce back from a championship ban and qualify for the NCAA tournament, and Broussard is hoping it will shine as an example for those in similar situations to follow.
"There are schools all across this country where coaches are expected to win and produce graduates," Broussard said. "It's a standard in the NCAA, and there's no reason it shouldn't be the standard in historically black colleges or in the SWAC. The fact that all of that has been done in such a short amount of time and that we're as impressive with our APR scores as we are with our wins and losses demonstrates not only that it can be done, but this is the model for doing it."