|Dwayne Davis and Southern Miss are winning big despite a thin roster and undersized team. (US Presswire)|
Earlier today we discussed how nice it is to see Belmont keep on being Belmont.
Well, there's another 17-4 team hovering out there, only this one would appear to be on the fringe of being an NCAA tournament team. It's a bit of a surprise, probably because you forgot it made last year's field. It's OK if that slipped your mind; it was the program's first NCAA tourney appearance in 21 years and third overall. And no one's really talking about it now -- because it's in Conference USA and, yeah -- Conference USA is just depressing to think about most of the time these days.
Not depressing: Donnie Tyndall in his first year, taking over for Larry Eustachy (now at Colorado State) and not missing a beat. Southern Mississippi is in contention for C-USA and stands to give Memphis a run here. Whereas Belmont's a team we expect to win at least 17 of its first 21 games, Southern Miss is not yet a quintessential elite club in its conference.
Tyndall thinks he can get to that place and not take long to reach that level. That's ambitious at a program not known for hoops. In addition to its anemic NCAA tournament ledger, USM has produced just five NBA players in its history. But this is a coach who recruited and made an NBA stud out of Kenneth Faried.
Right now the Golden Eagles are undefeated in league play, tied atop the standings with Memphis and potentially a group that can break through for the second straight season.
When you realize the turnover and turmoil that occurred in Tyndall's first few months at his new job, the 17-out-of-21 start is even more impressive. The Golden Eagles had just four scholarship players from last year's team on this year's roster by the time the first game tipped on Nov. 10 against Western Kentucky.
Southern Miss, Lipscomb and Mississippi State share the same situation: They are the youngest teams in D-I, with six total years of experience returning to their roster this season. The other two teams are a combined 15-24.
"I'm shocked at what we've done so far," Tyndall said by phone earlier this week.
More hurdles that have been cleared: Southern Miss played three of its first 13 games at home. Irony, because here was Tyndall leaving Morehead State (two NCAA bids and one NCAA tournament win in four years) last May to take the USM job in part because he'd be able to schedule more home games. Southern Miss' seven road wins is second-most in D-I as of Wednesday night.
"As a first-year head coach, you try to implement your system and style of play, even though the players may not be ideally suited," Tyndall said. Because of his admittedly intense, demanding style as a coach, he lost some players who initially didn't bail after Eustachy headed to Fort Collins.
Now his team has no starter taller than 6-foot-5, and yet is one of the better offensive-rebounding teams in the country (grabbing 40 percent of misses, a top-10 rate) and leading C-USA in points allowed per game (57.6) and steals (12.2). Its able to be so aggressive and overcome a lack of size because Tyndall's built a 10-player rotation that earns double-digit minutes.
It turns teams over 16 percent of the time because of dead-ball press and an extended, aggressive zone with a swarm of ball pressure. There are pinpoints -- or soft spots -- on the floor that Southern Miss uses to trap and does it well. It's a zone with man-to-man principals and no team in the league plays it but the Golden Eagles. The closest is something to Louisville.
"Some have had to sacrifice minutes, shot attempts and other things have been given up for the betterment of the team," he said.
The team's two best players are Dwayne Davis -- leading scorer -- and senior Jonathan Mills, an inner-city Chicago kid who's 240 pounds an "an honest 6-4." Tyndall describes him as one of the toughest, most unselfish players he's ever had. And the fact he's left-handed and adroit near the rim makes him a threat.
It's unclear if this team is the real deal yet, but it's one of the under-publicized unexpected stories of the season so far. The real gauge of Southern Miss' dangerous potential can be found in its losses. It doesn't have a signature win yet, but it led led Wichita State by 11 at the half and was up eight at Arizona midway through the game. Both of those teams stand good chances to win in March.
The best and only opportunities for real resume wins come against Memphis. The meetings with the Tigers come two weeks apart: Feb. 9 and 23. Those games will be the barometer for this team. Conference USA will struggle to send two to this NCAAs this year but if Tyndall's team can take one against the Tigers and avoid the junk that occupies the bottom half of the league, he and the conference will have a chance for two representatives in the Big Bracket.
The league could use it. A new program, someone to slap Memphis around before that program bolts for the Big East next season. Conference USA needs a race to keep us interested, and the new coach in the league with the jumbled roster of believers is lining up to be the ones to threaten C-USA's perennial bullies.
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