Texas Southern men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones is constantly talking to his players about playing their best basketball at the right time.
That right time is now — March Madness.
The Tigers have won nine straight games and 14 of their last 15, which included last week’s impressive run through the SWAC Tournament to take home the title. For their efforts, the Tigers have landed in the NCAA Tournament where they face Mount St. Mary’s in First-Four round in Indianapolis for the right to the No. 16 seed and a date to play No.1 seed Michigan on Saturday.
“From the assistants to the head, we have always put a preference to playing well at the right time in February and March,” said Jones, whose team finished third in the SWAC during the regular season. “You want to be gelling at the right time and I think this team certainly represents that. They’ve really turned the corner, playing extremely well down the stretch.”
The Tigers managed to do so despite adversity that might have caused many to crumble. In addition to navigating through the unpredictability of COVID-19, the Tigers also had to keep it together during a rare winter freeze that left nearly the entire state without power or water. The Tigers then had to play a treacherous stretch of seven games in 14 days after COVID protocols brought some unexpected starts and stops to the schedule.
But none of it slowed the Tigers during an incredible run that included a nail-biter win over No.2 seed Jackson State in the semifinal of the SWAC Tournament followed by a surprising 19-point win over No.1 seed Prairie View in the title game. JSU and Prairie View both came into the conference tournament undefeated in league play.
“For them to come out at the end and have a chance to be at this venue here in Indianapolis to represent our conference is just rewarding,” said Jones, whose team flew straight from Birmingham to Indianapolis on Saturday to begin the mandated quarantining for the NCAA Tournament. “You can just see it in the guys’ faces every morning and every evening.”
The Tigers have made it this far with a lot of offense and from a lot of different places. Michael Weathers scored a game-high 30 points in the win over Jackson State. But Karl Nicholas was the leading scorer in two of the three tournament games, while John Walker III, Justin Hopkins and Jordan Gilliam all had double-figure scoring efforts during tournament play.
“You don’t have a guy you can key on because we have a lot of guys who can go off at any night,” Weathers said. “That just takes a lot of pressure off of a lot of guys and everybody just steps up and plays their best game.”
The Tigers hope their balance scoring will be enough to get them past a scrappy defensive Mount St. Mary’s squad, in a play-in game for the 16th seed. Awaiting them will be the Wolverines, who have been one of the top two teams all season.
“That’s obviously a challenge we look forward to,” Jones said. “Our guys signed with Texas Southern because they want to play one of the toughest schedules in the country, year in and year out.
“This is not a game that we had scheduled but it doesn’t get any better than playing one of the No.1 seeds in the tournament. It is obviously going to be a challenge for us, but one that our guys welcome.”
Houston area capsules
Texas Southern (16-8) vs. Mount St. Mary’s (12-10)
When: Thursday, 4:10 p.m.
What we need to know: TSU is a team that is capable of scoring a lot of points, but the Mountaineers can put the clamps down…Damian Chong Qui may be Mount St. Mary’s best player, while 6-foot-9 forward Nana Opoku, the Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, is the stopper inside.
No.2 seed University of Houston (24-3) vs. No. 15 seed Cleveland State (19-7)
When: Friday, 6:15 p.m.
What we need to know: Most were expecting the Cougars to be a No.3 seed, but their conference tournament run, which ended with a 37-point win over Cincinnati in the championship game, likely convinced the selection committee to bump them up…Torrey Patton is the Vikings best player but look for Tre Gomillion to have the biggest impact defensively for the Horizon League team.