When you’re in the NCAA tournament, but not fully in
By Jeré Longman
Finally, a taut game began to turn in Texas Southern’s favor. An automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament was within reach. An assistant coach knelt at the Texas Southern bench as if to start a decisive sprint to the finish line. Players jumped to their feet, waving towels the way trainers cool boxers between rounds.
The knockout punch came on a 17-2 run that sent Texas Southern to an eventual 87-62 victory over top-seeded Alcorn State on Saturday in the championship game of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
The Tigers hugged and posed for photographs and climbed a ladder to cut down the nets. Josh White, a Texas Southern assistant, had clapped so hard during the pivotal stretch that he said, “My hands feel like they’re on fire.”
Yet the reward for this stirring intensity, for this sixth title in the past eight SWAC tournaments, was underwhelming. Texas Southern (18-12), a historically Black university located in Houston, was given a 16 seed and relegated yet again to the First Four, or play-in round, of the men’s NCAA Tournament. The Tigers defeated Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, also a 16 seed, 76-67 on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. The victory earned Texas Southern a shot at No. 1 seed Kansas tonight (9:57 p.m. ET) in a Midwest Region first-round game in Fort Worth, Texas.
In effect, Texas Southern was in the 68-team field, but not fully in, and still had to prove that it belongs. Continued frustration has led to much discussion about how teams from historically Black colleges and universities can enhance their access, visibility and success in an era of more questioning about racial bias.
“Disappointed, that’s a perfect word, but it gives us an opportunity to let everybody know we’re not flukes and we deserve to be” in the main 64-team bracket, said John Jones, a graduate guard for Texas Southern whose father, Johnny, is the team’s head coach.
Participants in the First Four games are the four lowest-seeded conference tournament champions and the four lowest-seeded at-large teams.
Norfolk State repeated as tournament champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the other HBCU league in Division I, but its compensation for a 24-6 record was a 16 seed in the main tournament bracket and an opening game against Baylor, a No. 1 seed and the defending national champion.
Robert Jones, the Norfolk State coach, said that a 16 seed was “nonsense.” “I feel disrespected, honestly,” he told reporters Sunday.
In 1997, 2001 and 2012, MEAC teams seeded 15th ousted No. 2 seeds in some of the greatest upsets in the men’s NCAA Tournament. Yet HBCUs have for decades faced barriers to broad participation and advancement in the most widely popular competition in collegiate sports.
“Some people look at equality and say, we have a seat at the table,” said J. Kenyatta Cavil, a professor at Texas Southern and an expert on HBCU sports. “But is that equitable as far as leveling the playing field?”
A team from the SWAC or MEAC — and several times both — has been placed in the play-in round of the NCAA men’s tournament in 21 of the past 22 seasons. This reflects, in part, the impact of the dual mission of basketball players at HBCUs, who are also fundraisers tasked with supplementing some of the smallest athletic budgets in Division 1.
Many HBCUs play most or all of their nonconference games on the road, often participating in so-called “buy” games. Schools earn roughly $75,000 to $100,000 per game to play teams in higher-rated conferences, in essence trading fierce competition and frequent defeat for paychecks. Texas Southern opened the season with seven consecutive road defeats and did not play at home until Jan. 8. The Tigers had to scramble through their conference schedule to breach .500 for the season.
This avalanche of early-season defeat helps explain why the SWAC and MEAC receive only one bid apiece to the NCAA Tournament. Their teams are disproportionately placed in the play-in round or seeded 16th in a region against a No. 1 seed, where the chances of advancing are remote.
Charles McClelland, commissioner of the SWAC and a member of the NCAA Division I basketball committee, told HBCU.com last year that the selection system was fair, saying, “It comes down to a philosophy within the Black colleges. Are you going to go out and get all of the money? Or are you going to try to put together a schedule that will allow winning?”
Norfolk State won 24 of 30 games this season, but its scheduling strategy did not elevate the Spartans’ seeding. A game against Loyola-Chicago, a recent postseason power, was canceled because of COVID. Of Norfolk State’s opponents, only Xavier of the Big East Conference reached the NCAA Tournament.
Progress for HBCUs was evident, though, in the pairings for the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament, which has expanded to 68 teams to match the men’s field. Jackson (Mississippi) State (23-6) went undefeated in the SWAC and received a 14 seed, which is rare and encouraging, given that no women’s team from the league has won an NCAA Tournament game.
The seeding “sends a message that should have been sent a long time ago: Don’t underestimate HBCUs,” Jackson State forward LaMiracle Sims said.
So how to further elevate the standing of HBCUs? Alcorn State President Felecia M. Nave proposed that all conference tournament champions be placed into the main tournament bracket, with only at-large teams placed into the First Four.
Jones, the Texas Southern coach, said he would support that change, noting that conference tournament champions “have won their way in; they aren’t voted on by a committee.”
There are some advantages to the play-in round: facing a similarly seeded opponent, playing before a national television audience with no competition from other games and having a chance to collect an additional payout from the NCAA basketball fund with a victory.
In 2018, Texas Southern was victorious in the First Four and became the first team with a losing record to win an NCAA Tournament game. In 2021, the Tigers won again in the play-in round.
But being placed in the main bracket from the start confers “a certain level of respect for the SWAC and the MEAC,” said John Jones, the Texas Southern guard.
To boost its roster, Texas Southern has taken advantage of a transfer rule that now allows players to switch schools once and play immediately instead of sitting out a year, creating a kind of free agency.
All of the Tigers’ top players are transfers, including forward Brison Gresham, who played in the Final Four last season with the University of Houston. “I’ve been through enough wars to know that conference doesn’t matter,” Gresham said. “When people look at the SWAC and think the level of play is low, that’s disrespect. It has a lot of tough players.”
The conference has also begun hiring high-profile coaches. Jackson State, which hired Hall of Fame defensive back Deion Sanders to coach football, last week hired Mo Williams, who played 13 seasons in the NBA, to coach men’s basketball. Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, the women’s coach at Texas Southern, won four titles as a player in the WNBA.
The stereotypical narrative for SWAC schools has been that teams will be seeded 15th or 16th in the NCAA Tournament and “should be happy to be there,” said Nathaniel Bell, an assistant coach for the Arkansas-Pine Bluff women’s team. “But we’re up for the challenge. What happens if we can change that storyline?”