Prairie View senior guard Will Douglas and the Panthers are looking to finish the regular season strong with hopes of making a strong postseason run.
Prairie View senior guard Will Douglas and the Panthers are looking to finish the regular season strong with hopes of making a strong postseason run.

Admittedly, Prairie View men’s basketball coach Byron Smith says with an unheard of 11 graduate transfers on his roster this season, his team hasn’t been as connected on the court as he would like.

That’s been obvious throughout the season. But Smith believes the Panthers are turning it around, and that’s just in time with the postseason right around the corner.

“We’ve been more connected,” Smith said. “I’ve always said being tight and being connected are two different things. A lot of teams, they are tight and do some of the same things. But the main thing is are you connected on the court? Are you pushing and pulling for the same thing, which is to try to be the best you can be and have a chance to win the conference tournament and get to the NCAA. That has to be one of the greatest things you can accomplish in college basketball.”

But before the Panthers can think about the postseason, they have to first secure a spot in the SWAC Tournament. Both Prairie View and Texas Southern sit tied for sixth place in league standings with matching 11-17 overall and 7-8 league records going into the final three games of the regular season.

Only the top eight teams make the tournament. And with Arkansas, Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State right on their heels, and with Florida A&M not far behind, there isn’t much room for error. The Panthers and Tigers are both set to face SWAC-leading Alcorn State and Jackson State on the road this weekend, not to mention a head-to-head rivalry battle to finish off the regular season.

“We are looking to finish strong and have a chance to get into the tournament,” Smith said. “The beautiful thing about it is once you get into that conference tournament in Birmingham, no one has an advantage.”

The Tigers and Panthers have both had disappointing seasons based on the preseason expectations. The Tigers, who are coming off back-to-back seasons in which they won the SWAC Tournament and managed to win their NCAA Tournament play-in games both years, were picked to win the conference regular-season title this time around. Prairie View was picked to finish fourth.

Both programs have suffered with injuries and inconsistent depth throughout this season. But both are showing some signs of life, with the Tigers riding a three-game winning streak as they head into their weekend swing through Mississippi to face Jackson State and Alcorn State.

The Panthers are riding a two-game winning streak and have won three of their last five games. But first up for them will be Alcorn State and head coach Landon Bussie, who served as one of Smith’s assistants for six seasons at Prairie View.

“When we play against those guys it’s almost like the purple going against the white team,” said Smith, whose team defeated Jackson State earlier this season but lost 77-68 in overtime to Alcorn State. “Everybody knows what you are going to do, where you are supposed to be.

“When you have those types of situations it becomes tough. You have to try to tweak some things without changing too much. But it’s really about playing hard and doing things at the highest level. Even though they know what you are going to do, they still have to stop it.”

But if the Panthers can manage to get through their final three games and somehow remain in the top eight, Smith feels they have a chance.

“Records don’t matter once you get into the postseason,” said Smith, whose team nearly pulled off the first-round upset of No.1 Alcorn State as the No.8 seed. “That’s why we are striving to get there because once you get there, it’s wide open.

“I really think if we get in, which God willing, I think we should, we are built probably better than anyone else with the construction of our team to make a run to hang another banner.”