It’s officially March Madness time.
One bonus for local basketball fans is that the South Alabama Jaguars enter this postseason as one of the hottest teams in the country.
As they were winning their seventh game in a row Saturday night against rival Troy — a game the Jaguars led 8-0 in the first minute and were never seriously challenged the rest of the way — it was easy to imagine that the roll might just be beginning.
All season the Jaguars have been good on defense, around the basket and at the free-throw line. Against Troy they started to show how good they can be and how much easier the game can look when the three-point shots start falling.
Because of the smart way the Sun Belt Conference sets up its tournament, there’s a much greater likelihood that the conference’s best team — not just the team that can play well during the early part of March at the conference tournament — will make the NCAA field.
Fortunately for South Alabama, it’s possible that both of those descriptions fit the Jaguars.
In a last-second loss to Auburn during the pre-conference schedule, South Alabama showed it can stand toe-to-toe with the kind of team that would be on the opposite side of the bracket in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As of today, Auburn is projected as a No. 5 seed, while the Jaguars could easily be a No. 12 seed if they could make their way into the Big Dance.
Anyone who’s ever entered an office pool knows the history of No. 12 seeds more than holding their own against No. 5 seeds. In fact, almost every year the underdog team in the No. 12 position wins at least two of the four first-round matchups.
That’s not to say the selection committee would pair Auburn and South Alabama for a rematch. (That would be a true bummer for basketball fans in this state.) But a team similar to Auburn would likely await the Jaguars if they qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
As the early-season match-up with Auburn demonstrated, that could turn out well for South Alabama.
Of course, the Jags play in a one-bid league, which means their only chance to reach the Big Dance is to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in New Orleans.
That’s still a tall task. But nobody in the conference is playing better than South Alabama at this point. It appears that the preseason expectation that South Alabama would be the league’s best team this season may turn out to be true after all.
With Auburn playing well enough to be assured of a solid tournament seed and the Alabama Crimson Tide solidly stationed at their annual bubbler position, it’s nice to see that South Alabama could add to the excitement of the NCAA Tournament.
The South Alabama win over Troy Saturday was noteworthy for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Jags are simply much better than their archrivals at this point. Head coach Richie Riley is 4-0 in two seasons against Troy. The gap appears to be widening by the day.
Still, Troy has a great following. The Mitchell Center hosted a solid visiting crowd in their Trojan red and black. That’s always good for a rivalry.
What’s not good for a rivalry is when fans decide to show up for games wearing the school colors of a team not participating in the game.
Among the sea of South Alabama and Troy fans Saturday night was a man on the front row in an Auburn sweatshirt. A man prominently seated on the opposite side of the court wore an Alabama football championship T-shirt.
I’ll stop short of saying fans wearing these team colors should be banned from the arena. Obviously, that’s their choice to make. And I was actually understanding when some Alabama fans showed up for the Auburn-South Alabama game to do their part in cheering against the Tigers.
But that’s the rare exception.
It doesn’t take much effort to either wear the colors of one of the participating teams or simply show up in your work clothes or some other neutral attire. I might even overlook some Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady jerseys.
But if you’re going to support the local team, at least think for a second about horrible optics created by wearing the school colors of a team that’s not even in the building.
Plus, it may be time to invest in some South Alabama gear as March Madness gets going.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on the new Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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