Texas Southern men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones has seven new players on the roster this season and even still the Tigers have been picked to win an unprecedented fourth straight SWAC championship this season.

Most coaches might see this as a daunting task, but not Jones. The veteran coach is all smiles as he kicks off his sixth season at TSU.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Jones said in a recent interview with The Defender. “I’m as excited right now as I was the first day that I took the job. I’m even more excited about the kids in the program, the excitement that is around the program and what we’ve been able to accomplish over the years.”

What Jones has developed a reputation for is winning the SWAC Championship and getting his program to the NCAA Tournament no matter what the regular has looked like. That could be a big challenge this season considering this is the most turnover in the program — with at least three new starters taking the floor – Jones has had in a while.

New cast of players

Gone are mainstays like Joirdon Karl Nicholas and John Walker III and they have been replaced by a talented cast of newcomers like guards Jonathan Cisse and Jaylen Wysinger along with versatile forwards Kenny Hunter and Jahmar Young Jr.

Senior guard PJ Henry, who enters his third year as a starter, is the top player returning and the only player back who averaged double figures last season. Sophomore guard Kolby Granger also returns as a starter.

“It’s different because we not just lost some experienced guys, but you are talking guys who were a part of three championships,” said Jones, who lost five players from last year’s squad either because they exhausted eligibility or moved on through the NCAA transfer portal. “But the exciting part is we have guys returning from last year and the new guys we have are guys we feel are full of energy, excitement and are talented. They will give us a chance to hopefully do something special.”

Cisse could be the best of the newcomers. The 6-1 senior guard gives the Tigers a dynamic scorer who should play well off of Henry. Cisse transferred in from Incarnate Word where he had a strong season, averaging 16.6 points, three rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting nearly 42% from the field.

In addition to Cisse, Hunter and Young – two 6-foot-9 forwards – bring some special skills and strong backgrounds to the Tigers front court. Hunter has transferred in from Louisiana Tech and Young began his collegiate career at SMU and spent last year at Memphis.

“Jonathan Cisse has been special, he has been really really good, very talented, can score,” Jones said. “Jahmar redshirted last year the University of Memphis, came from SMU. He brings a different dimension that we didn’t have a year ago with his size and shot-blocking ability and the ability to finish inside and Kenny, as well.

“When you talk about what Jonathan brings, it’s something we didn’t have last year at that position and that’s a prolific scorer. He is able to play the 1 and the 2. We didn’t have really a strong backup in that position a year ago.”

High expectations remain

Henry, who is the SWAC Preseason Player of the Year, likes the new additions and believes they will help make this another special season for the Tigers. He is especially excited about the potential of him and Cisse in the backcourt.

“Jonathan is a good player so I feel like we can feed off each other’s energy,” Henry said. “He can drive, he can shoot, he can do a lot of things. So basically, it’s about us playing off each other and feeding off each other’s energy. That’s going to be good.”

The expectation is the Tigers will continue to be strong even with so much turnover. They were inconsistent during the 2022-23 regular season, posting a 14-21 overall record and 7-11 in the SWAC.

TSU coach Johnny Jones celebrates with his team after the Tigers won their third straight SWAC championship. (Credit: AP)

As a No.8 seed in the SWAC Tournament, however, they were able to win it all to earn a third consecutive berth to the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers fell to Fairleigh Dickinson in the First Four round last season, but in the previous two seasons they won their First Four games and entered the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.

The expectation among the SWAC coaches is Jones will have the Tigers ready to make another run again. They will have the usual gauntlet of a preseason schedule that includes games at Arizona State, Virginia, No.8 Creighton and No.3 Purdue to prepare them for a grueling SWAC schedule.

“We’re hopeful that we have recruited at a level and brought in the caliber of guys that will help us to be able to sustain and to even continue to improve on the success we’ve had over the years,” Jones said.

Building consistency

The Tigers have been able to sustain consistency under Jones’ leadership, which isn’t always easy to do.

“We’ve been blessed. We have been extremely fortunate over the years,” said Jones, whose team opened the season earlier this week at New Mexico and travels to Arizona State this weekend. “We’ve had good staff around me, we’ve had tremendous players in the program who have bought into our style of play and the things that we like to do. That’s allowed us to continue a great tradition that they’ve had here at this institution.

“Our deal was to make sure we came in and continued to build on the great things that have happened here and that is not only us winning the conference tournament, but getting into the postseason and been fortunate enough to win games and that has propelled us to have good recruiting over the years,” he continued. “We don’t go out and pick kids just because they are talented, we try to bring kids to the program who fit what we are trying to do. We think the group of guys that we have right now are a great fit for what we are trying to do and what we are trying to accomplish.”

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....