The Southern Miss men's basketball team has had a rough start to the season and the road is only getting get tougher starting Saturday.
USM, which sits at 3-8, starts Conference USA play at 6 p.m. on Saturday with a road game against a Louisiana Tech team that has the conference's best record at 11-2, including an 82-74 win at Ohio State on Nov. 24.
Southern Miss has managed to win three of its last five games after starting 0-6.
USM started the season without two of its best players when senior forward Norville Carey and sophomore guard Kevin Holland both decided to take a redshirt this year while the team endured a self-imposed postseason ban for a second consecutive season. USM will reportedly go before the NCAA this month to answer for alleged violations committed during Donnie Tyndall's tenure as head coach from 2012-14.
Second-year USM head head coach Doc Sadler revealed this week that another one of his top players, sophomore forward Eddie Davis, is likely done for the season with a broken foot.
"Defensively, I think we're defending as well as anybody in the league," Sadler said Thursday. "We've showed some toughness and that's encouraging. At the same time, you know you've lost three of your top players.
"Any time you lose Eddie Davis, who was our best offensive player, you're going to struggle offensively, and that's what we've done."
The 6-foot-7, 248-pound Davis has been USM's best post player with averages of 9.4 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. He's also shown the ability to hit the 3-pointer, ranking second on the team in 3-point percentage at 37.5.
"He was the one mismatch that we did have on offense because he could step out and shoot the basketball," Sadler said. "That's the frustrating thing because we don't really have anybody else that can do that, but what's encouraging is it gives a lot of other people opportunities. There are going to be a lot of kids getting experience that's going to benefit them."
One player who will see his minutes increase is 6-foot-11 freshman forward Tim Rowe, who is averaging 2.3 points and 12.9 minutes a game.
One of the bright notes of non-conference play has been the play of Iowa State transfer guard Kourtlin Jackson.
When the senior plays well on offense, USM has a shot at winning.
In the Eagles' three wins this season over North Dakota State, South Alabama and Southeastern Oklahoma State, the 6-foot-4 Jackson is averaging 20.7 points and 7.7 rebounds.
Those are impressive numbers considering Jackson never averaged double digits in scoring in high school or in junior college.
Jackson saw sparse minutes in his one season on the court at Iowa State, playing in only eight games. He averaged 8.9 points a game in the 2012-13 season at John Wood (Ill.) Community College and 8.8 points as a senior at Herbert Hoover High School in Des Moines, Iowa.
"He's never really played Div. I college basketball," Sadler said. "At Iowa State, he would only play they were up 25 or down 25. He's in a situation where it's different. You can tell he feels more confident and understands things more."
It will be on Jackson (10.3 ppg) and Dayton transfer point guard Khari Price (10.2 ppg) to produce much of the scoring for the Golden Eagles. Players like forward Quinton Campbell (5.3 ppg) and guard Keljin Blevins (5.5 ppg) will also be asked to score more in Davis's absence. USM is far from the lone team in C-USA with a losing record. Eight of the league's 14 teams are below .500, meaning USM should have a chance to pick up some victories in league play.
However, Sadler's measure for success against conference competition won't necessarily be in the win column.
"I'll be disappointed if we don't get better each game," Sadler said. "If we're holding teams under 40 percent from the field, that means the team is playing its butt off and giving great effort. That's the way I'm attacking this season.
"I'll be very disappointed, regardless of our record through 18 conference games, if we don't play our best basketball in the last two games. That will say a lot about our kids."