Jackson, Miss. – The Jackson State men’s basketball team sits in an interesting position in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) standings as conference action for February begins. JSU (7-13, 4-3) is tied for third place with Texas Southern (4-3) and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-3).
— Jackson State Athletics (@GoJSUTigers) February 1, 2019
Ahead of the three-way tie, Alabama State (6-1) sits in second place in the conference with Prairie View (7-0) holding the top spot. After a three-game road trip that ended with JSU defeating Grambling 65-63, the Tigers have a chance to recoup at home as JSU faces Mississippi Valley State Saturday evening at the Lee E. Williams Athletic and Assembly Center.
Jackson State’s last home game was Jan. 14 when the Tigers defeated Southern 64-58 before starting the road trip that included tough losses to Prairie View (55-51) and Texas Southern (75-65) before defeating Grambling.
— Wilton Jackson II (@WiltonReports) January 31, 2019
Wayne Brent, Tigers head coach, said the win over Grambling was a critical one.
“You’re talking about the difference between being 4-3 and 3-4 and the difference between tied for third or fifth or sixth,” Brent said.
“The main thing for us right now is taking care of our home games. If we can put together some good games in these next five out of seven and take care of the games at home, we should be fine.”
Looking to build off the momentum from the Grambling victory, Mississippi Valley (3-18, 1-6) enters Saturday’s matchup having lost its last five games. However, four of its five losses have been close except for an 80-56 blowout to Southern on the road.
Out of their other four recent opponents – Alabama State (81-79), Alcorn State (63-57), Prairie View (89-78) and Texas Southern (65-62) – three of them sit in the top three spots in the conference.
For MVSU, the Delta Devils have shown they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the conference on any given night. And for Brent and his Tigers, they know that records don’t mean anything when it comes to rivalry games.
“Anytime you play a rival game like Mississippi Valley, you have to be really careful with them,” Brent said.
“They’ll come in and fight you to the last second.”
The Delta Devils rank seventh in the SWAC in scoring offense (averaging 64.5 points per game) and 10th in scoring defense, giving up 80.6 points per game.
Two key players on offense are guard Jordan Evans, who averages 11.7 points per game as the leading scorer for MVSU, followed by forward Dante Scott with 11.5.
MVSU does not have the best offense in the conference but the Delta Devils find a way to get to the free throw line (sixth in free throw percentage) and rebound the ball exceptionally well, sitting atop the conference in offensive rebounds and fourth in defensive rebounds.
Mississippi Valley center Emmanuel Ejeh leads the team in rebounds, averaging 7.2, followed by Scott with five and center Aleksa Koracin with 4.7 rebounds.
As for Jackson State, the Tigers have struggled offensively to get points at critical moments of games. JSU comes into the game ranked ninth in scoring offense (60.7 ppg) and 10th in three-pointers made and third in offensive rebounds.
Brent stressed the importance of getting good shots, ball movement and scoring against zone defense will be key points in allowing the Tigers to be successful on offense.
“Moving the basketball and getting the ball into the middle,” Brent said.
Those guys diving to the goal and our shooters spotting up to shoot and then just having confidence shooting the basketball against a zone.”
It’s no secret that the level of defense that JSU plays with each night is the key ingredient to its success. The Tigers sit atop the conference in scoring defense (67.5 ppg), fourth in field goal percentage defense, third in defensive rebounds, third in blocked shots, ninth in assists and eighth in steals.
Brent credits the team’s defense to its level of urgency his players play with each possession.
“We coach our guys every possession,” Brent said.
“We stress to guys that you will have a game where you don’t shoot the ball well. But on the defensive end, you shouldn’t have a game where you don’t defend.”
JSU forced GSU into 18 turnovers, which led to 13 points for the Tigers and a big part of their success in earning the victory.
Guards Chris Howell and Venjie Wallis lead JSU in scoring, averaging 11.7 points and 11.5 points per game respectively. Wallis added 14 points in that game and went 6-of-6 from the free throw line to lift the JSU over GSU in the critical win.
Howell, a senior, also leads the SWAC in rebounding (averaging 8.9 per game), a big part of his game and upside for the Tigers. Alongside Howell, forward Jayveous McKinnis averages 7.5 rebounds per game and ranks fifth in the conference in rebounding. McKinnis also leads the league in blocked shots per night, averaging nearly two per game.
Before transferring to JSU in April 2018, Howell played Division I basketball at South Dakota State, where the team made two NCAA tournament appearances in 2016 and 2017.
Bringing that tournament experience, consistency and character to the program are things that Brent love the most about Howell.
“He’s been huge,” Brent said.
“You’re talking about a kid who’s been around the block and has played in the NCAA tournament. He’s been there. For this team, he has to be a leader and a captain.
Against Grambling, the Milwaukee, Wis., native led the team in scoring with 19 points and 10 rebounds, recording his eighth double double in his career.
Howell said it is important that he and his teammates come ready to play early on in Saturday’s game.
“We have to stay focused on us and being able to come out fast and knock them out right away,” Howell said.
With a month of conference play in the books, things will become very interesting for the Tigers in February. After Saturday’s matchup against MVSU, the Tigers host UAPB Monday evening before a two-game road trip against Alcorn and Southern before returning home for three games against the league’s most talented opponents in Prairie View, Texas Southern and Grambling State.
And for Howell and his teammates, it is important for them to stay focused going into a critical stretch of the season.
“You really just have to start preparing even harder,” Howell said.
“Get in the gym more, watch film more, you really just played the best teams in our conference and they have to come here now so we got to be ready for that.”
As for Brent, he wants his players to stay focused and closing each game one at a time.
“The main focus is taking each game one at a time,” Brent said.
“Finishing the game, working on the last four minutes of the game. We didn’t come out well in the Texas Southern and Prairie View game because of the last two to three minutes of a game.”
Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m.