Riding a three-game conference win streak into Saturday’s 3 p.m. American Southwest Conference tilt against Louisiana College at the Brownwood Coliseum, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets have the opportunity to achieve a program first.
Only other time since the American Southwest Conference came into existence have the Yellow Jackets started their league slate at 5-1, that occurring during the 1996-97 campaign. With a victory Saturday, second-place Howard Payne (5-6, 5-1) — picked to place ninth in the ASC preseason poll — would own its first-ever 6-1 record in American Southwest Conference action.
Even during the 2005-06 season — when the Yellow Jackets finished 20-7 overall, won the ASC West with a 17-5 league mark and hosted conference tournament — HPU began its conference run with a 4-2 mark through six contests.
The 1996-97 squad went on to finish 16-10 overall and 9-3 in ASC action.
“It’s something we’ve worked for. Every year we go in wanting this,” said HPU head coach Troy Drummond, who is looking to guide the Yellow Jackets to the postseason for the first time during his tenure. “We feel like the guys have bought into it and they want it also, and that’s what I think is the biggest difference from the teams we’ve had in the past.”
The Yellow Jackets have already matched last season’s total number of conference victories. The next landmark will be their seventh ASC win, which will equal the most in a single season since HPU’s last postseason appearance after the 2007-08 campaign. Howard Payne finished with an 11-10 conference record that season.
“When you start out slow like we have in the past, you start having doubts that creep in, not just the physical part but the mental,” Drummond said. “But these guys are believing in what we’re saying and what we’re doing in practice. They’re buying into our program.”
The top eight finishers advance to the ASC championship tournament, hosted by the No. 1 seed Feb. 26-28. Of HPU’s five conference wins, four have come against teams currently positioned in the top eight — Mary Hardin-Baylor (69-63), Concordia (91-87), Ozarks (86-69) and reigning ASC champion UT-Dallas (63-57). Howard Payne also owns a victory over last-place UT-Tyler (76-71). The only conference blemish for HPU came at the hands of Hardin-Simmons (77-59), which is undefeated in conference play and 10-1 overall.
Among the reasons for the Yellow Jackets’ conference success include three-point shooting, as HPU leads the league at 42.3 percent; rebounding, where HPU is third in the ASC with 41.4 boards per game; blocks, where the Jackets are tied for third with 19; field goal defense, which ranks fourth at 41.3 percent; and steals, which also comes in fourth with an average of eight an outing.
“Three-point shooting is not our priority,” said Drummond, as HPU’s 6.6 conversions per game ranks sixth in the ASC. “We’re low in the number of attempts, which is what we want, but we’re making a lot of them. We talk every day in practice about the ball going inside out, and when we try a three we’re stepping into them and knocking them down.”
Sterling Smoak (7.8 rpg) and Ty Davis (5.8 rpg) both rank in the top 20 in the ASC in rebounds, while J Bailey (1.8) is fourth in blocks and Smoak (1.0) is sixth. Blake Arbogast (2.6) ranks second in the ASC in steals per game.
But Drummond attributed HPU’s performance on the glass as the main reason for this year’s turnaround.
“Rebounding is something we’ve always stressed, but our point guard has led us in rebounding most of his career,” Drummond said in regard to senior Brandon Gould, who ranks sixth in the ASC in scoring at 17.6 points per game. “Having some bigger guys this year, and having guys that want to go rebound, really helps and that’s been very big for us.”
With 14 conference games remaining, not only are the Yellow Jackets in the hunt for a postseason berth, hosting the ASC championship tournament is also a possibility if Howard Payne can maintain its momentum during the final month and a half of the season.
“We just have to keep working hard every day in practice, keep believing in what we’re doing and keep playing hard, that’s the big thing for us,” Drummond said. “When we don’t play hard we don’t have success. When we do play hard, it shows on the court and it shows on the scoreboard.”