Texas Southern’s coach is best known for replacing Bob Knight at Indiana and its top two scorers have played for five college teams combined.
That’s the quick version of the Houston school as it goes into Wednesday night’s NCAA Tournament play-in game against Cal Poly in Dayton, Ohio. The winner faces top-seed Wichita State in a Midwest Regional game Friday night in St. Louis.
“We had an up-and-down season,” Texas Southern coach Mike Davis said of his 19-14 Tigers, who won the Southwest Athletic Conference Tournament to claim the automatic bid.
Texas Southern, in its first NCAA Tournament in 11 years, was standing at 6-6 in league play and 10-14 overall in mid-February before winning its last nine games.
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“When we were losing those games,” said center Aaric Murray, a former Philadelphia prep phenom who has previously played at LaSalle and West Virginia, “we didn’t know what to do with it.
“It was like, `What is the problem?’ We had a talk with each other. Our problem was defense, so we picked it up.”
Davis is taking his third school into the tournament after doing so at Indiana and Alabama-Birmingham. Only this one is on NCAA probation for multiple violations.
“It’s been a journey,” he said.
Davis spent nine years at Indiana, including the last six years as coach after he was given a controversial promotion from assistant after Knight was fired in September 2000.
After back-to-back lackluster years, he announced in February 2006 he was quitting at the end of the season – four years after taking the Hoosiers to the championship game. Two months later, he went to work at UAB.
This isn’t Davis’ first play-in trip to Dayton. UAB lost by 18 points to Clemson in 2011 in what the NCAA now likes to call a “First Four” game. A year later, after a 15-16 season, he was fired by UAB.
In August 2012, he was hired by Texas Southern – just two months before the NCAA put the school on five years probation covering 13 sports for violations that involved academics and booster-related recruiting. Tony Harvey had resigned in July.
Among the sanctions was banning Texas Southern basketball from the postseason last year, which didn’t seem to matter when the Tigers started the season 1-13. But then they finished by winning 12 straight for a 16-2 league record and 17-14 overall mark.
That set the stage for the arrival this year of Murray and D’Aris Scarver.
Murray, a 6-foot-10, 240-pounder, started his college career by staying home and playing at La Salle, thinking he was a one-and-done player headed to the NBA.
Instead, he said, “I made a lot of bad decisions,” and was told to leave. He switched to West Virginia, where he said he partied too much, leading to Bob Huggins to give him the boot.
Now 24, Murray said he has put things together. He was named the SWAC’s defensive player and player of the year after averaging 21.2 points and 2.6 blocked shots.
In December, he scored 48 points on 20-of-28 shooting in a 90-89 victory at Temple.
“Used to be all I heard was trouble, trouble, trouble by my name,” he said. “Now I check it and it’s 48, 48, 48.”
As good as he’s been, Texas Southern’s pace picked up shortly after Scarver became eligible second semester after transferring from Marshall. The senior guard is averaging 13.3 points.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball,” Davis said, “and now is a good time to do it.”
Cal Poly (13-19) is the only team in the tournament with a losing record. The Mustangs lost nine of their last 11 regular-season games before winning three straight to claim the Big West Tournament title and the automatic spot.
“It’s not that shocking to me that we made it,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said.
The Mustangs returned an experienced team that reached the league tournament semifinals the past three years and has an all-league senior forward in Chris Eversley.
But the kicker is that the Mustangs were 3-0 in the Big West in mid-February when their top outside shooter, Kyle Odister, sustained a stress fracture in his foot.
“We knew we’d get him back,” Callero said, “so we were never really down about it. But we really struggled a majority of the time. He sat a week, then I’d throw him a game just to keep the rust off.
“We changed lineups, trying to stay afloat.”
Odister returned to play well in the Big West Tournament, which saw the Mustangs blast Santa Barbara by 31 points and win 61-59 over Cal State Northridge in the title game.
“Kyle isn’t a huge numbers guy,” Callero said, “but he allows us to get better spacing on the floor becuase he’s such a threat outside. That makes a big difference for us.”
Cal Poly is playing in its first NCAA Tournament since going to the Division I level for the 1994-95 season. But the Mustangs played in seven Division II tournaments and placed third in 1981.
Callero understands the reward for winning is the unbeaten Shockers.
“We’re just trying to get past Texas Southern,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to worry about the next hurdle in life.”