The stakes are always high when Texas Southern and Prairie View meet on the basketball court but they will be even higher for the Tigers who need a win to be assured of a spot in next week’s SWAC Tournament.
The stakes are always high when Texas Southern and Prairie View meet on the basketball court but they will be even higher for the Tigers who need a win to be assured of a spot in next week’s SWAC Tournament. Credit: Photo courtesy of Texas Southern athletic department

It’s not like there needs to be a whole lot of incentive added in the Texas Southern-Prairie View men’s basketball rivalry to raise the level of intensity in the arena.

But when TSU travels up Highway 290 to face Prairie View during Saturday’s regular-season finale (3 p.m.), the Tigers will be in a fight for their postseason existence. It’s as simple as: The Tigers win and they have punched their ticket to next week’s SWAC Tournament in Birmingham, Ala. and the chance for a third straight NCAA Tournament berth. If they lose, it’s going to take some help from others to get the team that has won the last two SWAC championships into the conference tournament.

“It’s always a big weekend when we are playing Prairie View, so regardless of the stakes and what’s going on it’s always good,” said TSU coach Johnny Jones, whose team lost to the Panthers 89-74 in double overtime in their earlier meeting this season. “It’s obvious what you coach for is having opportunities to be in these situations and playing and competing at a certain level. This is another one.”

But the Tigers, who were picked as the preseason favorites to win the SWAC regular season, find themselves in this situation as a result of an inconsistent conference season. This is despite returning many of the key players like PJ Henry, John Walker and Karl Nicholas, who played key roles in the last two seasons’ runs that included NCAA Tournament First Four wins.

TSU started the SWAC season a stunning 0-5 after some of those key players sat for an extended period with injuries and illnesses. It’s been hard to recover since.

“So, it made it a little bit difficult for us and we lost a little bit of our chemistry and rhythm and we (ended) up having to play a bunch of freshmen who’ve gotten a lot of experience really during that time,” Jones said. “We were fortunate that in the second half of conference play, those guys have been back. I think our record has been somewhat of an indicator of it because of the games we have won and the ones that we haven’t have been really close and very competitive.”

The Tigers (11-19 overall) enter this weekend in a two-way tie for sixth place in the SWAC standings with 7-10 league records. Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Alabama State are right behind them at 6-10.

Only the top eight teams qualify for the SWAC Tournament.

“For us, we are still in control of our own destiny, and that’s where you want to be,” Jones said. “That’s a good thing for us. We go in, we get a win and we are not worried about really anything else.

“So that’s got to be our sole focus; going to compete at a high level and play a certain way to put ourselves in the best possible position in terms of competing in the conference tournament.”

Last weekend, Prairie View and TSU went into their weekend swing through Mississippi to face SWAC-leading Alcorn State and Jackson State, tied for sixth place. Ideally, the Tigers needed at least a split of the two games but ended up losing both in relatively close fashion.

The Panthers, who sit in fifth place at 12-18 and 8-9 going into the final weekend, split last weekend, recording a win over Alcorn State.

“When we leave home, we are going to win two,” said Jones, whose team has won just three road games this season. “We are not looking to split.”

But there is no question the ill-timed sweep does add a little more pressure to this weekend.

“This past weekend we went in there needing a couple to move up towards the top of the standings and we didn’t do it,” Jones said. “But today we live to fight another day. We are going to do battle on one of our biggest rival’s campus and we look forward to certain challenges.”

Now Jones is looking for his team to take care of business on Saturday. From there, he believes a third-straight NCAA Tournament bid could be in the Tigers’ future after three SWAC Tournament wins.

“We are fortunate we have some experience, so hopefully we can do what we need to to be in the situation to be in Birmingham,” he said. “And then have three good days of basketball and we are able to put it all together.”