The NCAA Tournament formula for TSU was simple: Schedule difficult out-of-conference games to raise the RPI, win every game in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and then win the SWAC tournament. Accomplish that, and the thinking was, the Tigers wouldn’t just get into the tournament, but they would get to bypass a play-in game and, they hoped, get a 13, 14 or 15 seed — anything but the No. 16 seed death slot.
That formula has seemingly been working. TSU still has a semi-decent RPI thanks to the out-of-conference schedule. The 16-11 record is not stellar, but nine of those losses were before conference play started, and TSU is sitting in first place in the SWAC. But TSU is barely clinging to the conference lead, and head coach Mike Davis thinks that winning the SWAC tournament no longer matters because of the two conference losses.
“We kind of blew our chances, if we won our tournament, to not get a play-in game,” TSU head coach Mike Davis said Monday night. “I think right now, no matter what happens, we’re going to get a play-in game just because we lost (two conference games) on the road. We’ve just got to keep getting better every game. We know that it’s a one-bid league. But if we can win our league, we’ve got a NIT bid. And that’s important for us to get postseason play.”
Thus every game is still a must-win for the Tigers. That’s the basic reality for a team playing a one-bid basketball conference. But if TSU can win just enough games and find a way to win the conference regular season title, then while it might not get to the NCAA, it can make the second-tier NIT.
The Tigers are a sterling 12-2 in conference play, but just one game ahead of rival Alcorn State in the standings. That means one more slip-up could keep TSU from advancing to NCAA postseason play.
That slip-up, though, didn’t happen on Monday night. The Tigers faced a very bad Mississippi State Valley team. TSU spurted to a fast 8-0 lead in the game, seemingly in control, looking to put the game away just minutes into the action. That was a very real possibility, seeing as how the Delta Devils were just 4-23 on the season. But the Tigers started getting a little sloppy and Mississippi Valley started making shots. For a short span in the first, TSU even trailed in the game before taking the 36-35 to the locker room at halftime.
“They were fighting for their life,” Davis said. “They have four wins; the next team to them has six. They have three games left after this one, so they have to win two more games to get to six wins and the eighth spot [which gets them in the SWAC Tournament]. So we knew that they would come out like they came out.”
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But TSU played the second half the way a team like TSU should play the second half. It played like a good team that was tired of toying around with a lesser opponent. The passes were crisp. Three pointers were buried. The team ran off the first eight points of the second half, and it was up 23 points with a little under ten minutes left, and won by a final score of 92-61. The Tigers looked like the best team in the SWAC and a squad getting ready for NCAA tournament play.
“We talked about it at halftime,” Davis said. “We forced them to their weakness. We shared the ball quicker. We’d had too many people in the backcourt versus their press, so we spread it out and played it that way. I was happy.”
The Tigers have four games left this season, which they surely must win.
“We just have to go and execute the game plan,” Davis says. “That’s the key for us. Don’t feel any outside pressure about winning or losing. Just execute the game plan.”