Who are they?
In Wikipedia fashion, the Southern University Jaguars basketball team is a Division I team that competes in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Jaguars are coached by Morris Scott, who is in his first year as interim head coach of the program. Roman Banks, who led the Jaguars as head coach for the previous six seasons, stepped down from his position to become the athletic director of the University. Southern is located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Oh, and the Jaguars are sponsored by Russell Athletic Company, if that tells you anything.
What did they do last year?
The Jaguars didn’t have the greatest season last year. They finished with a record in conference play just above .500 (10-8), but they had an overall record of 15-18. The Jaguars did win a conference tournament game against Jackson State before losing in the semifinals to Alcorn State.
In the 2015-16 season, Southern actually won the SWAC Tournament and earned a spot as a no. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lost to a No. 16-seed, Holy Cross, in a First Four game, 59-55.
Southern did not have any great or notable wins a year ago. It began its non-conference schedule with three consecutive losses to Ohio, Georgia Tech and Sam Houston State, respectively. The only Big Ten team the Jaguars had a matchup with was Nebraska on Dec. 20, a game which Southern lost 81-76. (Remember, Nebraska was 12-19 last season and 6-12 in the Big Ten.) The Jaguars were 0-1 against the AP Top-25 with a 89-59 loss at Baylor on Dec. 14.
As a team, the Jaguars and Illini had similar stats last year. Both teams averaged just under 72 points per game, with Illinois shooting at a slightly higher clip than Southern (.445 vs. .436). Both these numbers are pretty average in terms of the NCAA as a whole. Southern did average twice as many blocks (four) than Illinois last year, but it also only shot 31.9 percent from deep. In sum, there was nothing special going on offensively or defensively with either of these teams — but we knew that about John Groce’s team.
Key losses, Key returners
Southern is actually a pretty experienced team — 12 of the 16 players listed on the roster are upperclassmen. One thing the Jaguars have working for them is that they are older. Two of Southern’s key leaders are gone, however.
The Jaguars lost their leading scorer in 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard Shawn Prudhomme, who averaged 17.5 points. The floor general of the offense, Tre’lun Banks, also graduated. He led the team with five assists per game.
The most important piece returning for Southern will be senior forward Jared Sam (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) who averaged 13.6 points and 7.4 boards a year ago. He outweighs Leron Black by 10 pounds and only Michael Finke (other than Matic Vesel, who I doubt will see much playing time this year) matches him in height.
Senior guard Chris Thomas (NO, not the Illinois volleyball coach!) will have to take over much of the role held by Prudhomme and Banks last year. Thomas played about 23 minutes per game last season, so he is the second-most experienced returner (Sam). Thomas’ numbers weren’t flashy in 2016 (8.5 points, 4.7 rebounds), but he may be poised for a breakout year.
LaQuentin Collins (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and Emanuel Shepherd (6-foot-8, 200 pounds) each played around 16 minutes per game last year and will have bigger roles in 2018.
This one is pretty cut and clear.
Jared Sam is the likely candidate to have an impressive game against Illinois. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a ton of highlight reels on Southern or Sam specifically, but here’s a little dose of his movement around the basketball in an NCAA Tournament game two years ago:
Because of his size and experience, Sam is going to see a lot of playing time and likely lead the offense in just about every statistic. The Jaguars, while they have plenty of upperclassmen, will still be searching for answers as the season gets underway. Expect Sam to have a double-double midway through the second half and Brad Underwood to have to make some adjustments on the defensive end of the court.
What to expect
Things will be sloppy for much of this game by both teams. Illinois fans were brought down to earth after a loss to Eastern Illinois where the Illini led at halftime but eventually fell by 13 to the Panthers.
The Jaguars have lost some key leadership from last season like the Illini, and their head coach is in his first year as well. Don’t be shocked to see plenty of turnovers, bad shots and a relatively low-scoring game until well into the second half. It will take some in-game adjustments by both coaches to really get a rhythm going in the first game of the season that really ‘counts.’
A team’s first game of the season is always difficult to predict. That being said, this is a Southern team that had a pretty sub-par season last year, even for a team in the SWAC. Illinois should be able to pull out a victory — it’s a home game on a Friday night against a much lesser program.
I expect it to be close, but the Illini will pull out a single-digit victory. Look for Finke to make some clutch shots down the stretch and Black to be all over the boards. It may not end up being pretty, but Brad Underwood will get his first victory as head coach of the University of Illinois men’s basketball team.