Because I like and miss the fine state of Alabama, it won't surprise you to learn I root for the mid-major teams there. Jax State is my favorite Ohio Valley team. South Alabama and Troy are my favorite Sun Belt teams. Now that Samford's taken its Princeton of the South act to the SoCon, they're my favorite team in that conference. Etc. So over the last month-plus of the season I'm going to be profiling and occasionally updating the status of the Heart of Dixie's six mid-major representatives (the four mentioned above, plus the SWAC's Alabama St. and Alabama A&M), starting today with Team USA.
Last year: Under "first-year" head coach Ronnie Arrow--Arrow is in his second stint as the Jaguar head man, having coached South to their freaking awesome 1989 upset of Wimp Sanderson's Tide--the Jaguars had their best season since, well, Arrow's first tour of duty in Mobile. Led by their starting senior backcourt of Daon Merritt and Demetric Bennett, South upset future tourney team Mississippi St. and went 16-2 in Sun Belt play to wrap up the Sun Belt's first at-large bid since Chris Marcus was patrolling the paint for Western Kentucky. A home loss to Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt semis and a bad match-up for the high-temp Jags against Butler in the NCAAs first-round (and subsequent 81-61 loss) took a little bit of the shine off, but the Jags had nonetheless proven that John Pelphrey's decision to take the Arkansas job wasn't going to be to do any lasting damage to the program.
Expectations: Without Merritt and Bennett, the Sun Belt's favorite baton was passed to Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, and the Jags had a rocky offseason in which leading returning scoring guard Domonic Tilford was arrested on drug charges before being cleared to play. Nonetheless, with three seniors to rotate into the frontcourt, promising JUCO LaShun Watson stepping in at the 3, and Tilford--also a senior--around to put the ball in the basket, South had reasonable hopes of remaining in the Sun Belt's top tier, if not necessarily challenging for a title.
How it's worked out: It hasn't been a disaster, but it's safe to say the Jaguars also aren't satisfied with an 11-9 overall record, a 4-5 mark in league play, and fourth place in the Sun Belt East division. South took on a rough nonconference schedule and nearly took down Arkansas in Pelphrey's return to Mobile, falling 79-77. And while the Jags did very well against their peers--going 6-0 against non-BCS competition in the nonconference slate--they were also noncompetitive in several games, getting blown out by Louisville, Mississippi St., and Ole Miss.
Sun Belt play hasn't been much kinder, as South has proven it can hang with the league's better teams--but hasn't yet shown it can actually beat them. The Jags have fallen by three to Western Kentucky at home, by two to West leader Arkansas Little-Rock at home, by two on a three-point buzzer beater at Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday. Then again, South has also proven it can get blown out by the league's better teams--they were waxed by 15 at home against MTSU and, in the season's low point to date, lost by 24 to Troy.
The Jags probably aren't quite as bad as the Sun Belt standings suggest--Pomeroy calls them the fourth-best team in the league, and their RPI is a not-awful 175--but with road trips to MTSU, WKU, and Troy all still to come, any hope of a surprise divisional title is gone. South will have to settle for playing spoiler.
What's gone right: Tilford, for starters. He's connected on 44 percent of his three-pointers, the best mark of anyone in the league playing more than 30 minutes a game, and averaged a team-high 18.6 points-per-game while dishing a team-high 3.3 assists per-game as well. Led by Tilford and with three other players shooting better than 35 percent from deep, South ranks second in the league in both 3-point percentage at 38.7 and offensive points-per-possession at 1.051.
The frontcourt's mostly held up its end of the bargain as well--seniors Brandon Davis and DeAndre Coleman combine for more than 24 points a game, top the 60 percent mark in true shooting percentage (Davis ranks 39th in the country), and along with Watson and third senior Ronald Douglas have held opoosing Sun Belt teams to the lowest 2-point shooting percentage in conference play. They're getting it done.
What's gone wrong: Just about everything else. Probably the biggest problem for South is that the youth in the backcourt has left their perimeter defense totally exposed: the Jaguars rank dead last in the Sun Belt in both 3-point percentage allowed and turnovers forced. The result is that even with the outstanding defense on the interior, the Jags give up so many open 3's and so many shots, period, that their defense has been outright bad: in conference play, South's points-per-possession allowed sits at an ugly 1.024, ninth in the league.
The backcourt inexperience hasn't helped on the offensive end, either, with South ranking eighth in the league in turnover rate and really, really struggling to finish plays at the basket: despite the efforts of Davis and Coleman, South shoots just 47.8 percent from inside the arc in league play, ranking seventh. They're not taking advantage at the line, either, where they shoot just 65.7 percent. The outside marksmanship means South remains an above-average Sun Belt team offensively despite the turnovers and inside shooting woes, but it's not enough to offset their defensive deficiencies. It's particularly true in Sun Belt play, where despite the easier schedule and increase in home contests, the Jags have regressed statistically virtually across the board.
What's next: Like any mid-major whose regular season title hopes have slipped away, the Jags will start focusing on this year's conference tournament, to be played in Hot Springs, Arkansas (assuming South survives the first round play-in games on campus). On the one hand, Tilford's explosiveness and the close calls against WKU and UALR suggest that if South could just ratchet up the defensive intensity just a little bit, they could be a very dangerous team come March. On the other, even with home-court advantage South couldn't get over the hump over the top half of the league; why should it be any different on a neutral court in Arkansas?
Which is why South will be very much worth watching down the stretch as they go to Murfreesboro and Bowling Green and Troy. Strong efforts in those inhospitable environments could show that the Jags have started to get it (particularly on defense) and will be capable of challenging the higher-ups in Hot Springs; blowouts will show that Arrow should maybe start going back to the drawing board for 2009-2010.