After last Tuesday’s shootaround prior to the SWAC Tournament, Texas Southern head coach Johnny Jones was glad to be back in Birmingham. His Tigers were back to back conference champions but they limped into the 2023 tournament as a no. 8 seed.
“If they didn’t let us in I would have been outside with a picket sign,” he joked at courtside while watching his team.
At the end of the weekend it wasn’t a sign that Jones was holding, it was his third straight tournament trophy.
At 14-20 and back in the First Four stanza of the NCAA Tournament, it’s doubtful many have the Tigers busting much of anything on their brackets. But Jones and his crew have spent this entire season going against the odds and doing it calmly.
Calm under pressure
“Well, hopefully, you know, they’ve been around me enough and we’ve been in a lot of tight games this year, and I don’t think they ever see me pressing or panicking. I don’t change as the game is going. And I think it keeps them relaxed because they can look there and they can make plays. I don’t get in panic mode. It’s not a shouting deal and we’re not trying to tweak anything. We’re going to do the same things that we’ve done over the years,” Jones said after Saturday’s win.
One of the keys to Jones program is that it’s about the culture and not any particular player. In Wednesday’s quarterfinal win over No. 1 seed Alcorn State, John Walker III was a key cog in the victory playing a disciplined second half in foul trouble while scoring 13 points. On Friday in the 74-61 win against Alabama A&M Walker only played five minutes because Jones didn’t like his focus.
Jones doesn’t linger on bad moments either. Walker was back in the lineup for the championship game logging 14 points and five blocks.
Barnes steps up in second season
The Tigers will ride the hands of sophomore Davon Barnes and senior PJ Henry into Tuesday’s game. Barnes was the only true freshman not to be redshirted in last year’s class and made huge strides this season. Barnes scored over 1,000 points this season and was the sixth leading scorer in the SWAC at 13.6 points per game. The streaky Henry is the second leading scorer for the Tigers at 12.7 points per game.
But this Texas Southern team is driven by experience, the trait it leans on the most. Players like Henry, Walker, Joirdon Nicholas and Jordan Gilliam have won championships and games in the NCAA Tournament. Their presence is what Jones admires the most about this year’s team.
“These guys have been battle tested and so when you have several guys like that you feel good going into a lot of situations they understand some of the things that we were faced with this year and and what we had to go through and the difficulties. What I admire about them they never held their heads down or look to make any excuses they look to just get better. This is the right time of year that I feel like we’ve got to put some things together and be rewarded for everything that we went through.”
The Tigers take on Fairleigh Dickinson at 6:30 on Wednesday with the winner advancing to take on No. 1 seed Purdue. The Tigers are two point underdogs in Wednesday’s matchup.