HATTIESBURG, Miss. —- As Southern Miss bullied Lamar into submission and forced the visitors to call a timeout in the second half of a mid-December non conference game inside USM's Reed Green Coliseum, Golden Eagles' assistant coach Juan Cardona catapulted from the bench, turned around and pumped his arms to implore the home crowd to its feet.
The Golden Eagles were in the midst of a 95-59 beatdown of the Cardinals — a dismantling facilitated largely by the suffocating pressure defense that Cardona has helped instill at the program — and the small but lively crowd responded with adulation.
At a university that can claim the rare title of "baseball school" that has a bowl-winning football program in the heart of SEC country, basketball has fallen by the wayside for much of the past decade. But it is making a stunning comeback that has some buzz percolating as the Golden Eagles enter Thursday night's showdown at UNLV sporting an 11-1 record.
It's not even Christmas and Southern Miss has more victories than it did in any of the past three seasons.
"Gosh, Reed Green gets loud," fourth-year head coach Jay Ladner said after the easy win against Lamar. "If we could just get this place full...But it's growing and I'm excited about that."
If anyone knows what Southern Miss basketball and Reed Green Coliseum look and sound like at their best, it's Ladner, who was a member of the program's 1987 NIT title team. But in recent years, this building, affectionately known by some as the "yurt" due to its vague resemblance to an outdoor camping structure, has been mostly crickets.
The Golden Eagles limped to a 24-65 record over the past three seasons, progressively winning fewer games each season under Ladner, who began realizing the drawbacks to coaching at a place where he has such deep ties. As a Hattiesburg native, former USM player and longtime winner on the area's high school and junior college circuits, there was no anonymity for Ladner amid the team's struggles.
"You talk about going to the grocery store and you feel like you've let people down because there were a lot of people that were counting on us, and I think they were hoping we could turn things around a little bit faster," Ladner said. "Of course, it's taken some time.
"There is a deep regret inside of me that we haven't been able to turn it faster."
But those lean years and the pain they brought Ladner make what Southern Miss is doing now all the more special for the native son. A decade ago, Ladner believed that he would retire as the coach at nearby Oak Grove High School.
Now he's on his second Division I job and his players are openly talking about a goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, and the goal doesn't sound preposterous -- even for a program that has been to just one Big Dance in the past 30 years.
At this rate, the Golden Eagles could be contenders during their first year in the Sun Belt, despite the fact that they were picked to finish last or next-to-last in most preseason publications.
An honest pitch
Of the 59 teams who finished the 2021-22 season ranked 300th or worse in the NET, over half were back in the 300s to start this week. Several others have cracked the 200s early this season and a few outliers such as Grambling State, American, Maine, Milwaukee and Stetson have made considerable progress by rising all the way into the 100s.
Then there is Southern Miss, for whom the term "outlier" is woefully inept.
Twelve games into their 2022-23 season, the Golden Eagles don't just inhabit a different subset of college basketball's rankings than they did a year ago. They inhabit a new planet.
After finishing last season at No. 341 in the NET with a 7-26 record that featured 14 straight conference losses, the Golden Eagles are No. 22 in the NET entering the UNLV game. The rise of more than 300 spots defies logic, and it all began with a brutally honest sales pitch.
Understanding that he was fortunate to get a fourth year at his alma mater, Ladner revamped his staff after last season with a message to prospective assistants that went something like this:
"You may come here and if in one year we don't get it done, you're going to be out," Ladner recalled of his conversations with candidates for his openings. "Then the next part was, 'hey we've got to have some dudes.'"
Two coaches were eager enough to accept what many others would have viewed as dead-end jobs. Cardona joined after two seasons on staff at Mercer, and Nick Williams came on board after working as an assistant at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Though Southern Miss was coming off its worst three-year stretch in program history, they saw an opportunity and heeded the second part of Ladner's message — the part about the Golden Eagles needing "dudes."
Cardona helped bring former Mercer big man Felipe Haase, who is Southern Miss' leading scorer. Williams helped deliver second-leading scorer Austin Crowley, an Ole Miss transfer.
Those two rank as the No. 2 and No. 3 most-effective players in the Sun Belt this season, per EvanMiya.com.
Landing talent is one thing, but making it work together is another, and the Golden Eagles essentially had to blend three families into one. There was Cardona, who is Puerto Rican. He brought Haase along with a handful of other transfers who have Latin American heritage, many of whom he coached or knew from his time in the high school ranks at Miami Christian.
Then there was Williams, a former Ole Miss guard who helped land Crowley and another key rotation player in Donovan Ivory, who is on his fourth school in four years.
Finally, there were the holdovers from last year's Southern Miss roster who suffered through the rough patches but were willing to come back and ride with Ladner once again.
