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January 15, 2014

Rice Provides Tune-Up For Southern Miss

The NCAA officially released its first RPI rankings yesterday without much pomp and circumstance. The Golden Eagles sit firmly in the top half of the rankings at 41, a commendable number considering the strength of schedule USM faced in the first half of the season. Donnie Tyndall has pieced together his most complete team to date in Hattiesburg and is now tasked with guiding them to an NCAA Tournament or bust according to a fan base that has finally tasted true round ball success for the first time in twenty years and is hungry for more.

Those dreams of dancing in March were put on temporary hiatus Sunday when Southern Miss suffered its first C-USA loss at Tulsa. The defeat not only lowered the team's RPI but also delivered a solid blow to its chances of an at-large bid. The Golden Hurricane have played the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the league (30th in the country) and are a good team, but the selection committee won't look fondly on this loss for Tyndall's team. Things just got that much harder.

But it's still not impossible. Tulsa is way better than its 7-9 record and will only get better in C-USA play. The Golden Hurricane could even be in the hunt for the regular season title. So while many pundits have written off USM's chances of a tourney bid without winning the conference, it still remains largely unseen what will happen when teams hit the meat of C-USA play.

For the Eagles, things couldn't get much better. Southern Miss will face Rice Thursday night for its home conference opener. The Owls sport an abysmal 5-10 record on the year and have failed to be competitive in two straight C-USA defeats. Rice is 200th or worse in points per game, rebounds per game and field goal percentage and should prove to be a good tune-up for USM's showdown against Louisiana Tech Sunday afternoon in Hattiesburg.

Rice will provide the Eagles with a chance to work out the kinks that plagued the team in Tulsa before the crucial matchup with LA Tech. Southern Miss struggled to contain the Golden Hurricane from scoring and turned the ball over far too many times for a Donnie Tyndall-led team. But Rice gives USM an opportunity to play a relatively easy game that should see lots of scoring and bench minutes from Southern Miss.

The Golden Eagles tripped themselves up Sunday but it's not the end of the world. Beating up on a depleted lower-tier C-USA school will help Southern Miss regain its confidence before a much-anticipated rivalry game against one of only a handful of teams vying for conference supremacy with the Eagles. The time for USM to make up its resume is now. It's up to them make it worthy of inclusion.

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