There was a great deal of support and optimism in the Southern Miss community when USM alum Jay Ladner was hired as the school’s men’s basketball coach in April.
Whether Ladner and his staff can build on that buzz during the 2019-20 season will be determined in the coming weeks and months.
The Hattiesburg native is preparing an inexperienced group of Golden Eagles for his fast-approaching debut as head coach. USM hosts Mississippi College at 7 p.m. on Oct. 29 for an exhibition before starting the regular season on Nov. 5 against Delta State in Hattiesburg.
With Doc Sadler leaving to join the Nebraska staff following a 20-13 mark in his fifth and final season, Ladner does have somewhat of a difficult act to follow in Year 1.
“Whether we’re ready or not, it’s here,” Ladner said Monday. “We have an incredibly young team, an inexperienced team, a new coaching staff. We’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us. The players have been great. The work ethic has been great. The biggest question mark we have is how much we will be able to grow.
“I think our non-conference schedule is extremely challenging. But I think handled the right way, it will give us the kind of forged from fire preparation for conference play. Our win-loss record has the potential to not be so pretty because of the challenge ahead of us, but again our overall goal is to become a national power. Playing that type of schedule is going to be consistent with what we do from here on out.”
The Golden Eagles travel to Iowa State on Nov. 19 and take on Gonzaga in Nassau, Bahamas, on Nov. 27 as part of the Battle 4 Atlantis. USM will play either Seton Hall or Oregon on the second day of the Battle 4 Atlantis and a third game will be against a team out of a group that includes Michigan, Iowa State, North Carolina and Alabama.
USM travels to national runner-up Texas Tech on Dec. 16 following a three-game homestand against Division 1 competition — Tulane (12/4), Southern Illinois (12/7) and North Florida (12/14).
Junior guard LaDavius Draine and senior forward Leonard Harper-Baker are the returning starters from last year’s squad. Sophomore guard Gabe Watson and redshirt senior Boban Jacdonmi are the only two other returners who saw significant playing time off the bench a year ago.
Draine will have a big role to play on the offensive end after he was named the 2018-19 Conference USA Co-Sixth Man of the Year while averaging 11.3 points and 3.6 rebounds a game. His 46.4 clip on 3-pointers would have ranked first in Conference USA and among the top 10 in the nation if not for coming up just shy of the statistical threshold. Of his 168 3-point tries, 78 were good.
Harper-Baker averaged 9.6 points and 8.0 rebounds while working as an undersized stretch-five.
Both players were included a projected starting five that Ladner revealed on Monday.
Point guard: Six-foot-2, 192-pound sophomore Gabe Watson.
Shooting guard: Six-foot-4, 212-pound junior LaDavius Draine.
Wing: Six-foot-7, 215-pound freshman Artur Konontsuk
Power forward: Six-foot-6, 208-pound senior Leonard Harper-Baker.
Post: Six-foot-8, 207-pound sophomore Tyler Stevenson or 6-foot-9, 256-pound redshirt senior Boban Jacdonmi.
Draine will settle into a role this season that seems to better fit his skill set.
“This year, I’ll be playing more of the guard spot,” Draine said. “Last year, me and (Harper-Baker) played more of the post. I was like the stretch four, screening and popping. This year, I’m coming off more screens. I’ve got to handle the ball more.
“It gives me more freedom, more moving around. I’m not in the post banging with the bigs.”
Watson, who averaged 4.5 points and just over an assist a game last year, currently has the edge at point over 6-foot sophomore Jay Malone, a Meridian native who is in his first season after averaging 14.3 points and 5.4 assists last year at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Freshman Jeffery Armstrong could also see some time taking the ball up court.
The play of the point guard position will be a crucial factor in USM’s success in Ladner’s first season.
“We’re going to have to learn to manage the game in the sense that we can’t turn the ball over a lot of times,” he said. “There have been times in the preseason where we’ve turned it over a lot. That’s an area we have to address and we do it every day. A lot of it is teammates developing chemistry. The point guard has got to be the coach’s right hand.”
Behind Draine, 6-foot-4 freshman guard Auston Leslie of Huntsville, Alabama, has a chance to see time off the bench.
“I think (Leslie) is as gifted an athlete as we’ve had here in a long time,” Ladner said. “He has unbelievable athleticism. He has a chance to make an impact early.”
Six-foot-5 freshman guard Angel Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was one of the top additions in Ladner’s first signing class, but he is still making the adjustment to the Division I level.
“Last week was probably his best week so far,” Ladner said. “He’s just figuring out that he’s got to bring it every day. He’s 6-5 and can really shoot it. He’s got a great future.”
Konontsuk, an Estonian who is the only newcomer listed in Ladner’s starting five, should join Draine as a threat from behind the 3-point line.
“He shoots the ball extremely well, which is typical of a European player. He’s skilled with the basketball,” Ladner said. “His challenge will be to guard an opposing team’s small forward. We may have to do some cross-matching, meaning he would guard the stretch-four for the other team. There may be chances for him to play the three.”
Stevenson, who has added a lot of muscle in the weightroom, is a former walk-on from Columbus who played in 15 games last year, averaging 3.3 points and 2.3 rebounds. He and Jacdonmi will share time in the post and their minutes will likely rely on who matches up better with the opposing center. Stevenson is the quicker, more athletic option while Jacdonmi offers good bulk at nearly 260 pounds.
Ladner does have more options to work with in the post than Sadler did a year ago with 6-foot-10, 232-pound freshman Hunter Dean showing promise. Junior transfer Isaiah Jones and redshirt freshman Denjiay Harris, who is coming off an injury, both stand 6-foot-7 and have the potential to work their way into the rotation.
“Hunter Dean came in a typical tall, frail high school big, somewhat on the thin side,” Ladner said. “He gained 23 pounds in June and July — good weight, strong weight. Tyler has been the same way. He looks like a different young man.”
Regardless of who makes the starting lineup, whoever has the hottest hand will get the most looks on the offensive end. If last year is any indication, Draine will handle the ball a great deal.
“It’s important to get the basketball into the hands of the player who can do the most damage,” Ladner said. “This is not a democracy. A guy like Draine is going to do the most damage in transition. Everybody we play knows he’s going to shoot.”