Southern Miss basketball coach Doc Sadler joked last season that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel, “but, God, I hope it’s not a freight train.”
In his fifth season on the job, Sadler and company appear to have finally found their way out of an NCAA-enforced darkness.
The best indicator that things were about to get a lot better for the Golden Eagles came when they beat Conference USA regular season champion Middle Tennessee, 71-68, in the quarterfinals of last year’s conference tournament. USM finished with a 16-18 — a seven-win improvement over the prior season.
USM (2-0) is just two games into the 2018-19 season and the win over the Blue Raiders appears to be far from a fluke. The Golden Eagles topped SMU, a team that’s been competitive in the difficult American Athletic Conference over the last five seasons, in a 74-64 game in Dallas on Sunday.
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It was by far the biggest non-conference win of Sadler’s tenure at USM and the team is 4-1 over the last five games against D1 competition.
“I really believe any game we go into this year, we’ve got a chance to win,” Sadler said Monday while seated behind his desk in his Reed Green Coliseum office. “Some are tougher than others, but that hasn’t really been the case. It would be, ‘Let’s just play it close.’ Not saying we can or will or whatever, but I hope we can finish with a lot of wins before conference.”
USM has dealt with severe NCAA sanctions since Sadler arrived prior to the 2014-15 campaign and the program is still dealing with scholarship reductions, but he is now just one scholarship player shy of the NCAA limit of 13.
The impact of the NCAA probe of Donnie Tyndall’s two-year stint as USM head coach from 2012-14 has yet to fully lift, but Sadler and his staff have pieced together a roster that should compete against a tough Conference USA slate.
The season is just over a week old and C-USA squads have already picked up some quality non-conference wins: Louisiana Tech won 71-58 at Wichita State, FAU beat a talented UCF team 80-79 and Charlotte stunned Oklahoma State 66-64.
Western Kentucky, Marshall, North Texas and Middle Tennessee are also expected to be in the hunt when the conference schedule begins just prior to the new year.
While Sadler has more quality options to work with this season, the style of play won’t be that different than what fans saw a year ago. While USM usually starts each game with a true post player, it isn’t unusual for Sadler to put five guards on the court.
SMU had a clear size advantage on Sunday, but the Eagles’ quickness and ability to hit the outside shot proved too much for the Mustangs.
“I think we can put (seven) guys on the court that can shoot the basketball,” Sadler said. “That’s a positive, but the negative is playing a lot smaller. I’ve always done that anyway.
“My teams at Nebraska were so good defensively that we couldn’t score. I’d rather have guys on the floor now that can score. I’ll give up some height and maybe one or two rebounds to be able to put more people on the court that can score. That’s what we ended up doing last year. You’ll see us do it more.”
USM will rely heavily on the 3-point shot this season and they’ve started strong in that area, hitting 23 of 58 tries. Against SMU, the Golden Eagles were 13-of-24 behind the arc.
Senior point guard Tyree Griffin hit all four of his 3-pointers.
“Every person in our rotation can actually shoot it,” senior guard Cortez Edwards said. “It’s a good thing when everybody is confident and hitting on all cylinders.”
A good chunk of USM offense this season will go through Griffin and Edwards, who combined to average 31.6 points a game last year. Another senior guard, Dominic Magee, pitched in 11.7 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds a game.
Six-foot-5 sophomore LaDavius Draine and freshman Gabe Watson have shown early in the season that they can hit double digits in scoring as well. Watson nailed four of eight 3-pointers for 14 points at SMU on Saturday and Draine pitched in 10 of his own.
USM also returns its most efficient outside shooter from a year ago in redshirt senior Kevin Holland, who hit 41.5 percent of his 3-pointers.
Watson, a 6-foot-2 Jackson native, will continue to see significant minutes if he shoots as well as he did Saturday.
“I guess I have to make shots when I’m open and take care of the ball,” said Watson, a Jackson native. “Anything Doc wants me to do I’m fine with it.”
While several USM guards have proven they can score, Griffin will run the show from the point.
“Tyree makes everything go,” Sadler said of the former Oklahoma State guard. “Everybody talks about everybody else, but he makes everything easier for Cortez, Kevin and Draine. Everybody is getting wide open shots. On top of that, he can shoot the ball too. He’s quick enough and aggressive enough. He’s such a competitor.”
In the post
Watson is part of what should be Sadler’s best freshman class at USM. Six-foot-7 forward Tyler Stevenson of Columbus, 6-foot-5 forward Ladarius Marshall of Jackson and 6-foot-4 Canadian point guard Shakur Daniel are all well regarded.
Six-foot-11 redshirt junior forward Tim Rowe and 6-foot-5 junior forward Leonard Harper-Baker, who sat out last season as a redshirt, split time in the post against SMU.
Redshirt junior Boban Jacdonmi will bring height and power to the frontcourt at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds. He didn’t play against SMU with Sadler deciding to go with a smaller lineup, but he will have a significant role to play going forward as a low-post defender who can face up the basket and shoot.
Harper-Baker is the most versatile of the three forwards with good ball-handling skills.
“He’s a glue guy right now that’s trying to find his place,” Sadler said. “He’s a tough guy we can play in the post. He stepped out and hit a three (against SMU). I know he can shoot it because he did it in practice. When you sit out a year, it’s hard. By conference, I hope he can be back to where he was.”
USM will travel to Troy (1-2) for another non-conference bout at 6 p.m. on Thursday and trips to Wichita State, Kansas State and South Dakota will give the team chances to pick up more quality wins.
The season is still young, but Sadler likes what he sees.
“Anytime you win on the road, it tells you there’s some toughness,” he said.