Shawnarious Coward, a transfer from Hofstra, proudly showed off his jersey after he helped the Grambling Tigers stun Colorado recently. Credit: Grambling Athletics

Imagine the proverbial 90-pound weakling whipping up on Mike Tyson. Imagine a Chihuahua making short work of a German shepherd. Imagine a rabbit chasing a lion instead of vice versa.

What? You just can’t imagine all that? Ok then, take a not-so-deep dive into college basketball this young season, the SWAC and the Pac-12 leagues in particular. SWAC schools, which long have served themselves up as early season cannon fodder for Power Five schools, have turned the tables. Check out these three scores in particular:

Rick Cleveland

Grambling 83, Colorado 74.

Texas Southern 67, Arizona State 66.

Prairie View 70, Washington State 59.

If you follow college basketball any at all, you know how strange those scores look. After all, this is November when the SWAC basketball teams annually take one (or several) for the team, traveling sometimes great distances to collect a big check and a lopsided loss. Some coaches call them “buy” games. Some others call them “prostitution” games. Historically, the SWAC rarely wins one.

Not this year. 

Why the sudden change? Number one, the SWAC teams are playing some of these games at home for a change. All three of the above scores were in games played at SWAC sites. The Pac 12 agreed to a four-year deal to play a SWAC-Pac 12 Legacy Series. Over the first two seasons, this season and next, six teams from the SWAC will play six teams from the Pac-12 on a home and home basis. This year, they play at SWAC sites, next year at Pac-12 sites. In 2024-25, the other six SWAC schools, including Jackson State, Alcorn and Mississippi Valley State, will play the six other Pac-12 schools on a home and home basis.

“We don’t know who we’ll be matched up against,” Jackson State Coach Mo Williams, the former NBA star said. “But we can’t wait to be a part of it.”

Obviously, the SWAC teams love it. You can rest assured Pac-12 coaches hate it. Pac-12 power ratings have dipped like the stock market during a depression. A loss in this series easily could cost a Pac-12 school an NCAA bid at season’s end, which in turn could cost a coach his job.

Still, from this viewpoint, it’s nice to see the tables turned for once. Here’s hoping the tradition-rich UCLA will come to one of the three Mississippi SWAC schools in 2024.

“We don’t get the respect we deserve,” Williams said. “Through the years, SWAC teams have always played these type games on the road. That’s tough.”

And those days aren’t over. SWAC schools still need the big pay days. This week, Jackson State will play Big 10 blueblood Michigan at Michigan on Wednesday night and then the nationally ranked Indiana Hoosiers at Indiana on Friday. The results are predictable. Still, says Williams, “I want to see how we respond on the road against these teams. Hopefully, we’ll be better for it.”

They will be a good bit richer.

There are signs all around that SWAC basketball is taking a step forward – and I am not just referring to the games against Pac-12 teams. Already this season, Alcorn has gone on the road for nine-point victories over traditionally strong Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin. On Nov. 7, the Braves played Ole Miss tough at Oxford before succumbing down the stretch.

If you’re wondering why SWAC teams have suddenly become more competitive, look no further than the NCAA portal. Much like Deion Sanders has done in football, SWAC basketball teams have bolstered their rosters with transfers, often from larger schools.

“You can turn you roster over in a year,” Williams said. “Lots of teams are taking transfers and getting better. It may be hard to keep them, but it’s easier to replace them.”

Prevailing wisdom had it that the transfer portal would only help the rich get richer. Now it seems maybe that’s not always the case. The proof in this case is not in the pudding. It is on the scoreboard.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.