It’s not so much that TSU destroyed Grambling State 76-55 on Saturday night. It’s not so much that Texas Southern is now a perfect 4-0 in SWAC conference play, or even so much that the Tigers have won four straight games. Instead, it’s about this: TSU played its 17th game of the season Saturday night. And it was TSU’s first home game.
TSU is now 8-9, but don’t be fooled by that record because TSU has played a ridiculously difficult non-conference schedule that has included facing No. 1 Baylor, No. 14 Louisville, No. 16 Arizona and No. 22 Cincinnati (all rankings as of Sunday). The schedule has also included games against 14-3 TCU and 12-6 Rice.
Playing all of these non-conference games on the road has become a common occurrence since Mike Davis took over the program five seasons ago. Davis realizes his team should always compete for the SWAC title, and that winning the SWAC tournament means an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But Davis wants more for his team than just that automatic bid because that usually means getting stuck with a No. 16 seed or a play-in game.
So Davis takes his team on the road. He schedules difficult games. And he does so with one goal in mind, raising his team’s RPI as high as it can get before the team gets into conference play.
RPI is a stat that measures a school’s strength of schedule while one looks at how that team does against that schedule. And it’s become a huge tool used by the NCAA when it comes to selecting teams for the tournament and for determining the seeding. The higher the RPI, the better the seeding, but too low a RPI, the greater the chance of either a really low seed or just not going to the tournament.
“It’s great for us,” Davis said after Saturday’s win. “Right now we’re at 59 [in RPI]. We know we’re going to drop when we play our conference games. But we don’t want to get to where we’re in the 200s. I want around 150. If we can hold it around 100, then, and we win our league and the tournament, that’ll help us in not playing in the play-in game. So that’s the whole focus of that. The more you go on the road, the more you’re going to play for your RPI.”
Davis’s thinking is simple: the higher the school’s RPI, the better the chance the school has of either skipping the play-in or getting a seed better than No. 16 if TSU should win the conference. No No. 16 seed has ever won a game in the history of the NCAA tournament, so TSU needs a higher seed to have any realistic chance of advancing.
The thinking’s all useless, of course, if TSU can’t win the conference or the conference tournament. So Saturday’s win put the team in a good position. TSU sits at the top of the conference standings and it’s also the only team to have played three conference games on the road.
“We’re a little ahead of the pack right now," Davis said. “If we can just continue to take care of home and go take care of the road and try to get better every day that we play, I think we’ll be in good shape come March.”
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Davis has also been revamping his team’s style of play. Those who saw TSU's win over Rice way back in November will remember a team with a heavy emphasis on three-point shooting. But Davis has been pushing for a more balanced offense, with the ball whipping around the outside before going inside to a big man.
“We just started doing that the last couple of games, scoring inside,” Davis said. “Our guys have never passed the ball inside. We’ve been jacking up 25-30 threes every night. But as of late we haven’t been shooting that many three-point shots.”
The execution was there on Saturday night, with the leading scorer being seven-foot-tall center Marvin Jones with 18 points. Jones was also a force on the defensive side, pulling down ten rebounds and blocking five shots. The outside scoring came from Zach Lofton (16 points and four assists) and Demontrae Jefferson (13 points and four assists). TSU attempted just 11 three pointers for the night, and the new philosophy paid dividends, with TSU making 51 percent of its shots for the game.
TSU is in a good position to make the NCAA tournament, despite that 8-9 record. With it's high RPI and large number of away games, the scheduling madness just might pay off.