SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Southern Miss has done a lot of good things in non-conference play. The latest is their 77-64 win at Rhode Island on Saturday, one that is in sum a good statement of where this team is. With just one game left before Conference USA play, there is an added challenge for this team, but there is also opportunity.
The Golden Eagles are an experienced and balanced bunch, as the five starters all average between nine and 12 points per game. Nine players average double-digit minutes, with only point guard Neil Watson averaging more than 28 per game. They have four seniors who play a lot of minutes and several juniors right behind them.
In Saturday’s win, they played like that kind of team. They got off to a fast start, but gave the early lead away, then had to fend off a late rally after building another good lead. Rhode Island scored nine unanswered points to get within 64-62 with 5:15 left, and the Rams seemed to have all the momentum in addition to the home crowd. But Southern Miss scored the next 11 points to put the Rams away.
“We’re an upperclassmen-type team, and we’d like to think in tough environments against a good team, even when things don’t go your way, you keep your head up and keep plugging away, and I thought that was the case tonight,” said head coach Donnie Tyndall.
This is an athletic team, and they turn teams over nearly 18 times per game, which leads Conference USA. Defense has been a strong suit for this team, and they have been a strong rebounding team, but all of that will be put to the test more in conference play. They didn’t turn Rhode Island over as much, forcing just 12 for the game, but they held the Rams to 41.3 percent from the field and hammered them on the glass by a 37-22 margin.
Their frontcourt starters, Michael Craig and Jeremiah Eason, can each be a load to handle inside, but they’re both undersized. Craig had 14 points and 11 rebounds to lead the balanced attack on Saturday. They alone don’t rebound, but they are the first line of rebounders.
Tyndall feels like his team is playing the way he wants them to, especially their last few games. He wants to play fast, but he’s been around the game long enough to understand that it’s tough to win championships just by pressing and speeding teams up. So while they can press and want to at times, that’s not all they do, and that’s why it will bode well if they can keep up what they have done thus far at the defensive end.
“You’ve got to be able to defend in the halfcourt, you’ve got to be able to run good offense in the halfcourt,” said Tyndall after his team shot 51 percent on Saturday.
Southern Miss sports a nice 12-2 record, but as has been the case over the years, it is a little deceiving. The Golden Eagles have two wins over non-Division I teams and haven’t defeated a team that looks like a lock for the NCAA Tournament, with their best win likely being the one at North Dakota State in November. They have lost at Louisville and at Western Kentucky. Their remaining non-conference game against Drexel at home won’t help the profile much, and resume-building wins aren’t going to come in conference play.
Still, there’s something else at hand for this program. With Memphis off to the American Athletic Conference, there’s a big opening for someone to become the signature program in Conference USA. Southern Miss has won more Conference USA games the past three seasons (32) than any current member has, so they are one team with the potential along with the likes of UAB and Charlotte, who have both had good non-conference runs this season. The Golden Eagles have had one of their best stretches of late, having won 20 or more games the last four seasons, just the second time that has happened in a program in its 95th year (it has been in Division I since 1972).
The Golden Eagles will head into Conference USA play as one of the favorites. There is something to be said for winning games, as it should give this team plenty of confidence. They have a veteran nucleus and a coach who has had success and knows the game well in Tyndall. Four of their first six conference games will be on the road, another reason Saturday’s win helps. Thus far, the Golden Eagles have done a lot of good things, and that will help with the opportunity that is ahead of them.