In a topsy-turvy season in college basketball when blue bloods are vulnerable, new blood is rising and chaos is the only certainty, there’s no greater symbol of the tumult than the owner of the sport’s longest active win streak.
It belongs to a program that hasn’t won a league title in more than a quarter century, hasn’t produced a winning season in more than a decade and hasn’t ever made the NCAA tournament.
The head coach is a man who has repeatedly been turned down for Division I assistant coaching jobs. The star player is a point guard who had to go across the country to find a program that didn’t think he was too short to be a difference maker. Together they’ve led long-downtrodden Grambling State to 11 consecutive victories, an achievement that for 48 hours stood alone until Michigan State matched it on Tuesday night.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Grambling State coach Donte’ Jackson told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t know how significant it is because there’s no trophy for a win streak, but it’s good notoriety for our program and it helps us a little bit with recruiting.”
Jackson learned Grambling State had college basketball’s longest win streak on Sunday evening when his phone buzzed as he was chatting with his wife and packing for a recruiting trip. A friend texted to inform him that the Tigers had ascended to the top spot because Vermont had just lost for the first time in more than two months.
Although Jackson didn’t hug his wife in celebration or call to congratulate his players, the first-year coach did take a moment to quietly reflect on the accomplishment. Any positive recognition is significant for a Grambling State program five years removed from a winless season and two years removed from a 11-126 stretch against Division I competition.
“The goal was just to be over .500 this season, to have a winning program and try to create a winning culture,” Jackson said. “It’s exciting and humbling to be in this position.”
There were scarcely any signs that Grambling State was poised for a breakthrough before this season began. The program was in a state of upheaval as a result of massive roster turnover, academic woes and a fifth head coaching chance since 2008.
New athletic director Paul Bryant chose not to renew third-year basketball coach Shawn Walker’s contract last spring even though Grambling State had just completed its most successful season in more than a decade. A senior-laden Tigers team finished 15-17 and won a game in the SWAC tournament, but the program wasn’t performing well enough academically to meet NCAA minimum standards and had already been declared ineligible for the 2018 postseason as a result.
When the Grambling State job opened, Jackson wasn’t sure he should even bother to apply. The 39-year-old Milwaukee native had guided a pair of Division II programs to seven straight winning seasons, but that success hadn’t translated into higher-level opportunities. None of the dozen Division I programs he had previously applied to expressed interest in hiring him as an assistant, let alone as their head coach.
“A lot of these Division I jobs come open and as a Division II coach, you’re like, ‘Man, do I even have a chance? Do I even try to apply?'” Jackson said. “People would tell me, ‘Oh, you’re more of a Division II coach. You should stay that route.'”
The only reason Jackson bothered to express interest in the Grambling State opening was that he had a relationship with Bryant. They met nearly two decades earlier when Jackson would play in pickup games at the Ohio community college where Bryant coached and they stayed in touch thereafter.
If Jackson’s connections earned him consideration at Grambling State, his track record landed him the job. He beat out 50 other applicants last May because he had proven at Central State (Ohio) and Stillman College (Ala.) that he could succeed on the court and in the classroom.
Jackson’s history of graduating more than 90 percent of his players persuaded Bryant he would make academics a priority and get Grambling State postseason-eligible again as quickly as possible. It also appealed to Bryant that Jackson had a history of winning with limited resources, a necessity at a cash-strapped SWAC program that can’t provide the support staff, facilities or recruiting budget most Division I schools offer.
At his previous job at Stillman College, Jackson went 66-21 as head coach despite an aging 1,500-seat gymnasium, no full-time assistants and a recruiting budget of only a few thousand dollars. He either slept on friends’ couches when scouting out-of-the-area prospects or he paid for hotel rooms and meals out of his own pocket.
Coming from that lower-level background made it easier for Jackson to focus on the resources Grambling State has rather than those the university lacks. Instead of bemoaning not having the money to hire a director of basketball operations or a strength and conditioning coach, he celebrated that for the first time in his career, he could delegate tasks to three full-time assistant coaches and sell recruits on playing in a 7,500-seat arena that’s barely a decade old.
