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On March 21st of this year, Gonzaga – the team that arguably popularized the term “Cinderella” as a signifier for mid-major success against the odds – nearly found the glass slipper on the other foot. The Bulldogs were the No. 1 seed, and the pesky, vastly outgunned Southern Jaguars were hanging around, threatening to become the first No. 16 seed to ever pull the first-round upset. The Zags pulled out the win, but the 64-58 final score sent shock waves around the college basketball world.
That it was Southern putting the irons to a top seed was even more shocking than the final score. The Jaguars earned their auto-bid out of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the league that came in dead last in the kenpom.com rankings last season, below the Great West and DI Independents.
SWAC teams don’t win much, because SWAC teams have no money. The Jaguars, who nearly made NCAA history a few months ago, ranked 341st out of 344 schools in basketball expenditures in 2012. According to the NCAA, each team that appeared in a tourney game last season earned roughly $242,200 for each March Madness showdown. The Southern basketball budget a year ago was roughly $535,000 total.
What could a SWAC team do with two NCAA units? More?
Winning a game or two in the NCAA tournament isn’t a crazy thought for a low-budget program any more. Remember Norfolk State and Lehigh celebrating 15 over 2 upsets on the same day two years ago? Both schools fall well below the median in basketball budget year-in and year-out. Norfolk State, like Southern is one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and a member of the MEAC, which has sent Hampton and Coppin State to legendary upsets in the past.
SWAC teams have won five NCAA tournament games since 1980, but three of those came in preliminary round games against other double-digit seeds. Another was an 8 vs. 9 matchup between Alcorn State and South Alabama in 1980. The only true upset came at the hands of the legendary Ben Jobe, who took a 13-seeded SWAC team – the Jaguars, handily enough – to a 93-78 win over Georgia Tech in 1993.
So, with the SWAC auto-bid firmly planted in the sixteen-seed range every year, can the big upset happen? Absolutely.
The Jaguars weren’t even the best team in the SWAC last year. Texas Southern, under former Indiana and UAB head coach Mike Davis, was 16-2 in the SWAC but ineligible for postseason play. This year, Davis and company add two-time transfer Aaric Murray to a team that loves to run and gun. A skilled big man who can run the court may be all the Tigers need to eke out a program-defining win in March. If they miss out, Southern is the counterpuncher, using defensive intensity to disrupt bigger, faster opponents.
The SWAC showed us that it’s possible for a 16 seed to beat a 1 last season. There’s no reason the cash-poor league can’t pull a true Cinderella routine in the near future. Possibly as soon as this year.