Texas Southern senior forward John Walker III isn’t shy about what he is looking forward to most this month — another SWAC Tournament championship.
The Tigers won the league tournament last year and went on to defeat St. Mary’s in a First-Four game to kick off the NCAA Tournament. Walker is all about running it back and it starts this week’s SWAC Tournament in Birmingham.
“I’m not going to lie, I need another ring,” said Walker, a Thurgood Marshall product who began his college career at Texas A&M. “I got one last year and I’ve got to get another ring. Since last season ended, it’s been about getting back to this month and getting another ring and another championship for my school and my city.”
It has been an interesting journey for the Tigers, who made a splash earlier this season by going into Florida and upsetting the 20th-ranked Gators. They’ve also been at or near the top in the SWAC most of the season with a chance to win the regular-season title before a disappointing home loss to Alcorn State during the last week of the season.
Because of the loss to the Braves, TSU enters the postseason as the No.2 seed in the conference tournament, but with the understanding that everything can be made right with another three-game run to the championship. The Tigers drew Jackson State to open postseason play.
“We always give our best, especially for this month,” said senior guard Bryson Etienne, a Fort Bend Bush product. “Statistically, this month is great for us. We are one of the most winning teams in March. Around this time, we most definitely have to all come together. It’s just tweaks and minor issues, but as long as we do we will be fine.”
The Tigers (15-12 overall, 13-5 SWAC) have been an intriguing group this season, if for no other reason than their diversity when it comes to how they play on the court. They had a successful conference season without the benefit of a go-to scorer.
Scoring has been a by-committee venture with not one player averaging in double digits for the season. Joirdon Karl Nicholas leads the team with 9.5 points, followed by Walker’s 9.4 points and Etienne’s 8.4 points.
Forward Brison Gresham, the Tigers’ big addition this season after he transferred from the University of Houston after starting 19 games and averaging 17 minutes for the Cougars, has averaged 7.2 points and 7.0 rebounds.
But it’s seemed on any given night, any number of players on the floor or coming off the bench can contribute double-digits, as was the case in the regular-season finale against rival Prairie View when A.J. Lawson (the eighth leading scorer) led the way with 16 points and Gresham added two clutch free throws and 14 points in the 78-77 win.
“It’s been a balance,” Walker said. “Guys have hit their strides at different times of the year. Whoever has got it going, that’s who we look to. We trust everybody with the ball. There is no one we don’t trust. And when they make mistakes, we already know their talent so it’s on to the next play, because everybody makes mistakes.
“This year, being able to pass the torch around to everybody has made a good difference on the humility side. Nobody gets too high, nobody gets too low.”
TSU coach Johnny Jones has also kept his veteran squad competitive this season by not allowing anyone to get too comfortable in their roles. He has used over 20 different starting lineups and Justin Hopkins is the only player on the roster who has started at least 20 of the 27 games.
Jones said this approach has not increased the competitiveness on the court, but it has made the team even closer.
“I told them what a special group they are to me,” Jones said. “I’ve coached a lot of teams but I really, really enjoy this group because of the cohesiveness that they have and the chemistry they have among the team.
“People put family out there because of how close they are, but these guys are truly like family. They are like brothers from all different walks of life. And to be able to get along that way it means a lot to me.”