Southern Miss is replacing its program with Latin American players, a perfectly matched and ‘bold’ coach.

HATTIESBURG, Mrs. —- Golden Eagles assistant coach Juan Cardona burst from the bench, turned, and the home supporter stood up as Southern Miss forced Lamar to surrender and the visitors to take a break in the second half of USM’s non-conference game at the Reed Green Coliseum in mid-December He raised his arms to lift it.

The Golden Eagles were in the middle of a game where they beat the Cardinals 95-59 – a breakup facilitated in large part by the suffocating pressure defense that Cardona helped instill in the program – and the small but lively crowd responded with praise.

At a university with a bowling-winning football program in the heart of the SEC country and claiming the rare title of “baseball school”, basketball has been shelved for much of the past decade. But the Golden Eagles are making a stunning comeback with some excitement as they set an 11-1 record at UNLV on Thursday night.

It’s not even Christmas, and Southern Miss has more victories than in the last three seasons.

“My God, Reed Green is making a noise,” said fourth-year head coach Jay Ladner after the easy win against Lamar. “If only we could fill in here… But it’s growing and I’m excited about it.”

If anyone knows what Southern Miss basketball and the Reed Green Coliseum look and sound like best, it’s Ladner, a member of the program’s 1987 NIT title team. But in recent years, this building, affectionately known by some as the “dorm” for its vague resemblance to an outdoor camp structure, is mostly made up of crickets.

The Golden Eagles have limped to a 24-65 record over the past three seasons, winning fewer and fewer games each season under Ladner, who has begun to realize the disadvantages of coaching in a place with such deep ties. Ladner, a former USM player from Hattiesburg and longtime victor in the district’s high school and junior high circuits, was anonymity amid the team’s struggles.

“You talk about going to the grocery store and you feel like you let people down because there were a lot of people who trusted us, and I think they were hoping we could turn things around a little faster,” Ladner said. aforementioned. “Of course it took some time.

“I have a deep regret that we couldn’t turn it any faster.”

But those poor years and the pain they brought Ladner make what Miss Güney is doing now all the more special to the native son. Ten years ago, Ladner believed he would retire as a coach at nearby Oak Grove High School.

It’s now in its second Division I job and its players are openly talking about their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, and that goal doesn’t sound ridiculous even for a program that has only gone to one Big Dance in the last 30 years. .

At this rate, the Golden Eagles could be contenders in their first year in the Sunbelt, although they are selected for the penultimate or penultimate finish in most preseason broadcasts.

an honest step

More than half of the 59 teams that finished the 2021-22 season 300th or worse on the NET are back in the 300s, starting this week. A few have surpassed the 200s earlier this season, and a few outliers, such as Grambling State, American, Maine, Milwaukee, and Stetson, have made significant progress by climbing all the way to the 100s.

Then there’s the Southern Lady, for whom the term “outlier” is sadly clumsy.

In twelve games of the 2022-23 season, the Golden Eagles are not in a different subset of the college basketball rankings than they did a year ago. They live on a new planet.

After finishing last season in 341st place on the NET with a 7-26 record that included 14 conference losses, the Golden Eagles are 22nd on the NET to enter the UNLV game. The rise of more than 300 spots defies logic, and it all started with a brutally honest sales pitch.

Realizing that he was lucky to be in his fourth year at the school he graduated from, Ladner renewed his staff by sending a message to future assistants after last season:

“You can come in here and if we don’t finish in a year, you’re out,” Ladner recalled of his conversations with the candidates for their opening. “The next episode was ‘hey, we gotta have some guys’.”

The two coaches were willing to accept jobs that others would see as endless jobs. Cardona joined after spending two seasons at Mercer, and Nick Williams joined the ship after working as an assistant at Northwest Mississippi Community College.

While The Southern Lady was experiencing her worst three-year run in program history, they saw an opportunity and took note of the second part of Ladner’s message – the part about the Golden Eagles need “friends”.

Cardona helped bring in the Southern Miss’s top scorer, former Mercer tall man Felipe Haase. Williams helped deliver second striker Austin Crowley, an Ole Miss transfer.

According to EvanMiya.com, these two are among the 2 and 3 most influential players in the Sun Belt this season.

La Familia

Extracting talent is one thing, but making it work together is another, and the Golden Eagles essentially had to bring three families together. I had the Puerto Rican Cardona. He brought Haase along with a handful of other signings with Latin American heritage, many of whom he’s known since his time coaching or spending time in the high school ranks at Miami Christian.

Then there was Williams, a former Ole Miss guard who helped get Crowley in, and another key rotation player at Donovan Ivory, who went to his fourth school in four years.

