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HBCU Basketball

Texas Southern gaining confidence from big wins against Oregon, Baylor

Tough early-season schedule preparing Tigers for big things in March

In the midst of a merciless way to start the season — 14 of the first 16 games on the road, including games against six Power Five opponents — first-year Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones laughed when asked whether he had inherited the potentially confidence-crushing slate of games.

“This is all on me,” Jones said. “I’m the one to blame for this brutal schedule.”

Welcome to life at a historically black college or university (HBCU), where so-called “money games” are scheduled and visiting teams are expected to happily depart with an “L” and a check.

But Jones — just over a year removed from the head job at LSU, where he coached Ben Simmons — and his Texas Southern team have flipped the script. The Tigers opened the season with an upset on the road at Baylor, giving the Bears their first loss against a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) team after 56 wins, and this week they pulled off an early-season shocker with an 89-84 win over No. 18 Oregon on Nov. 26.

The win over Oregon, the preseason pick to win the Pac-12, was a rarity: According to ESPN Stats & Information it was just the sixth time that teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the SWAC, the two Division I HBCU conferences, have won regular-season games against Top 25 opponents.

  • 2018-19 Texas Southern (SWAC) 89, No. 18 Oregon 84
  • 2014-15 Texas Southern 71, No. 25 Michigan State 64
  • 2001-02 Hampton (MEAC) 77, No. 19 North Carolina 69
  • 1994-95 Texas Southern 71, No. 16 Minnesota 50
  • 1992-93 Jackson State (SWAC) 92, No. 24 Tulane 84
  • 1973-74 Morgan State (MEAC) 72, No. 20 Maryland-Eastern Shore 70

The fact that Jones is in the position to lead his team to two early-season upsets is a credit to the successful program built in recent years by Mike Davis, the former Indiana coach who led the Tigers to four NCAA tournament appearances in his six years at Texas Southern. Davis left over the summer to take the job at Detroit Mercy after taking the Tigers to their second straight NCAA tournament appearance last season.

Attracting talent to the Houston school had never been a problem under Davis, with the Tigers claiming five straight Player of the Year award winners before Martaveous McKnight of Arkansas-Pine Bluff won it last year.

That foundation made the job attractive to Jones, who was the associate head coach at Nevada last season after spending five years at LSU. Jones knew from Davis, his longtime friend, that Texas Southern was a place where the winning tradition and top-notch facilities would help him recruit talented players.

“Often, programs make changes because of lack of success,” Jones said. “I’m fortunate about what I walked into.”

“The challenge is to make sure the chemistry is good,” said coach Johnny Jones. “Playing these games makes our guys understand just how good Power Five teams are and how difficult it is to play at that level.”

Jones is learning that the divide between the SEC and the SWAC is vast, especially when scheduling is factored in. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jones had the luxury of playing many of his pre-conference games at home. The Tigers, over the last two seasons under Davis, didn’t play their first home game until January.

“This has put me in a position I’ve never been in before,” said Jones, who was able to squeeze in two home games before the new year. “There have been some growing pains.”

Consider that sandwiched between the opening-night win over Baylor and the upset over Oregon there were four straight losses at a tournament in Hawaii to now-No. 1 Gonzaga (104-67), Iowa State (85-73), San Diego State (103-64) and Evansville (85-63).

“The challenge is to make sure the chemistry is good,” Jones said. “Playing these games makes our guys understand just how good Power Five teams are and how difficult it is to play at that level. It’s a good thing we have a few guys on our team who have been there.”

Three Texas Southern players have put in time in Power Five conferences: Trayvon Reed, a 7-foot-2 center, is in his second year with the Tigers after a year at Auburn; Jeremy Combs and Jalyn Patterson are both graduate students who played at LSU. Patterson was coached by Jones at LSU.

Two other regulars also played at bigger schools: Devocio Butler, in his second season with the Tigers, played a year at Colorado State; and John Jones, the coach’s son who scored 20 points against Oregon, played sparingly last year in his one season at Nevada.

The X factor for the Tigers is Reed. When he’s been able to stay out of foul trouble, Reed has impacted games with his height and massive wingspan. In his matchup against Bol Bol, the freshman center at Oregon who’s expected to be a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft, Reed scored 23 points, hitting all nine of his shots.

“He’s a lot like [Dallas Mavericks center] DeAndre Jordan. He doesn’t take a lot of shots, but his energy allows him to be effective,” Jones said. “If he continues to grow throughout the season, he’ll have a chance at the next level.”

With the early-season wins on the road at Baylor and Oregon, Texas Southern clearly has the talent to win the SWAC. The challenge will be to keep the team meshing during the conference season and for the one-week SWAC tournament, where the pressure of the single automatic NCAA bid often gets heavy.

“We have guys with future aspirations, so the important thing is to make sure everybody understands to do what’s best to make the team successful,” Jones said. “We just have to buy into the fact that everyone has a chance to eat.”

At the very least, the players are feeling the love on campus courtesy of the big wins. During a job fair held in the basketball arena Wednesday, the Texas Southern players were just as popular as the people there offering jobs.

“We’re capturing the admiration from our student body, administration and our fans,” Jones said. “We just have to make sure we keep our focus.”

Jones sees no signs of his team getting complacent.

“If anything, this makes us a lot hungrier now,” Jones said. “We got a taste of winning against big-time teams. We just want to maintain that hunger for the rest of the season.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.