Night Line: Larry Eustachy Has Southern Miss On Track For Its First NCAA Bid in 21 YearsPosted by EJacoby on February 2nd, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC correspondent and regular contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
Head coach Larry Eustachy hasn’t led a team to the NCAA Tournament since his two-seed Iowa State Cyclones were upset in the first round of 2001. But the Southern Miss basketball program has waited even longer, as it’s been 21 years since the Golden Eagles went dancing. This season, the combination of Eustachy’s guidance and a collection of veteran players have USM in prime position to earn a ticket to the Big Dance, whether as the champion of their league or an at-large selection. On Wednesday night, the Golden Eagles snapped a 17-game losing streak against Memphis by defeating the Tigers, 75-72, to earn sole possession of first place in Conference USA. A program that has never won an NCAA Tournament game is well on their way to having a chance to do so this season.
Southern Miss (20-3, 7-1 C-USA) has quietly put together a solid resume this season, and Wednesday’s win was the signature victory they needed to justify their sparkling record. The Golden Eagles have only lost to undefeated Murray State in Alaska, at Denver in its first ‘real’ game, and at Memphis by two points earlier in the season. The Denver loss appears rough, but the Pioneers are actually a top 100 RPI team at 16-6, 6-3 in the Sun Belt, and it’s never easy to play a true road game at the start of the season. Meanwhile, Southern Miss has been flawless in the rest of its conference games and also boasts road wins at Colorado State and Arizona State and home victories over Ole Miss and South Florida, both of which are above .500 in the SEC and Big East, respectively. Tally it all up and the Golden Eagles have a spectacular RPI of #11, which is music to the NCAA Tournament committee’s ears.
Southern Miss is not a team with big-name players or a distinct style of play that gets national attention. However, this is a veteran team with strong guard play that does not make mistakes. They have a season-long turnover rate of just 17.8%, which is among the top 30 in the country. They shoot over 75% from the free throw line (top 20 nationally) and have an impressive rebounding rate of 55%. These are all metrics that make for a very tough team to beat, even if it is not full of flashy athletes. But these guys aren’t chopped liver, either; the Eagles score 1.10 points per possession on the year and have several players with enough confidence to score the ball. They are deep with quality contributors and won’t be an easy out in March.
Even with a solid body of work, USM truthfully had to beat Memphis in tonight’s game, for the sake of their resume and for the confidence of their players. If the Eagles were to have lost, it would have made Eustachy 0-18 all-time against Memphis, dropped the team to second place in C-USA and essentially two games back of first, and raised a major red flag that they were swept against their biggest conference competition. Instead, the Eagles dug deep and came out victorious in front of a raucous home crowd in a hard-fought game. Darnell Dodson, a transfer from Kentucky, led the way with 23 points and six rebounds off the bench. Neil Watson, another transfer, also came off the bench and poured in 17 points with a clutch 8-8 performance from the free throw line. Junior guard LaShay Page recorded a double-double with 12 points and a season-high 10 rebounds in a gutsy effort. These veteran Eagles were never flustered despite playing a talented Memphis offense that shot 56% from the field in the game. USM went 24-27 from the foul line and made all the necessary plays down the stretch for the win.
For Southern Miss, the key from here is to finish strong against conference competition. Knowing that they just played their biggest game of the regular season, a team can easily fall asleep at the wheel and drop several winnable games. For Eustachy, a former AP National Coach of the Year in 2000 at Iowa State, it’s been a long time coming to get back to the Big Dance and he has no reason yet to relax. Expect his players to get the message that they must keep their foot on the gas pedal and keep their eyes on that prize — an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1991 — before many of the current players were born. If USM keeps playing at the level they did on Wednesday, it looks like they’ll be getting that coveted invitation this March.