Keeping Score

NIT served to grow USM basketball program

The Southern Miss basketball team came up just short of an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but the NIT may have been the best thing that could have happened to the program.

USM lost 79-62 to BYU on Wednesday to end its stint in the NIT.

Attendance has been a problem for USM basketball for quite some time, but there was an obvious new interest in the sport during the Eagles' three-game run through the NIT.

People who hadn't been to a USM basketball game before were all of a sudden showing up to watch.

Wednesday's crowd of 7,679 for the BYU game was pretty much all USM fans. In the past, crowds that drew near 8,000 at Reed Green might have had 1,000 or so fans from the other school (such as Memphis).

I asked first-year coach Donnie Tyndall after Wednesday's game if he believed the NIT experience could prove to be beneficial for the program in the long run.

"I think so," Tyndall said. "I want to repeat myself by saying how humbled I am by our community and our faculty, staff and student body and the support they've given us these last three games. This is what I envisioned when I took the job and what I hope it'll continue to be like this moving forward. The fans have been fantastic all year long. The last three games been amazing. If you get in the NCAA Tournament, obviously you don't get to play on your home floor so you never experience this. Probably long-term wise, it's been very beneficial. I think it's given more of an audience an opportunity to see our team. For the most part, maybe some folks are disappointed, but for the most part everyone is excited about the future of the program."

USM ended the season with nearly a 25 percent increase in average attendance over the 2011-12 NCAA Tournament campaign in coach Larry Eustachy's final season.

It remains to be seen whether USM fans will continue to show up to start the 2013-14 season, but there's certainly a great deal of momentum headed into the off season.