Men's Basketball looking to continue success in final 10 games of regular season
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Success does not come by accident. The Southern Miss men's basketball team currently holds an 11-10 record, already surpassing its most wins since the 2011-12 NCAA Tournament season as well as holding a 9-0 home mark, also its longest streak since that year.
A secret weapon to the Golden Eagles' game this season has been its free-throw shooting. The squad rebounded from a 5-for-14 shooting at Marshall to post an active seven-game streak of 80 percent shooting or better, currently ranking No. 2 in C-USA action with a 79.4 percent clip.
"I feel our up-tempo offense gets a lot more people in rhythm," senior D'Angelo Richardson said. "It gets us more confidence and to the free-throw line more. It's better than just going in and shooting. Plus, we've been running and gunning all game."
That is the kind of mentality one would expect to get from Richardson, who is the lone senior (first Southern Miss team with one or no seniors since 2006-07). He has made 14 consecutive attempts at the charity stripe, including a 10-for-10 showing in the Jan. 6 win over UTSA as the Golden Eagles withstood a late Roadrunner rally. The Black and Gold made 14 of 16 attempts in the final 1:36 of that game.
Richardson has been an unsung hero for the Golden Eagles on both ends of the floor. All five of his career starts have come this season, and he has equaled or surpassed his output from last year in field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, assists, steals and scoring.
Kevin Holland, along with Eddie Davis III, are the only remaining players from Doc Sadler's first Southern Miss team (2014-15). Holland played quite a bit as a freshman, redshirted the next year, and was a starter during the 2016-17 campaign, but has truly come into his own this season. Three times he has made five three-pointers in a game, including a 7-for-7 mark against UTSA that tied a school record (his overall 8-for-8 field goal mark tied Marcus Crowell in 1990 for highest percentage in a game).
Holland cites the team's 89-71 win over Troy on Dec. 10 as the one where he feels the team learned the most about itself.
"They were in the NCAA tournament last year and I felt like the team was really locked in," he said. "It made us realize what we are capable of doing over the course of the season if we had that kind of preparation, getting teams down 20 early and playing to win."
The Golden Eagles took a double-digit lead less than 10 minutes into the game, and despite Troy posting a big run before halftime to get within seven, Southern Miss took its first 20-point lead with 12 minutes left and never looked back. It marked the program's first win over a defending-NCAA Tournament team since taking down North Dakota State on Dec. 6, 2015.
What has really kept the team going as well has been its positive outlook. Fans can look no further beyond Cortez Edwards for that leadership. The junior from Kissimmee, Fla., was a reserve as a freshman, but has since become a major triple threat the last two years from his scoring, rebounding and assist prowess.
Edwards, who began his career in the midst of the program's inherited two-year postseason ban, looks even to losses as a way for the team to learn more about itself.
"One game I can remember is UAB," Edwards says of the Jan. 11 battle in Birmingham. "We didn't stop fighting and had a chance, but missed a few shots. We just stayed together that game no matter what the ups and downs were. I think that really brought us together."
Edwards and Holland last year were forced to play everything from the point guard to the four-spot throughout the entirety of the 2016-17 season. With the addition of potent starters of Tyree Griffin (point) and Dominic Magee (wing), both who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, as well as valuable bench contributors LaDavius Draine and Anfernee Hampton, everything has changed to go with the run-and-gun persona.
"The guys who came in this year have personal confidence," Edwards said. "Coach doesn't call many plays during the game. Guys like Penny [Hampton], Draine, Tyree and Dominic have a lot of confidence and are always attacking. When you're aggressive, positive things happen."
It may not seem so possible, but despite being the most aggressive offensive team of the Sadler era, this has also been the most patient one. Southern Miss ranks No. 3 nationally with just 9.4 turnovers per game and fourth in assist-turnover ratio (1.62). In fact, the team's 23 assists versus Rice on Jan. 18 were its most against a Division I team since Nov. 2004. On the defensive side, Edwards has risen to No. 18 in the country with 2.33 steals per contest, and the Golden Eagles lead C-USA with a plus-5.6 turnover margin.
The final 10 games of the regular season will surely be a delight to follow.
Southern Miss (11-10, 4-4 C-USA) has a rare Thursday off, and will next take on Louisiana Tech (12-9, 3-5 C-USA) on Saturday night in Ruston at 6 p.m.