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Texas Southern stars want to reverse trend of HBCU players not making it to the NBA

SWAC standouts Demontrae Jefferson, Trayvon Reed can showcase their skills against top-ranked Xavier

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Growing up, Demontrae Jefferson was almost always the smallest guy on the court. But even at 5-foot-7, he dominated the playgrounds of Milwaukee. Now his aspirations are bigger.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NBA,” said Jefferson, who’s featured in a mixtape that has more than 3 million views on YouTube. “The knock on me is my height. So when I play guys that are 6-1, 6-2, I have to show that they can’t guard me.”

Trayvon Reed — at 7-feet-2 — was always the biggest guy on the court, so NBA aspirations were always a given. Even on a troubled road that’s taken him to three college programs in four years, those dreams never faded.

“To play in the NBA, that’s the reason why I’m doing this,” Reed said. “People have always told me you’re so big, you’ll be in the NBA one day. I just hope that I can get a shot.”

Reed’s height and a wide wingspan will earn the junior an NBA look one day. Jefferson, despite his size, will get a look just for the way he’s dominated his position in almost every game he’s played this year (which has included averaging 24.2 points against the four ranked schools — Gonzaga, Kansas, Baylor and TCU — that Texas Southern has played this year).

But history has proved that reaching the NBA out of a historically black college and university (HBCU) is a long shot.

Currently there are just two HBCU players on NBA rosters — Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn of the New York Knicks and Tennessee State’s Robert Covington of the Philadelphia 76ers.

O’Quinn was the last HBCU player drafted (second round by the Orlando Magic in 2012), and one of just five HBCU players drafted over the past 20 years. That’s a far cry from the 22-year period between 1967 and 1989, when 42 players from HBCUs were selected in the first two rounds of the draft.

There is, clearly, a stigma attached to players from HBCUs.

The teams don’t get the top talent, for starters. Since the debut of the ESPN Top 100 in 2007, no Top 100 recruit — out of a pool of more than 1,000 players — has committed to an HBCU.

And teams aren’t respected when it comes to seeding: Since the NCAA tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, just one HBCU team, No. 13 seed Southern University in 1993, has received a seed better than 14. And Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) teams have been seeded 15th or lower 29 times since 1985, the most of any conference in that span.

So when Jefferson and Reed face No. 1 seed Xavier on Friday night, they’ll be attempting to showcase their skills to NBA scouts against tremendous odds.

But neither is deterred.

“I might be small,” said Jefferson, who averaged 23.4 points this season. “But check my record: I can play with anybody.”

HBCUs were once the only place where African-American players got their shot, thus becoming the college showcase for such legends as Al Attles, (North Carolina A&T), Bobby Dandridge (Norfolk State), Marques Haynes (Langston University), Sam Jones (North Carolina College at Durham, now North Carolina Central), Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem) and Willis Reed (Grambling).

Even after predominantly white institutions began to see the value of black players in the 1960s — a shift highlighted by Texas Western College starting five African-American players in the 1966 national championship game against Kentucky — HBCUs still produced notable talent, including Charles Oakley (Virginia Union) and Avery Johnson (Southern) in the 1980s and Darrell Armstrong (Fayetteville State) and Ben Wallace (Virginia Union) in the 1990s. In 1991, Larry Stewart from Coppin State became the first undrafted player in NBA history to make an All-Rookie team.

Why the change?

Some players see a vast difference in facilities. While HBCU teams play in gyms and arenas that provide great atmosphere, many of the buildings are old. A few examples: the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center at South Carolina State opened in 1968 and the Corbett Sports Center on the campus of North Carolina A&T in 1978.

When J.T. Miller transferred from Howard University to Missouri State this year, he went from playing at Burr Gymnasium, which was opened in 1963, to the JQH Arena, a $67 million state-of-the art facility in Springfield, Missouri, that opened in 2008.

“Our gym, our training rooms, all of our facilities are top-of-the-line,” Miller said. “It’s night and day from where I came from at Howard.”

Playing outside of an HBCU often brings increased exposure. Major conferences have their own television networks, and some mid-major leagues do as well. In the Big South, the future home of Hampton University, 84 percent of the men’s basketball games are on TV (the bulk of those via the Big South network).

That’s a significance difference from the MEAC and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose main national exposure comes during games that air on ESPN on Mondays.

“The facilities and the lack of exposure makes HBCUs a hard sell,” said Fang Mitchell, the former legendary coach who led 15th-seeded Coppin State to an upset of No. 2 seed South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA tournament. “Kids want to go to the high majors because of the visibility. That’s why I used to schedule games against some of those top schools because I could sell my kids on the fact that they would play in those big facilities in front of big crowds on a regular basis.”

That’s the same philosophy of Texas Southern coach Mike Davis, whose teams haven’t played a home game in November or December the past two seasons. Last season, the Tigers played their first 16 games on the road, and this year it was 13 (all losses). Instead of scheduling games against schools that might produce easy wins, Texas Southern has played some of the top teams in the nation.

Part of the justification for that scheduling is money: Those road games against major programs provide payouts, and Davis has a deal with his athletic director that lets the basketball team keep every dollar raised after the first $350,000.