Finally, there were those from last year’s Southern Miss roster who suffered from tough patches but were willing to come back and ride with Ladner once again.

Chilean Felipe Haase leads the Golden Eagles in scoring after signing from Mercer.

Southern Women’s Athletics

“I knew the guys returning from our team were tough and tough,” Ladner said. “They were loyal and going through tough times. I kept telling them we got help on the road and that the days of Miss Güney getting kicked were over.”

Still, most pundits thought otherwise, and Ladner saw an opportunity when he spotted a Sunbelt preseason poll that predicted the Golden Eagles would finish last in the conference. The league’s coaches followed suit, predicting that USM would finish 13th in the 14-team league.

Ladner started talking to his team about where they would finish, and the message resonated with a roster full of former players. According to Sports Reference data, Southern Miss is one of 11 Division I teams that do not have a single freshman on their roster.

The team’s seven top goalscorers have been part of winning teams, at least in college basketball’s fourth season, but few have been on their college voyages.

“You have a group of guys who are losing in their careers, they come together and we all have the same mentality and the same vision, which is to get to the tournament,” said senior striker Deandre Pinckney, who was last season’s top scorer.

Ladner played off his veteran’s vision of this tunnel by ordering warm-up shirts with “14” on the back to remind them where they were selected in the Sunbelt. The shirts read “Southern Miss Grit” on the front and “La Familia” on the back.

“Miss from the South” refers to the school’s blue-collar identity, while “La Familia”, meaning “family” in English, pays homage to the Spanish-speaking culture that Cardona brought to the program.

“It’s a thrill,” said Haase, a Chilean who started her career in South Carolina. “It’s a bond that goes a little more than getting to know you by name and how you play. It’s saying ‘I care about you.’ It’s more advanced than basketball, but it reflects really well in basketball.”

to the top

When Larry Eustachy spent eight seasons at Southern Miss from 2004 to 2012, it was an image improvement effort for a California native and a former Iowa State coach who needed a fresh start. He used his success with the Golden Eagles to launch a bigger business at Colorado State.

Then came Donnie Tyndall, who entered Morehead State and won 56-17 over two seasons before taking the Tennessee job, then leaving a devastating cloud of NCAA violations. Damage to Tyndall’s tenure included a two-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions, hiring restrictions, and three years of probation.

The results of Tyndall’s tenure blocked the next coach, Doc Sadler, but eventually led Southern Miss to a record single wins in the past eight seasons before resigning and returning to Nebraska as an assistant.

When Sadler resigned after the 2018-19 season, Ladner received a “statement of support” for the job from his teammates and staff at Southern Miss for the 1987 NIT championship.

At the time, Ladner had a record of 511-188 at the high school level in Mississippi for more than two decades, guiding nearby Jones County Junior College to the 2014 JUCO national championship, and had spent the previous five seasons making Southeast Louisiana a contender. at the Southland Conference.

“The time has come to bring our program to the fore, filling the Reed Green Coliseum with an enthusiastic fan base to compete for championships,” the letter said.

Ladner got the job, but achieving these goals proved more difficult than expected and eroded Ladner, who was struggling to get results on the field for the first time in his career. Unlike his recent predecessors, Ladner is a domestic manager who will be a part of the community even after his tenure with the Golden Eagles ends.

“I want to be very careful that I take full responsibility,” he said. “We didn’t have assistant coaches here, we didn’t have players. I thought they were fighting last year. Probably for the first time in my career, I couldn’t get everybody together.” same time. I regret this. I wish I could do it over. I knew we had to reevaluate every single piece of the program. So we did it from the first day of spring.”

So far, the results of the reassessment have been spectacular. While Southern Miss’s debut has its fair share of wins against non-Division I enemies and lower-tier Division I teams, there’s also some meat on the resume. Like a title at the Cancun Challenge, road wins against Vanderbilt and Liberty stand out.

Still, the first season of Southern Miss’s Sun Belt game can bring challenges. Take, for example, the four straight road games in January. The Golden Eagles will go about three weeks without home games at the start of their first season in a new league after nearly three decades in the USA Conference.

But timing can have an overlooked advantage. The road turn comes before the lessons begin. Southern Miss will return to town for a four-game home game when students return to campus for the spring term, which begins January 18.

The realization of Ladner’s vision of the Reed Green Coliseum may become more realistic if USM can sustain the early-season momentum as students return to campus and the gravity of the nation’s most dramatic comeback permeates campus.

At least, Ladner’s interactions with people at the grocery store are a little more optimistic these days.

“I can lift my head a little bit,” he said. “Glad we were able to continue at this point. We haven’t turned the corner yet. But we have the blinker on.”

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