"I knew the guys that were coming back from our team were solid and hardcore," Ladner said. "They were loyal and they were sticking through the hard times. And I kept telling them that we had help on the way and that the days of Southern Miss getting kicked around were over with."
Most pundits thought otherwise, though, and Ladner saw an opportunity when he noticed a Sun Belt preseason poll that projected the Golden Eagles to finish last in the conference. The league's coaches followed up by predicting USM to finish 13th in the 14-team league.
Ladner started talking to his team about where they were predicted to finish, and the message resonated with a roster full of veterans. Southern Miss is one of just 11 teams in Division I without a single freshman on their roster, per Sports Reference data.
The team's top seven scorers are all at least in their fourth season of college basketball, but few of them had been part of winning teams during their collegiate journeys.
"You've pretty much got a group of guys that have been losing in their careers, they come together and we've all got that same mindset and that same vision, which is to get to the tournament," said senior forward Deandre Pinckney, who is the leading returning scorer from last season.
Ladner played into that tunnel vision of his veteran squad by ordering warmup shirts with the number "14" on the back to remind them of where they have been picked in the Sun Belt. The shirts say "Southern Miss Grit" on the front and "La Familia" on the back.
"Southern Miss Grit" is a reference to the school's blue-collar identity, while "La Familia," which translates to "the family" in English, pays homage to the Spanish-speaking culture Cardona has brought to the program.
"It's a vibe," said Haase, who is from Chile and started his career at South Carolina. "It's a bond that goes a little bit more than just knowing you by name and how you play. It's, 'hey I care about you.' It's further than basketball, but it translates to basketball really well."
To the top
When Larry Eustachy spent eight seasons at Southern Miss from 2004 to 2012, it was an image rehabilitation stint for a California native and former Iowa State coach who needed a fresh start. He used his success with the Golden Eagles to catapult to a bigger job at Colorado State.
Then came Donnie Tyndall, who entered from Morehead State and went 56-17 in two seasons before taking the Tennessee job and leaving a ruinous cloud of NCAA violations in his wake. The damage from Tyndall's tenure included a two-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions and three years of probation.
The fallout from Tyndall's tenure hampered the next coach, Doc Sadler, though he eventually guided Southern Miss to its only winning record of the last eight seasons before resigning and returning to Nebraska as an assistant.
11-1 and Having Fun— Southern Miss MBB (@SouthernMissMBB) December 20, 2022
🎥 𝗠𝗰𝗡𝗲𝗲𝘀𝗲 𝗗𝘂𝗯#LaFamilia | #SMTTT pic.twitter.com/xCAqITPxnh
When Sadler resigned after the 2018-19 season, Ladner received a "statement of support" for the job from his teammates and the staff who were at Southern Miss for the NIT title in 1987.
At the time, Ladner owned a 511-188 record in more than two decades at the high school level in Mississippi, had guided nearby Jones County Junior College to a 2014 JUCO national championship and had spent the previous five seasons building Southeastern Louisiana into a contender in the Southland Conference.
"It is time to return our program to prominence, to fill Reed Green Coliseum with an enthusiastic fan base, to compete for championships," the letter said.
Ladner got the job, but achieving those goals have proved more difficult than expected, and it wore on Ladner, who was struggling to get on-court results for the first time in his career. Unlike his recent predecessors, Ladner is a homegrown coach who will be a part of the community even once his stint with the Golden Eagles concludes.
"I want to be very careful that I take full responsibility," he said. "It wasn't the assistant coaches that we've had here, it wasn't the players. I thought they fought last year. Probably for the first time in my career, I could just never really get everybody on the same page at the same time. I regret that. I wish I could do it over. I knew we needed to reevaluate every little bit of the program. So we did from day one in the spring."
So far, the results of the reevaluation have been magnificent. Though Southern Miss' start has featured its share of wins over non-Division I foes and lower-tier Division I teams, there is some meat on the resume as well. Road wins over Vanderbilt and Liberty stand out, as does a title in the Cancun Challenge.
Still, Southern Miss' first season of Sun Belt play could bring challenges. Take a stretch of four straight road games in January, for example. The Golden Eagles will go nearly three weeks without a home game early during their first season in a new league after nearly three decades in Conference USA.
But the timing could have an overlooked advantage. The road swing comes before classes begin. By the time students are back on campus for the spring session to start on Jan. 18, Southern Miss will be back in town for a four-game home stand.
Ladner's vision of Reed Green Coliseum coming to life could grow more realistic if USM is able to sustain the early-season momentum as students return to campus and the gravity of the nation's most dramatic turnaround begins to permeate campus.
If nothing else, Ladner's interactions with folks at the grocery store are a bit more upbeat these days.
"I can lift my head up a little bit," he said. "It is rewarding that we've been able to get it going at this point. We haven't turned the corner just yet. But we've got the blinker on."