Southern Miss' loss Friday in the Conference USA semifinals shouldn't prove to be the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT. The Golden Eagles should be a lock for the Big Dance even though Conference USA never seems to get the national respect it deserves.
Sixth-seeded Marshall (21-12) advanced to Saturday's Conference USA championship game with a 73-62 win over Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles finish the regular season at 25-8, yet some so-called experts believe Friday's defeat could have cost them a shot at the NCAA Tournament
Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy thinks these experts are "idiots."
"Where is there doubt about the NCAA Tournament?" he asked during Friday's postgame news conference. "Is there doubt? They are talking about Mississippi State at No. 71. We are 13th in RPI and 48th in strength of schedule."
Eustachy is confident his team will be packing its bags for the NCAA Tournament next week.
"There is no doubt that we are in this tournament," he said. "People who say we are not in the tournament are idiots. They obviously aren't going by what the NCAA is going by. The criteria is based off of RPI and strength of schedule. You are not allowed to factor anything else in. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it."
Marshall coach Tom Herrion on Southern Miss' NCAA Tournament hopes: "They're in, they should be in, and they should be a lock."
In his eighth year, Eustachy guided the Golden Eagles to 25 wins and a second-place finish in Conference USA. The 25 wins are the program's most since it joined Division I, and the 11-5 record conference record ties the 2001 squad for the best C-USA record.
Marshall had 16 turnovers but shot 54.3 percent (25 of 46), including nine of 17 (52.9 percent) on 3-pointers. The Golden Eagles, who had only three turnovers, shot 34.2 percent (25 of 73) from the field.
Trending: Teams are going to have poor shooting games. The good teams find ways to overcome them. And while the Golden Eagles are certainly a good team, they couldn't overcome poor shooting efforts Friday from four of their five starters in the loss to Marshall. Only Angelo Johnson (11 of 17 from the floor) found the stroke. The other four starters were a combined five of 29 from the field. The bench wasn't much better. Darnell Dodson and Neil Watson, the first two players off the Southern Miss bench, were a combined seven of 25. Shooting 34 percent from the floor as a team isn't going to win many games, especially against other good teams.
- Southern Mississippi led Conference USA in free throw shooting in the regular season with a fine 74.0 percent mark. However, the Golden Eagles lost their touch in the regular-season finale, going 14-of-26 from the line for 54 percent in a 79-75 loss at Marshall.
Chief among the bricklayers was junior F Jonathan Mills, who was 3-of-8. However, he made up for it by making 7-of-10 shots from the field and finishing with a team-high 17 points.
- Southern Mississippi finished the regular 24-7 and set the school record for most wins in a season since joining Division I. The previous mark of 23 was held by the 1986-87 team.
By The Numbers: 15-0-Southern Miss' record at home in the regular season at the Reed Green Coliseum. The Golden Eagles were 7-6 on the road and 2-1 on neutral courts.
Quote To Note: "I just fired my free throw coach." - Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy, jokingly to the media after the loss at Marshall.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game:
- Awaiting postseason bid.
Futures Market: Southern Miss did not land any recruit in the early signing period in the fall and, by all accounts, haven't offered many scholarships during the season. Thus, the Golden Eagles might not have a freshman class next season.
Trending: There are some interesting lines to be drawn between SMU's rough season and Southern Miss' successful year. The Mustangs lost eight conference games by an average of 5.5 points. They were another three pointer, a layup and a few free throws away from going 12-4 instead of 4-12. On the other hand is Southern Miss. Seven of the Golden Eagles' league wins were by an average of 3.4 points. Of their five losses, one was by two points, one by four points and another in overtime. The Golden Eagles, like the Mustangs, were involved in a lot of close games that came down to the final minutes. But unlike the Mustangs, the Golden Eagles won most of them-including Thursday's overtime win against East Carolina.
- At least Angelo Johnson came to play in the C-USA semifinals. After scoring 11 points the night before on 3-of-5 shooting, the senior guard led the Golden Eagles with 24 points in Friday's loss to Marshall. Johnson made 11 of 13 shots in 33 minutes.
- Sophomore G Neil Watson, the league's Newcomer of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year, went from star to fallen star in less than 24 hours. A second-team All-Conference USA selection, Watson had 17 points and hit some big baskets in the Golden Eagles' win Thursday over East Carolina. But on Friday, Watson made only three of 12 shots from the floor and finished with nine points. He missed all three of his 3-point attempts.
- Jonathan Mills was a third-team All-Conference USA selection, but the awards didn't stop there. Later in the week, Mills was named to the conference's All-Defensive Team. The junior forward is averaging 7.1 rebounds and 3.3 offensive boards this season.