It’s been over eight months, but the Texas Southern men’s basketball team still feels the emptiness of unfinished business they were left with last season.
As the No.3 seed in the SWAC Tournament, the Tigers had dismantled Grambling State in the quarterfinals game and had made it to Birmingham as one of the final teams vying for the conference championship and the right to move on to the NCAA Tournament. That’s when it all went left.
Fears began to spread about the deadly coronavirus so the SWAC, like all conference tournaments, shutdown and effectively ended the March Madness dreams for college basketball players across the country. That included the Tigers, too.
The players found out in a meeting room at the team hotel that the postseason had been canceled and they were headed to their respective homes.
“It hurt, I’m not even going to lie,” said TSU junior forward Yahuza Rasas. “I was a sophomore last year and it still struck me hard. So, I can imagine what it did to our seniors.
“I remember being in the hallway of the hotel and that being our banquet, that being our goodbyes to each other. It should never had went down like that, but it was just some things that we couldn’t control.”
The next several months weren’t much of a picnic either as the players were sent home, isolated from their team and coaches and now taking classes online. Their only connection came via Zoom meetings.
But fast forward several months later, the Tigers returned to campus and began practicing Oct. 14. Now, they are ready to start the season a few weeks later than normal but feeling optimistic about the 2020-21 campaign.
TSU opened the season this week at Washington State, and will play at Oklahoma State on Saturday. There is still quite a bit of concern about the COVID-19 virus and the safety of playing sports, but the Tigers seem excited to be back on the court and with a chance to remove the bitter taste of last season.
“We’re trying to move forward, but it’s in the back of our minds for sure,” said forward Justin Hopkins. “It adds a little fuel to the fire, but we feel like we are in good position again this year.”
The Tigers lost star guard Tyrik Armstrong and Eden Ewing, but return three talented starters in senior guard John Jones, Rasas and Hopkins and a major contributor in Chris Baldwin. TSU has been picked as the preseason favorite to win the SWAC, while Rasas and Hopkins are first-team preseason all-conference selections and Baldwin made the second team.
Additionally, the Tigers have nine letter-winners back from last season’s squad while adding a few new key pieces.
TSU third-year coach Johnny Jones hopes this year’s team will carry some motivation from how last season ended into this campaign.
“The guys coming back now, they are hungry because they felt like they left something out there last year and now they’ve got a chance to do it again,” he said. “Those guys have a chance to come back now and play for something special.”