Everyone loves a good underdog story. In fact, some of the greatest stories in the history of sports involve an underdog. In these stories, a certain athlete or team overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in the face of doubt and uncertainty to pull off an incredible feat.
The exciting yet potentially demeaning thing about being an underdog is that no one expects anything of you. Underdogs are typically written off, aren’t projected to do anything impressive, and are typically excluded from playoff talks prior to the beginning of the season.
Ever since Mississippi College joined the Gulf South Conference as full-time members of NCAA Division II athletics just before the 2016-17 academic year, they have served as the underdog in a variety of situations. Maybe it’s the adjustment period that comes with the transition, or maybe it’s simply the fact that MC is up against an entirely new animal in the GSC. Whatever the case may be, the Choctaws have been forced to navigate a tough road over the past two seasons. One of those tough roads is on the basketball court, specifically for the men’s team.
In their first season as full-time members of the GSC last year, the Choctaw men’s basketball team struggled to gain traction. Although they had a surplus of talent and had spent the past two years playing conference competition, something went terribly wrong. The Choctaws finished dead last in the GSC standings in 2016-17 with a record of 7-19 overall and 4-18 against conference opponents.
“Even though we didn’t do well last year, I think we were better than our record indicated,” said head coach Don Lofton. The Choctaw basketball team could not seem to string together any consistency and struggled to find the win column, even with a rather skilled and deep lineup.
Last season’s struggles mixed with the Choctaws’ newness in the conference led to a lack of respect or expectations for the team coming into the 2017-18 season. In the preseason power rankings, the Choctaws were picked to finish 12th out of the 14 GSC basketball teams. They were dismissed and ignored entirely and expected to do very little.
But now that the 2017-18 basketball season is a little over two months in, one thing is clear: the Choctaws aren’t backing down.
MC currently sits in a tie for ninth place in the GSC standings with a record of 7-8, including a 4-6 mark in conference play. While that may not seem altogether impressive, the top eight teams make the GSC Tournament which takes place in early March. So, the Choctaws are still very much in the fight. And with a little over a month to go in the season, there is still a great opportunity for the Choctaws to do something big and make it to their first GSC Tournament.
“We just took the negative and made it into motivation,” said senior guard Antonio Johnson. “We’re trying to stay positive. We know people are doubting us, but we come together as one team, and we are going to keep fighting to the end.”
The Choctaws have plenty of talent in their lineup this season, including returning guards Antonio Johnson and Otis Harvey. Both players have played in all 15 of MC’s games this season and are helping the Choctaws put together an exciting and encouraging run.
“Coach has been telling us always that it’s a new year,” said Harvey. “The key to having success is believing in ourselves no matter what other people think, and we all believe in each other. That’s what coach has been preaching to us since day one, so we believe. We just have to get the job done.”
The Choctaws have received significant help from some of their older talent this season. Johnson is leading the team in steals (18) and minutes (31.8 per game), while senior Stacey Mack leads the team in points (15.8 per game) and rebounds (7.5 per game). Their contributions, along with the depth of the Choctaw bench, have aided MC in getting to where they are now.
But things aren’t getting easier. After winning four games in a row during the Christmas break, MC has now lost three GSC games in a row. A large reason in this skid is the absence of Stacey Mack and Isaiah Austin from the lineup. Both players are ineligible to play for the rest of the season and will be sorely missed on the team.
“That’s really tough,” said Harvey. “Our offense is based on our post players, and when we lose key pieces like that it makes it very difficult. We have to try and come up with a new game plan every night and see what works.”
“We’re playing a different lineup now since we lost some guys, and some of the new guys are young and just haven’t gotten some areas worked out,” said Lofton. “It’s going to take us some time. Even though we’ve played a lot of games, we haven’t played a lot of games with this lineup. We don’t have the luxury of playing exhibition games to help get us ready. We’re right in the middle of the Gulf South Conference race, but we’re not going to make any excuses.”
But even with their absences, the Choctaws are still finding ways to fight. Junior guard Donovan Ham has been an incredibly bright spot for MC in his first season in Clinton. He is averaging 14.6 points per game, including shooting 41.7 percent from the three-point line. He’s contributing in a variety of areas and is providing the MC basketball team with a nice balance of speed and skill.
“He’s just been really good,” Lofton said of Ham. “He does a nice job on both ends of the floor. We’ve enjoyed having him. He has some size that we haven’t had on the perimeter and he brings that. Obviously when he’s going good, we’re a good team.”
With just a little over a month left in the season, the Choctaws are in a corner and have to fight their way out. The team has 10 games remaining on their schedule, all of which are against GSC opponents. With MC being two wins out of both fifth place and last place in the standings, there is a great opportunity for the Choctaws to take advantage or fall behind, depending on how they play it.
“We just have to stay together as a team and keep executing and defending well,” said Donovan Ham. “Defense is really the key. If we play great defense, I feel like we can beat about any team in the GSC. We just have to stay together, keep hitting shots, and keep focusing. We’ll make it to the playoffs doing that.”
It’s fun being an underdog, but it’s even more fun when you capitalize on it. With the odds stacked against them, can MC go the distance and make it to the tournament? Whatever happens, it’s promising to be a fun ride to the finish. Buckle up.