SALT LAKE CITY – From the start of this season, as Southern University basketball coach Roman Banks worked to rebuild his team from the ruins of academic sanctions, he held up Gonzaga as a paradigm.
Just because he wanted his team to be like the Zags doesn’t mean he necessarily wanted to have to face the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament.
Banks and his No. 16-seeded Jaguars (23-9) meet the top-ranked and No. 1-seeded Zags (31-2) at approximately 1:10 p.m. (PDT) today. No top seed has ever lost to a 16.
But the Jaguars certainly are embracing the opportunity to go against a team they’ve heard about all season.
“No question about it, I’ve been using these guys all year long as an example to building a program,” Banks said Wednesday. “I think they are a true example of what we’re trying to do at Southern University. Actually, when you watch their program, and how they play, we’re similar in many ways.”
Senior guard Derick Beltran said the message of Gonzaga’s success is about more than just contemporary success.
“Our coach told us that 20 years ago Southern was in the top 25 and nobody knew what Gonzaga was,” Beltran said. “The tables are turned now, but we tried to bring Southern back to where it used to be in the ’80s and ’90s, so we’re working hard for it.”
The hard work is not limited to the hardwood.
Before Banks took over the program two years ago, Southern was put on probation for shortcomings in the NCAA’s academic progress rate.
It cost the Jaguars four scholarships and they had to serve a one-year postseason ban.
Banks instituted a monitoring and assistance program that included having coaches chaperone players to class on a daily basis.
The discipline transferred to the floor. After starting the season 1-5, the Jaguars won 12 straight, and then finished by winning seven of their final eight, including the conference tournament title to earn an NCAA berth.
Banks used the Zags as more than just a general template, employing some of the same on-court tactics.
“They have bigger size and some quality players, but, you know, a lot of times as we are watching them and scouting them, we try to do some of the same things,” Banks said. “It won’t be anything that we’re unfamiliar with, but it’s the man on the court trying to stop what they’re doing.”
Senior guard Jameel Grace said he could tell from the start of the season that big things were possible. And the hard work paid off as “we’re finally able to come to the dance,” Grace said.
So, yes, Southern has Grace.
But as a 16 seed, the Jags may not have much hope.Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org @DaveBoling