For the past couple of seasons, it was easy for Texas Southern guard PJ Henry to just fall back and let his game do all the talking.

The Tigers had plenty of experienced upperclassmen to handle the leadership piece.

But the Tigers have reloaded and have a lot of new faces, which has thrust the unassuming fifth-year senior into a role he may not be familiar with. Henry is now the leader of the TSU men’s basketball team and it’s a challenge he believes he is built for.

“My role is to lead now,” said Henry, who began his collegiate career at Hartford after starring at Shadow Creek. “When I first transferred, I wasn’t a leader. I had older guys in front of me. So now I’ve learned from them and now it’s my turn to lead this team to winning.”

It’s a huge undertaking, considering the stakes for the Tigers this season. TSU, which tipped off its season against New Mexico this week, aims for an unprecedented fourth straight SWAC Championship season and fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. And according to the preseason poll of the conference coaches, the Tigers are the favorites.

The SWAC coaches also picked Henry as the SWAC Preseason Player of the Year after he dominated the conference tournament the past two seasons.

“He’s been MVP of our conference tournament the last two years, and my expectations of him are nothing less,” said Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones, who is entering his sixth season at the helm “He is a special player. He has been tremendous for us and I just expect great things from him.

“I just think all of those things he has done, his leadership, his offseason workouts… I suspect all of those things will come together at the right time and he will have an MVP-type year for us.”

Invites increased expectations

In some ways, the 5-foot-10 Henry relishes the lofty expectations that are being put on his shoulders. But the Tigers’ three-year starter prefers keeping the spotlight on the team.

“That’s good for me, but I don’t really look at that or take that some kind of way,” Henry said of the preseason player of the year recognition. “I’m a team player and I want to win. When you win everybody gets noticed.”

That doesn’t mean, he’d rather not have the acknowledgment.

“That’s something I worked for all my life,” Henry said. “I work for stuff like that, but it’s not something that I’m heavily focused on.”

Learning new team

His focus, at least early in the season, is bringing together a new cast of players who now have the expectations of winning another SWAC Championship and getting the Tigers back to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year.

Veteran standouts like Joirdon Karl Nicholas and John Walker III along with Davon Barnes have been replaced by transfers like guards Jonathan Cisse and Jaylen Wysinger and front-court players Kenny Hunter and Jahmar Young Jr.

The talent is there with the newcomers, especially Cisse and Hunter, but now it’s a matter of becoming a cohesive unit.

“This team can be very good,” said Henry, who averaged 12.4 points last season. We are still learning. We’ve got new people. We’ve got to come together and be ready to play and play hard night in and night out, and we’ve still got to learn and go through this journey.”

Working on his game

That’s why this offseason was so crucial for Henry, as he had to get back healthy after last season’s grueling campaign. Henry, who temporarily put his name in the NCAA transfer portal last spring, worked on improving his body and his game coming into this season.

His goal is to improve his shooting, which dipped last season to 33.8% from the field and 34.4% from 3-point range after taking on more of the scoring load.

“I take working on my game very important and seriously,” Henry said. “I would say I’ve gotten better in all aspects of my game as far as shooting, leading, getting my teammates involved and just playing my game.”

Jones has been pleased with the results so far.

“It’s probably the best he has looked since he has been here,” said Jones, whose team travels to Arizona State this weekend to take on the Sun Devils in the SWAC-Pac-12 Challenge. “It’s one of those deals, this is his last year. He realized that during the offseason, knew he was banged up at the beginning of last year during conference play.

“So he has worked extremely hard during the offseason and it’s really put him into a position that he is in the best shape that he has been in since he has been here. He is the healthiest he has been since he has been here and that gives us reason to be excited.”

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....