George Ivory wasn’t expecting to get overlooked, having first seen SWAC tournament favorite Jackson State upset and then making history of his own with the Arkansas-Pine Bluff men’s basketball team last March.
Pine Bluff eventually claimed the Southwestern Athletic Conference postseason event, then topped Winthrop to become the first league program to earn an NCAA tournament victory in a generation. Then in comes last week’s SWAC preseason poll with the Golden Lions placed second — behind Jackson State.
“I’m surprised by the pick,” Ivory said. “One thing I know, we are going to show up at the games.”
Voters probably questioned a team that’s lost seven seniors — including guards Terrance Calvin and Tavaris Washington and forwards Tyree Glass and Lebaron Weathers.
But a strength of Ivory’s units at UAPB (18-16, 14-4, second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2009-10) is its me-second attitude, where almost nobody scores in double figures and everybody plays tough on defense. It gives him hopes for improving upon a history-making season, whatever the expectations around the program.
“This team has more talent than the team we had last year,” Ivory said. “With the balance of scoring like that, it’s hard to key on one guy. We like to play together as a team. We hope a guy can breakout but, if not, we will do it as a committee. Then, on defense, we like to get after people.”
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Among Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s top returners: Allen Smith, the SWAC tournament MVP who led the Lions with 14 against Winthrop; and Savalance Townsend, one of only two players on the team to average in double figures in scoring.
“Townsend is an outstanding guard,” Ivory said. “We thought he was our best guard last year, but he took a backseat to some seniors.”
For all of its late-season glory, Arkansas-Pine Bluff now turns its attentions to getting off to a better start this time around.
The Lions began 2009 on an ugly 0-11 skid, playing their first 14 games away from the Friendly Confines against NCAA tournament participants UTEP, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri and Kansas State. That seemed to steel UAPB, however, for a streak through the SWAC: Pine Bluff claimed 14-of-18 league contests to finish second to Jackson State in the conference.
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Arkansas-Pine Bluff then won three consecutive SWAC men’s tournament matches, including a 50-38 championship game triumph over Texas Southern, to hoist the Golden Lions’ first title trophy in more than four decades. Next, UAPB snapped a 17-year NCAA conference losing streak, before falling to eventual national champion Duke.
“The guys that we have returning now will know what it’s all about; they will want to work even harder to get back,” Ivory said. “I think that’s going to help us in terms of our preparation.”
NCAA TOURNAMENT WINS BY THE SWAC
1980: Alcorn State, 80-62 over South Alabama
1983: Alcorn State, 81-75 over Xavier
1984: Alcorn State, 79-60 over Houston Baptist
1993: Southern, 93-78 over Georgia Tech
2010: Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 61-44 over Winthrop