Southern Miss piling up wins in revamped C-USA

Published 6:59 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

By David Brandt

AP Sports Writer

Southern Mississippi has been nearly flawless in Conference USA play, winning five of its first six games.

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Considering the weakened state of the league, that needs to continue if the Golden Eagles want to make the NCAA tournament for a second time in three seasons.

Southern Miss (18-3, 5-1 C-USA) is tied with Louisiana Tech at the top of the Conference USA, which is in its first season without Memphis. The Tigers left for the American Athletic Conference during the offseason.

Memphis dominated C-USA for the better part of the decade, and the program’s national reputation gave the league some clout. Southern Miss point guard Neil Watson said there’s a void without the Tigers.

“Memphis dominated the league for a long time,” Watson said. “Now that monster leaves and it’s understandable that people think the league is down. But it’s just a viewpoint. There are teams in this league that are good. At the end of the night, the winner is going to be the team who plays the hardest. The stereotypes don’t matter.”

Southern Miss has emerged as one of the best teams in C-USA over the past three seasons. Larry Eustachy led the Golden Eagles to the NCAA tournament in 2012 for the first time in two decades before leaving to take the Colorado State job.

Donnie Tyndall — who is now in his second season in Hattiesburg — has had nearly as much success. The Golden Eagles finished with a school-record 27 wins last season and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals.

And this year’s balanced team might be the program’s best yet. Watson, a third-year starter, leads the Golden Eagles with 12.3 points and nearly four assists per game.

Michael Craig is right behind him at 11.3 points per game while shooting 58 percent from the field.

The powerful 6-foot-5 guard, who is listed at 230 pounds, also leads the team with 7.9 rebounds per game.

“My teams have always been tough and gritty and we pride ourselves on defense and rebounding,” Tyndall said. “Now we have guys who have been through the program a year, and they’re teaching the younger guys. So it’s not just me. That always makes a big difference.”

Tyndall said he understands the perception that Conference USA is weaker without Memphis, but points to quality wins across the conference as proof the league is still capable of big things.

Among the highlights: Charlotte beat Michigan, Louisiana Tech beat Oklahoma and Alabama-Birmingham beat North Carolina during non-conference play.

“What I want people to understand is our league doesn’t get as much credit is I think they should,” Tyndall said. “We’ve had six or seven teams with really quality wins.”

But the Golden Eagles are also realists. The NCAA’s most recent RPI report has the Golden Eagles at No. 37. The next closest Conference USA teams are Louisiana Tech at No. 75 and Middle Tennessee at No. 112.

That doesn’t give the Southern Miss many chances at a resume-enhancing win, so the Golden Eagles have to settle for quantity over quality.

Southern Miss hosts Tulane (11-10, 3-3) on Saturday at Reed Green Coliseum.

“One game could cost us our goals for the entire season,” Watson said. “We want to get a C-USA regular season and tournament championship, making it to the NCAA tournament and at least win a game. We don’t want to live with regret.”