The transition from Division II to Division I is tough for a college program in any sport. For Jacksonville State’s men’s basketball program, it’s taken the better part of two decades and five head coaches to bear the fruit of its arduous labor.
A once proud and respected program in the Division II ranks under the legendary Bill Jones, who led the program to a national championship at that level in 1985, the Gamecocks have been a perennial whipping boy in Division I since moving up in 1995.
There’s been some sporadic success over the 24 years since then, an occasional flare-up of a good season followed by years of mediocrity. Up until the hiring of current head coach Ray Harper, the Gamecocks had produced just four winning seasons in 21 years, never culminating in a conference championship or NCAA Tournament berth.
They got close a couple of times, but ultimately came up short. Current Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon succeeded Jones at JSU in 1998, and his second and final team went 17-11 with a 12-6 mark in conference, falling one game short of a share of the Trans-American Conference (now the Atlantic Sun). A late-season home loss to Troy robbed the Gamecocks of a share of the title, a fact that Turgeon still hasn’t gotten over all these years later.
“That’s my biggest regret,” said Turgeon to the Baltimore Sun in 2016. “Because I don’t have a banner hanging up and I have a losing record at the school.”
Turgeon left after the season for Wichita State and was succeeded by Mike LaPlante, who won just 41 percent of his games at JSU during his eight years at the school. LaPlante’s 2002-03 team won 20 games, the first time the Gamecocks had done so since moving up, and finished second in the Atlantic Sun’s North division to Belmont, which remains the closest JSU has come to a regular-season conference title.
LaPlante was let go in 2008, and after eight more years of cellar dwelling under James Green, JSU made a splashy hire with Harper, a coach who had led Western Kentucky to two NCAA Tournament bids in his five seasons with the school. Before that, Harper won two national championships at the DII level with Kentucky Wesleyan and two more at the NAIA level with Oklahoma City.
Harper had his work cut out for him, and knew his first priority was to generate buzz around the program by increasing fan attendance at Pete Mathews Coliseum.
“I knew when we got here three years ago we had to generate some excitement,” said Harper to The Anniston Star after a game this season. “We had to put a product on the floor that people wanted to see.”
Harper inherited a team that had gone 8-23 the year before his arrival, and immediately turned things around by leading the Gamecocks to a 20-win season in 2016-17 that included a shocking upset of Belmont to win the OVC Tournament and clinch the program’s first bid to the Big Dance. It was Harper’s third conference tournament win in six seasons as a Division I coach.
“They’ll be remembered forever,” said Harper about the NCAA Tournament bid. “You always want to leave a legacy, and they are going to leave some type of legacy.”
Harper followed up his remarkable first season with a 23-win season last year, the most wins the program has accumulated since moving to Division I. The Gamecocks came up short in the OVC Tournament, but it was another step in the right direction.
There’s still one thing missing for Harper and JSU as they have climbed the ladder to become one of the OVC’s top programs, and that’s a regular-season conference championship, something they are positioning themselves to do in 2019.
Led by talented transfer players such as senior forward Jason Burnell and senior guard Marlon Hunter, JSU sits at 17-8 and 9-3 in the conference with six games remaining. The Gamecocks are one game out of first place, with Belmont, Murray State, and Austin Peay in a three-way tie for first. JSU holds the tiebreaker over two of three teams ahead of them, amassing a 3-0 record against conference stalwarts Murray State and Belmont.
The schedule sets up favorably for Jacksonville State to finish strong and potentially capture the regular-season crown, with no remaining opponent ranking higher than No. 200 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings, a widely used analytical measurement of the quality of each college basketball team.
It will still take an OVC Tournament title to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second time, but a regular-season championship would be further affirmation that the years of wandering the basketball wilderness are firmly behind them, and that the Gamecocks have found the Promised Land and are there to stay. H&A