Even before the Arizona Wildcats hit the EnergySolutions Arena floor for their first NCAA tournament game last March in Salt Lake City, the crowd was going nuts.
That’s because Southern University was making a bid to become the first-ever No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, losing 64-58 to the Zags while making fans even though the Bulldogs were playing much closer to home.
“I think everybody was so moved by their effort and their resilience and their confidence,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the game. “If I wasn’t coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for.”
The Jaguars that show up tonight for a 7 o’clock game at McKale Center won’t be quite the same, having lost four seniors from last season and being without injured forward Calvin Godfrey.
But they’re used to playing tough teams in tough environments, not only facing Gonzaga last season but playing at Florida and Marquette earlier this season and having plans to play Baylor on Sunday.
Southern coach Roman Banks explained what’s up with the Jaguars upon arriving at UA’s Richard Jefferson Gym for a practice Wednesday afternoon:
- They need the money:
- Southern will actually be getting paid the most of any one-time opponent to enter McKale Center this season, $96,000. The Jaguars have also scheduled road games at Florida, Marquette, Baylor and Louisiana Tech, all in an attempt to help float their athletic department’s budget.
“We can use it,” Banks said. “I guess that’s why we have four Top 25 teams on the schedule.”
- They’re rebuilding:
- Southern lost three starters and four seniors overall off the team that went 23-10 last season, finished second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and won their league tournament.
They are 3-7 so far but lost by only seven at Marquette and played Florida tough before losing by 14 last month.
The Gonzaga game “was good for our program, but we’ve been trying to find new leadership,” Banks said. “We’ve got a talented group of guys, but we’re not that cohesive team that we were last year.
“For the most part guys have been playing pretty good. We’ve lost a lot of close games, and we had some injuries. In the process we’ve had to play some young guys, and I think we’ve gained a lot of experience and hopefully that will make us a better basketball team. We’re starting to come around.
- They go deep in their bench:
- Ten Jaguars average 12 minutes or more while Banks keeps experimenting with his rotation, trying to figure out what works.
Tonight, for example, Banks said he’s likely to start freshman Damien Goodwin at power forward, in place of Godfrey. Banks said forward Malcolm Miller, the SWAC preseason player of the year, has also struggled to find his place within the new group.
“A lot of it is we’re still trying to figure it out,” Banks said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in them talent-wise, but we’re still a team searching for our identity.”
- They’ve had a health scare:
- Senior forward Javan Mitchell, the Jaguars’ third-leading scorer last season, wasn’t cleared until just before the regular-season opener because of an enlarged heart.
And until only recently, Banks said, the concern still hung over him mentally.
“I think he’s getting confidence in himself now that maybe nothing’s going to happen,” Banks said. “We had to be very cautious and he knows about some players in the past (have had problems). But the last couple of games he’s playing and not worried about it.”
- They’re far ahead of schedule:
- When Banks took over the Jaguars before the 2011-12 season, they were coming off a 4-26 season and were ineligible for the postseason because of poor Academic Progress Ratings. They had only seven scholarship players, forcing Banks to seek walk-on help.
But by last season, they were in the NCAA tournament and almost made history. That caught attention of fans in Baton Rouge, La., home also to Louisiana State.
Former LSU coach “Dale Brown said, ‘Coach Banks, you’ve done it too quickly. There’s a lot of high expectations now, and people don’t understand,’ ” Banks said. “But I think you always want to try to win.”