"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, September 27, 2019

Grambling State Preview

Grambling State Tigers
December 17, fiserv.forum

Coach: Donte Jackson (34-31)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 286.7
3-Year kenpom Average: 296.7
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 182

Projected Starters: PG Ivy Smith, Jr (6'0" Sr), SG Anthony Gaston (6'4" Sr), SF Dallas Polk-Hilliard (6'7" Sr), PF Axel Mpoyo (6'8" Sr), C Devante Jackson (6'9" Sr)

In 2006, Grambling went 14-13. That was the last time they had a record .500 or better before the arrival of Donte Jackson. In his two seasons with the Tigers, they have reached .500 both years, going 17-14 in his first year and 17-17 last year. That includes back-to-back winning conference seasons and an appearance in the CIT. For years, Grambling has been arguably the worst team in college basketball, but with Jackson at the helm, things are turning around. They are the prohibitive favorite in the SWAC, return 4 starters and their top-7 in points per game. This is an experienced, cohesive team that isn't the anchor chained to a NCAA resume that they once were.

The Tigers bring back almost everyone. Smith will be the likely preseason SWAC Player of the Year and both Polk-Hilliard and Mpoyo have the ability to take over games while also stepping out and shooting threes at about a 45% clip. This isn't just a team of starters, either. Coming off the bench, 6'7" Prince Moss ranked 7th in the nation beyond the arc at 48.5%. They have a monster in the middle with 7'1" Travon Bunch providing rim protection, rebounding, and inside scoring. And in the backcourt, Lasani Johnson, son of NBA great Larry Johnson, will insure there's little dropoff if the back court starters need a breather as he averaged 9.5 ppg/3.4 rpg. This is a team with proven starters and a bench that goes 10 deep.

When Coach Jackson came in, his immediate focus was to upgrade the intensity for the Tigers. That started on the defensive end. This is a team that will hustle, play hard, and challenge every shot. But that intensity also leads to a lot of fouls. Their opponents may struggle to make shots, and they do, but they get to the line a lot. Conversely, that's what Grambling does on the other end as well. Despite being a great three-point shooting team (40.2% was 4th in the country) they are a downhill, attacking team that excels at getting points at the line. Smith is truly the star. He's a true point guard that has the ability to distribute, attack the paint, make free throws, and be a defensive disruptor.

As stunning as this is to say, Grambling is going to be good. It might only be "for the SWAC" good, but considering what this program has been for the past 15 years, that is an accomplishment. Jackson has injected length, talent, motivation, and energy into this team and they have responded. Unlike many transfer-heavy SWAC teams, many of these guys have been playing together for 3 and 4 years, and the transfers come from successful programs (Polk-Hilliard from South Dakota State, Johnson from Stephen F Austin). This has a chance to be a Quadrant 3 game if the Tigers hit their ceiling and this will almost certainly be the best Grambling team in decades.

Marquette Connection: The first name that caught my eye was Travon Bunch. The Racine, WI native had an offer from Buzz Williams in 2013. He later went JUCO and joined Grambling last year. But looking at the Grambling roster...there's a LOT of local connections. Dallas Polk-Hilliard is a Milwaukee native that played at Messmer. Devante Jackson played at Brown Deer. Deontay Long, the #1 recruit in the 2019 Wisconsin class, is redshirting this year after some legal troubles. Why are there so many Milwaukee-area kids at Grambling? Look no further than head coach Donte Jackson. He is also a Milwaukee native and played his freshman year at UW-Milwaukee before transferring out of state. Clearly he's kept his local ties, and because of it, this will be a homecoming for many of his players that grew up in the shadow of Marquette. And for the rest of the year, if you want an underdog to root for, one full of Milwaukee-area kids seems like a good choice.

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