Since beating Mississippi Valley State on Jan. 2, Arkansas-Pine Bluff has competed to stay at or close to the top of the SWAC.

Since beating Mississippi Valley State on Jan. 2, Arkansas-Pine Bluff has competed to stay at or close to the top of the SWAC.

Of the five conference teams UAPB has played so far, four of them are in the top six of the standings. And tonight’s home contest against Texas Southern will be a battle for second place outright.

Yet it’s another game of great importance for the Golden Lions (5-12, 4-1 SWAC). They started the conference slate beating the past two SWAC champions in Mississippi Valley State and Alabama State and defeated an Alabama A&M squad that got past Mississippi State last month.

They were blown out 84-50 at Southern last Saturday in a battle for first place, but rebounded two nights later to knock Alcorn State down in the standings with a 62-52 win in Lorman, Miss.

“I thought the guys did a better job of rebounding,” Lions coach George Ivory said. “They were more focused. Anytime you hold a team to 21 second-half points at their place, that means you were playing hard-nosed defense.”

UAPB managed to win Monday despite shooting 29.3 percent from the floor. Ivory’s looking forward to a better shooting performance at home, where the Lions have shot better than 40 percent in their last three games inside H.O. Clemmons Arena.

“Anytime you come back home to the comfort of your gym, in front of your fans, I think that’s going to do it,” Ivory said.

UAPB will need better shooting against a Texas Southern team that’s won four straight under first-year coach Mike Davis, who’s best known for leading Indiana to the 2002 NCAA championship game against Maryland and recently coaching Alabama-Birmingham.

Like UAPB, Texas Southern (5-13, 4-1) can only contend for the SWAC regular-season championship. Texas Southern is banned from postseason play this season as part of a wide range of sanctions handed down by the NCAA mainly for lack of institutional control. Previous coach Tony Harvey resigned after last season and was cited by the NCAA for unethical conduct.

But Davis has the Tigers going in the right direction on the court behind the play of Omar Strong, a 5-9 senior guard who is the SWAC’s preseason player of the year. Strong averages 16.2 points per game to lead the Tigers, followed up by Raymond Penn at 12.9 and Fred Sturdivant at 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds.

Ivory said it’s hard to tell how the Tigers have improved on the court under Davis. But here’s an idea of what they’re capable of: They nearly won at Colorado this season, dropping an 85-80, double-overtime decision to the Buffaloes of the Pacific-12.

“Coach Davis is doing a good job with the team, but coach Harvey had done an outstanding job with the team also,” Ivory said.