For the first time since 2008, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are competing in the American Southwest Conference championship tournament. And despite being the No. 4 seed in only their fourth ASC tournament appearance, the Yellow Jackets are considered among the tournament favorites in perhaps the most-balanced field the event has ever featured.

The top five seeds were separated by one game in the final standings as No. 1 seed and tournament host East Texas Baptist (20-5, 15-5) shared the regular season title with No. 2 seed Hardin-Simmons (19-6, 15-5). No. 3 seed Louisiana College (14-9, 14-6), the Yellow Jackets (14-11, 14-6) and No. 5 seed Mary Hardin-Baylor (17-8, 14-6) — which Howard Payne faces in the first round at 5 p.m. Thursday — were one game off the pace.

“The is definitely a strong league, as strong as it’s ever been,” said Yellow Jackets head coach Troy Drummond, who has led his team to the postseason for the first time in his tenure. “In all the years I’ve been here, this is by far the strongest the conference has been. The one through five seeds are separated by one game and even the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds are right there, too. We beat up on each other all year, and we’re going to beat up on each other again this weekend.”

Despite no players on the HPU roster boasting postseason experience, Drummond doesn’t expect nerves to be a factor in Thursday’s opener.

“Every year this is something we’ve worked for and strived for and it’s finally come together here at the end,” Drummond said. “We’re approaching it like it’s just another game, but obviously we need to win to keep going. I’m hoping that doesn’t make them nervous. The team mindset has been it’s just another game.”

The Yellow Jackets and Mary Hardin-Baylor split their two regular season meetings, with Howard Payne notching a 69-63 home victory on Dec. 4, while the Cru returned the favor in Belton, 97-85, on Jan. 24.

“Obviously our defense wasn’t as good,” Drummond said in regard to the difference in the two outcomes. “The first game I thought we played really good defense and made them take the shots we wanted them to take, all contested, and we rebounded really well. The second game, they got the ball inside and got the shots they wanted. We’re going to have to do a better job with our defense this game and not let them go wherever they want.”

Howard Payne is riding a three-game win streak into the postseason and has won five of its last six games overall. Still, Drummond feels the Yellow Jackets have yet to reach their full potential.

“We could always execute better and we need to stay committed defensively and rebound better,” Drummond said. “There’s been a couple of games where we haven’t started off great, but they held fast to what we’re trying to get done, and the shots started to fall. But we want to make sure we don’t rely on our offense, we have to play solid defense.”

Thursday’s winner will advance to face either tournament host East Texas Baptist or No. 8 seed Ozarks (8-17, 4-16) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, with the survivor of that game moving on to the conference championship game at 4 p.m. Saturday.

The other half of the bracket features Louisiana College vs. No. 6 Concordia (16-9, 12-8), followed by Hardin-Simmons vs. UT-Dallas (16-9, 11-9) in Thursday quarterfinal action.

As for what it will take for the Yellow Jackets to hoist their first American Southwest Conference men’s basketball championship trophy, Drummond said, “We have to play strong defense, rebound and take care of the basketball on the offensive end. We can’t give up open shots, we have to make sure everything is contested. And we need to control the paint and control the rebounds.”