“I walk in every day, I see this beautiful arena and I’m like, ‘Man, we’ve got an arena,” Jackson said. “How many low-to-mid-majors have an arena? We have to look at the bright spots of our program and sell what we can sell. Either you can make an excuse that you don’t have resources or you find a way to get it done.”
For all Jackson’s optimism about Grambling State’s long-term prospects, he admits he initially feared his debut season might be a struggle. Two of the previous year’s three leading scorers were seniors and the third transferred to Austin Peay during the coaching transition, leaving Jackson with an undersized, unproven roster featuring only one player who had ever averaged more than 4.6 points per game.
Some of Jackson’s concerns were alleviated when he began evaluating his roster during offseason workouts and discovered he had inherited a hidden gem in sophomore Ivy Smith. While the tiny point guard didn’t generate much recruiting buzz in the Pacific Northwest during high school and only averaged 10.5 minutes per game the previous season at Grambling, Jackson saw a player whose speed and court vision made him a perfect fit for his fast-paced system.
Building around Smith required a combination of creativity and shrewd talent evaluation. Jackson envisioned transfer Shirmane Thomas as his team’s primary wing scorer even though the 6-foot-3 defensive ace never averaged more than 3.7 points per game in three seasons at Tennessee Tech. He also foresaw a big leap from guard Anthony Gaston, a sophomore who logged a total of four minutes in conference play the previous season.
To bolster his frontcourt, Jackson scoured the junior college ranks for late-blooming big men last summer, a difficult task considering few Division I-caliber prospects were still available by the time he was hired and he could not afford to take a risk on anyone with a sketchy academic track record. Jackson nonetheless landed a pair of versatile junior college forwards in August, both of whom have since become key rotation players for the Tigers.
Any team with a new coach and four new starters would endure some early-season growing pains, but Grambling State’s problems were magnified by a non-conference schedule designed to generate money. All 12 of the Tigers’ non-league matchups against Division I opponents were on the road against stronger teams willing to pay lesser opponents $50,000 to $100,000 to come to their gym without the promise of a return game.
Upsetting shorthanded Georgia Tech was a massive accomplishment for Grambling State, as was putting a scare into Iowa, but the Tigers still entered league play with a 4-9 record. Travel-weary and in need of practice time, they then dropped their first three SWAC games, prompting Jackson to hold a team meeting in the visiting locker room at Southern following a dispiriting 80-69 loss.
“It was kind of a defining moment,” Jackson said. “I asked them, ‘What do we do well fellas?’ Then I told them, ‘What we do well is we defend and that has to be our calling card every single night. We don’t know if we’re going to make shots. We don’t know what’s going to happen with foul calls. But let’s control what we can control and that’s our effort and our defensive intensity. We kind of took off from there.”
They won at Alcorn State two days later for the first time in six years. They beat Texas Southern for the first time in nine years the following week. They overtook Arkansas Pine Bluff for first place in the SWAC earlier this month. Now Grambling State (15-12, 11-3) is riding the program’s longest win streak since before it ascended to Division I more than four decades ago.
Smith is averaging 16.3 points and 5.2 assists per game while learning on the fly how to make smarter decisions with the ball in his hands. Thomas has blossomed into an impact player at both ends of the floor. While Grambling State is ineligible for postseason play due to its past academic issues, the Tigers are guaranteed to capture the SWAC regular season title outright for just the second time in program history if they manage to win three or more of their remaining four games.
If Grambling State takes its win streak into next season, that would be a remarkable feat. Jackson’s only goal for his debut season was to establish a winning culture at a program that for years had been a laughingstock.
“We talked to our guys about believing in themselves and being better than what people expect,” Jackson said. “We would walk into games, and it was like, ‘Oh, Grambling is supposed to lose by 40.’ No, we’re not going to lose by 40. We’re going to go play hard and every team is going to have a fight on their hands. If we can weather the storm long enough, maybe we’ll win a few games.”
That shift in mindset paved the way for the unfathomable — a six-week winning streak for a program that previously knew nothing but losing.
Even in an upset-laden year in college basketball, there’s no better underdog story than that.
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