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The Southwestern Athletic Conference, annually one of the worst leagues in the country, did not disappoint last season--if you were looking for the SWAC to be the worst conference in America. Six teams finished above .500 in the league, with one more finishing .500. However, only two teams finished above .500 overall--and those teams were a combined 3 games above .500. That's how it usually is in the SWAC: the winner of the automatic bid gets to play in the play-in game as a result of the atrocious RPI that this conference garners throughout the season. Last year, Alabama A&M blew out Alabama State in the conference championship, then got beaten handily by Oakland in the play-in game. The goal of the conference this season is to stay out of the dreaded play-in game. Can Alabama A&M do it? Or will another team step up with an impressive enough resume to get a normal first round game?
Favorite: Alabama A&M is the returning champion and has the talent to repeat. Obie Trotter is the best player in the league, both offensively and defensively. He is also an excellent passer and a very good rebounder for his size. He can control a game by himself. His backcourt mate, Marcus Jones, was the league's Freshman of the Year a season ago. All-SWAC performer Joe Martin returns in the frontcourt. He averaged nearly 14 points and 8 rebounds last year. Center Chris Collins also returns in the starting lineup. The lone vacant spot could go to freshman Michael Ford or returnee Kevin Smith.
Contenders: Grambling State has one of the best players in the conference returning in guard Brion Rush. He is a good shooter who can also blow by most defenders. Joining him on the perimeter are returning starter Andre Ratliff, who should improve his numbers this season, and Marcus Watson, who should provide depth. The frontcourt has a solid group of forwards, led by Jamar Lewis. John Dorsey and Martez Stevens will fight for a starting spot, as will Anthony Williams, who sat out last season with an injury. Mississippi Valley State has a very good inside-outside combo in guard Hosea Butler and Ronald Alexander. Butler contributes in all facets of the game, while Alexander might be the best big man in the league. He needs to increase his production, though. Three other starters return. Wings Sandford Speech and Solomon Forbes are good scorers, and give the Delta Devils even more options on offense. Forward Jesse Taylor is another good offensive player, and could be poised for a big season. Jeffrey Price will fight for a starting job in the frontcourt, while Kelvin McCoy provides depth in the backcourt.
Sleepers: Arkansas Pine-Bluff returns all five starters from a 7-21 ninth place team. Of course that is a mixed blessing. Guard Tamarius Brown is one of the SWAC's best perimeter players, while Larry Williams and Martese Coleman also join him in the backcourt. The Golden Lions' frontcourt duo is one of the best in the league. Jarvis Gunter and William Byrd combined to average 18 points and 14 rebounds a year ago. Texas Southern has one of the best guards in the league in Sean Walker, possibly the best scorer in the SWAC. Justin Miller could also develop into one of the premier point guards in the conference. He's an excellent penetrator. Jacques Jones is a solid player in the frontcourt, while Arkansas State transfer Chris Moore will team with him down low. Jackson State returns five guys that averaged between 8.3 and 8.7 points per game, leaving them with no go-to-guy, but several decent options on offense. Charles White and Dakari Wallace form a very good backcourt. Trey Johnson, a transfer from Alcorn State, is expected to make a big impact on the perimeter. Forwards Ernest Hassell and Hilton Tompkins are a sound forward duo, and should improve their scoring and rebounding numbers.
Rounding Out the Pack: Alcorn State has a very good guard in Delvin Thompson, who can carry the Braves. Forward Almaad Jackson is expected to have a breakout season in the frontcourt, while Juan Wyatt should also expand his role up front. Southern may have the best inside-outside combo in the league in guard Chris Alexander and forward Pete Cipriano. Both should be all-conference players. Alexander is a multi-talented perimeter player, while Cipriano is a double-double threat each night out. Swingman Alvin Mott is a good scorer and rebounder on the wing. Prairie View A&M has a decent group of returnees to help them in their quest to improve from 5-23. 6-3 guards Phillip Scott and Oscar Thompson were both double-figure scorers, while Jared Ellison, Marlon Davis, and Dominique Sharpe also are contributors on the perimeter. Frontcourt production is going to need to come from Anthony Oha and a host of newcomers. Alabama State could go from league runner-up to last place, although I am probably going to regret this pick. Alexander Oliver and George Savage form a decent returning backcourt, while Herbert Warren is a solid shooter. Richard Lott and Joel Bosh will need to have big years up front. Unless someone comes out of the woodwork to have a huge season, I can't see the Hornets winning many games.
Prediction: Alabama A&M has the league's best team, by far. Obie Trotter is the clear-cut choice for Player of the Year; Joe Martin may be the best frontcourt player in the league; and Marcus Jones is an excellent point guard in the SWAC. Grambling State and Mississippi Valley State will give valiant efforts, but will come up short as a result of the Bulldogs' advantage in talent and depth. Hopefully, they will build up an impressive enough resume to stay out of the play-in game.
Player of the Year: Obie Trotter, Alabama A&M
G- Obie Trotter, Alabama A&M
G- Brion Rush, Grambling State
F- Joseph Martin, Alabama A&M
F- Pete Cipriano, Southern
C- Ronald Alexander, Mississippi Valley State
G- Sean Walker, Texas Southern
G- Tamarius Brown, Arkansas Pine-Bluff
G- Delvin Thompson, Alcorn State
G- Hosea Butler, Mississippi Valley State
G- Chris Alexander, Southern
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