A SWAC tourney like no other
HOUSTON (AP) All season, Antwan Scott and the Grambling State Tigers didn't think they'd get to compete in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
But there they were this week, playing on the court the Houston Rockets call home and even pulling off an upset in the first round. All of it thanks to a recent rule change that allowed four teams ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of Academic Progress Rates restrictions to be part of the league tournament for the first time.
Grambling, Mississippi Valley State, Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff all got a shot at the tournament title. The winners of the men's and women's tournaments would normally get automatic berths into the NCAA tournament. This year, the eligible teams with the best tournament finish will receive the bids under the unusual, one-year agreement with the NCAA.
The Tigers had the lowest seed in the tournament and lost to No. 2 seed Texas Southern in the second round. They still considered themselves lucky to get to wrap up a season with a trip to Houston after breaking a 45-game Division I skid.
''It meant a lot because people don't understand how hard we're working to get the APR (up),'' Scott said. ''We have 10 hours of study hall a week. Some coaches even sit in class to make sure we're in class, our coaches are on us so hard about that and I feel like it rewarded us.''
The presidents and chancellors of the league voted on the change before sending the request to the NCAA. SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said they looked at many factors when making the decision.
''I think first was student-athlete experience, fan experience,'' he said. ''But not to forget the APR and understand that we still have a job to do, we still have to get these APR scores up and I think they'll do that.''
This is the first time the SWAC has allowed ineligible teams to play in the conference tournament.
''For a long time we were like: `Hey, the NCAA banned you, you can't participate in SWAC,''' Sharp said. ''But for at least 98 percent of our student athletes, the highest level of competition they'll ever go to is the conference championship. So to really punish kids for something like that, I think the presidents just said: `That's enough.'''
Grambling's football season last fall was one to forget. The Tigers forfeited a game at Jackson State, prompting a national debate over whether the players had gone too far in their protest of bad treatment and poor conditions and a merry-go-round of coaches. Budget woes were blamed for some of the problems.
The basketball tournament goes through Saturday and Sharp said ticket sales are already significantly up from last year. He said allowing all the teams to play will increase revenue to help deal with the academic issues at the ineligible schools.
''With us there is a lack of resources, not only from a financial standpoint but also from a staffing standpoint, a lack of advisers and things of that nature,'' he said. ''Why not use that revenue to go out and hire those advisers and hire those consultants who can come in and really help you get your hands around whatever the issue it is you are having with APR?''
Southern was the top-seeded team in both the men's and women's brackets, but the men lost on Wednesday night. But there was still a possibility that an ineligible team could be in the title game on both sides with the Southern women and the Arkansas-Pine Bluff men still alive on Thursday afternoon.
Texas Southern coach Mike Davis, who coached Indiana from 2000-06, doesn't think there was any harm in allowing the ineligible teams to compete in the tournament.
''I think it's good for them,'' he said. ''I know a lot of people would disagree with it, but the student-athletes that are present now didn't have anything to do with what happened in the past. So you have to be punished but you don't want to punish innocent kids.''
The league has received criticism for the move, with some saying the SWAC doesn't care about the academic progress of the ineligible schools. But Sharp said that's not the case at all.
''It's not like they're skating,'' he said. ''It's not like they don't have to worry about APR anymore. You still have to worry about it and if you're not making progress I'll put restrictions on you.''
The school administrators have given him authority to penalize schools that aren't improving their APRs. One of those restrictions could be banning a team that isn't making progress from the tournament, despite this year's arrangement.
''I can come in and put practice restrictions, I can suspend their head coaches and ultimately I can say: `You can't come to Houston next year because your scores are becoming lower,''' he said.