Southern Miss basketball coach Doc Sadler stepped onto the court in a suit and tie at Reed Green Coliseum for the first time in almost two months on Saturday.
He had good reason.
The fifth-year head coach was there to take photos with the five seniors who helped turn around a program that’s gone from 26 wins in Sadler’s first three years to 35 over the last two.
“I really think that this senior class should have a banner up in those rafters,” Sadler said after USM’s 81-48 drubbing of UTSA in the regular season finale. “I really believe that. Kentucky put one up for a team that only won six or seven games when they graduated because of what they went through. I don’t really know that people really understand what these guys have been through. People don’t hide their feelings. Some of these dudes on social media were just killing them when they’re freshmen and sophomores. In a normal situation, they wouldn’t even know who they were because they wouldn’t be playing.
“I remember being at Louisiana Tech in Kevin Holland’s freshman year with about 3 or 4 minutes left, he’s like, ‘Coach, please take me out. Please take me out.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I looked down and said, ‘Sorry, ain’t nobody to put in for you.’ They knew and they just stuck with it. This group will probably be the most special group that I’ve coached.”
All five seniors were in the starting lineup on Saturday — Tyree Griffin, Dominic Magee, Cortez Edwards, Kevin Holland and Anfernee Hampton.
Magee scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds to lead USM while Griffin pitched in 13 points and 11 assists.
The two players are New Orleans area natives who transferred to USM for their final two years of eligibility. Griffin came from Oklahoma State and Magee was previously at Grand Canyon.
“We were coming here together, saying we were coming to turn the program around,” Griffin said. “It looks like it’s working.”
In the hunt
USM improved to 19-11 overall and 11-7 in Conference USA play, earning a bye in the first-round of the conference tournament, which starts on Wednesday in Frisco, Texas. Southern Miss, which finished a three-way tie for second place with WKU and UTSA, will be the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
USM will play the winner of the No. 6 Marshall-No. 11 Rice game at 9 p.m. on Thursdsay night. If the Eagles advance, they will play No. 2 WKU, No. 7 FIU or No. 10 North Texas at 3 p.m. on Saturday in the semifinals. The title game takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday on CBS Sports Network.
With Wednesday’s 59-52 win at C-USA champion Old Dominion and Saturday’s thumping of UTSA, the Golden Eagles appear to be playing their best basketball of the season.
USM, which hit 47.7 percent of its field goal attempts Saturday, converted 16 of 34 3-pointers and out-rebounded UTSA 47-34.
Sadler believes his team simply has to stay on track to compete in Frisco for the program’s first conference tournament championship and fourth NCAA Tournament bid.
“We’ve got to continue to rebound the basketball,” Sadler said. “If we shoot it like we did today, then we’ll have a chance to play with anybody and maybe win. Defensively, I’m not concerned at all. I think we ended up second in defensive field goal percentage behind Old Dominion. Offensively, we’re leading the league in offensive efficiency. We’re leading it in field goal percentage, leading it in in assist-to-turnover. Offensively and defensively, we’re playing as well as we can play.”
Sadler was back in a long-sleeved Southern Miss T-shirt and slacks before the game tipped off, the same outfit he’s been wearing since the start of the Coaches vs. Cancer campaign that began around the time of the Jan. 24 home game against Western Kentucky, which USM lost 66-63. Coaches typically dress in less formal suits and wear tennis shoes in recognition of the fund-raising effort.
Some fans have grumbled over his clothing selections, but it’s hard to bash a man who has led Southern Miss to a remarkable turnaround after dealing with NCAA sanctions the last five years.
“I did the suit today because (USM booster) Mack Grubbs made a great point to me,” Sadler said. “He said, ‘You’d look a lot better in a suit and tie’ for the pictures.
“Man, I’ve gotten too comfortable coaching the way I am. Unless the president of the college or our athletic director mandates me to start wearing (suits). You’re never going to see them suits no more.”
The slacks and t-shirt combo is Doc’s daily attire.
“I have always wondered why coaches wear coats and ties,” he said. “I sweat a lot and I can’t tell you how many suits I’ve ruined and they’re not cheap. Although most were given to me. If I’d had to buy them, I probably would have been wearing this a lot earlier. But, you know what? I’m comfortable in it and I feel good in it, so I’m going to wear it.”