The other part is the exposure to top talent so that his team won’t be in awe in situations such as Friday’s NCAA tournament game against Xavier.

“We just feel that the only way to get better is to play a really tough schedule,” Davis said. “We don’t want to play Division II schools, NAIA schools. I want to challenge the best schools out there. Once we get into the NCAA tournament play, we’ve seen it all.”

A bonus to playing those games is the ability to showcase his players. Texas Southern players who perform well against major conference schools will catch the eye of scouts who regularly attend major conference games.

“I want Trae and Trayvon to go to Gonzaga, Baylor and Kansas and show everyone what they have,” Davis said. “Each of these guys have a chance to play at the next level. It’s up to them to perform.”

In many ways, Texas Southern and other HBCUs have become the Last Chance U of college basketball. And the reclamation project of Reed, who averages 9.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, is a perfect example.

In 2013, Reed was teammates with D’Angelo Russell (Brooklyn Nets), Grayson Allen (Duke) and Joel Berry (North Carolina) on a team that won an AAU national title. For two straight years, he was invited to the NBPA Top 100 camp, a premier camp that allows high school players to work under the guidance of current and former NBA players.

Reed was a four-star recruit when he committed to Maryland in 2014. But he was arrested that July and charged with misdemeanor assault after a confrontation with officers who saw him shoplifting at a convenience store in College Park, Maryland. He later pleaded guilty.

Maryland withdrew its scholarship offer within days. Within a month, Reed committed to play at Auburn and played sparingly in 23 games as a freshman during the 2014-15 season.

He withdrew from Auburn in the fall of 2015, and re-enrolled the following January, intending to play in 2016-17. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl announced at the end of the school year that Reed would not be back, leaving the 7-foot-2 talent without a team.

“I went from being kicked out of school to going back to school to being out again, and it was tough,” Reed said. “I was home, watching my friends play and wondering would I ever get a chance. Not doing anything was probably the lowest point for me.”

Texas Southern was one of the few schools to show an interest during that period.

“When Mike Davis called, it was a big relief,” Reed said. “I want to thank coach for believing in me throughout the whole situation. He didn’t have to do what he did.”

But, in Davis’ mind, he had to.

“Where else are these kids going to go?” Davis said when asked about extending a lifeline to Reed. “Here at Texas Southern, I’m in a position where I can treat these kids like they’re my sons. And when your kids do something, you forgive them, you explain things to them and you give them a second and third shot.”

That’s what Davis has had to do with Jefferson this season, as he suspended him twice for violating team rules.

“I learned from the suspensions,” Jefferson said. “Sitting out actually helped me realize how big of a factor I was to the team. When I came back, I knew I needed to control myself.”

It was Jefferson’s attitude that probably led to schools having limited interest in him when he came out of high school. But he hasn’t caused any problems for Davis since being reinstated in February after a five-game suspension.

“I had to [suspend] him and it cost us the conference [regular-season] championship, and he gave up player of the year in our league because you have to play in 75 percent of the games for you to receive that award,” Davis said. “But his talent is tops in the country. And he’s a tough, tough guy. I had to get him to understand that his behavior has to fit the setting that he’s in.”

Davis, who replaced Bobby Knight as coach and led Indiana to the 2002 NCAA championship game, believes that both Jefferson and Reed are capable of playing in the NBA.

Reed is a project. He’s still thin, and could be a better rebounder. He’s a limited offensive player, a rarity these days when players built like him are stretch fours and fives.

But Reed’s shot-blocking ability (he had six against North Carolina Central in the First Four, and altered many others) is a game-changer if he plays smart enough to stay out of foul trouble.

“Reed has a shot because he’s so tall and so long,” Davis said. “He’s only a junior, so there’s still time for him to grow. All he has to do is control his effort and put in the work. If he does all of that, he’ll definitely get a chance.”

Davis knows that Jefferson’s size makes him a long shot for the NBA. But he believes that if Jefferson, who is only a sophomore, will get the opportunity if he can find balance in his fiery approach to the game and his attitude.

“He thinks he’s the best that’s ever played the game,” Davis said, laughing. “We go into a game, and the worst that you can do is start talking about another player — Trae acts like he doesn’t know who he is.”

That cockiness is now balanced with leadership. When Jefferson sensed his team was getting out of rhythm early in the second half of the win over North Carolina Central on Wednesday, he intentionally reached in and fouled a player — stunning the official, who wasn’t going to call it until an exasperated Jefferson threw his hands in the air in frustration — and then gathered his teammates to admonish them.

“He don’t take no crap,” said Donte Clark, a graduate senior who transferred from the University of Massachusetts. “He’s going to cuss us out, but he means well.”

Against Xavier, Reed and Jefferson get a shot to showcase their talents on national television against a No. 1 seed and in front of NBA talent evaluators.

It’s a chance to make a longshot a reality.

“If I want to reach the NBA, I have to do well against these teams and I’ve proven that,” Jefferson said. “People might say you don’t have a chance playing at an HBCU. But an HBCU gave me a shot at a time where other coaches didn’t show any interest. I’m happy I have the opportunity.”

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.