Last season the Southern Miss basketball program made step in the right direction qualifying for post-season play for the first time since an NIT appearance in 2001. This year they look to build on that success, and they just may have the horses to pull the wagon.
The 2010 invitation to the CIT Tournament marked the 11th trip to post season play for the Eagles, who had previously been to two NCAA Tournaments (90, 91) and eight appearances in the NIT (81, 86, 87*, 88, 94, 95, 98, and 01). Southern Miss won the 1987 NIT Tournament Championship and holds an overall record of 6-9, including a 5-0 record during the 87 NIT run.
Head Coach Larry Eustachy takes pride in the team's first post-season invitation in nine years.
"It's been a long go," Eustachy said. "But, we've arrived. We arrived last year, I said that and I think we proved it. We fought through some tough scheduling and got to the post-season for the first time in years."
Eustachy isn't shy talking about the expectations he has for his teams moving forward.
"We're going to build on that this year," he said. "Our team is better this year, and our team will be better next year with the players we'll have coming back and with the recruiting class we're bringing in we're going to continue to move forward."
The Eagles return seven letter-men from the 2010 CIT team including four regular starters.
All Conference forward and potential NBA draft pick Gary Flowers is the leader of the Golden Eagles on and off the court. The 6-foot-8, 215-pounder led the team with 15.0 ppg and 8.3 rebounds. A tenacious defender he was second on the team in steals and blocked 60 shots on the year.
A unique skill set Flowers can score with his back to the goal or facing up on a defender. He has the ability to work a power inside game, but has nice touch on mid-range jump shot and his .329 average from behind the three-point arch was good enough for third on the team a season ago.
"Gary has worked really hard," Eustachy said. "He had a great summer and he's had a great fall. He has to develop a consistency of play every night to do what we want to do, so there's a lot of pressure on Gary and he welcomes it."
Flowers won't have to go it alone. The Eagles return guards Angelo Johnson (10.1 ppg, 89 assists) and R.L. Horton (9.2 ppg) who were an effective back-court. Seniors Sai'Quon Stone (6-foot-6, 225) and Torye Pelham (6-foot-6, 225) are major roll players that provide intensity when they're in the game.
Josimar Ayarza a 6-foot-9, 235-pound post player came into his own late in the season last year and could be poised for a break out year and give Flowers the help under the goal that was lacking a year ago.
The wild card of the returning players could be junior Maurice Bolden (8.7 ppg; 5.9 rpg), a talented 6-foot-10, 220-pounder has the size to bang under the goal but is the team's best returning outside threat shooting .351 from behind the 3-pt line.
A real shot in the arm could come from the newcomers a number of which will be counted on to contribute right out the gate.
The Eagles inked two junior college players this past spring, and both are contending for playing time as the team prepares for the first tip in just a months time.
LaShay Page is a 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard from Chipola (Mariana, Fla.) could see action at either point or shooting guard. Post player Ahyaro Phillips from Lamar State (Tex.) JC, is a 6-foot-8, 215-pounder that has a similar skill set to Flowers as a true forward who has shooting range.
The Eagles signed four high school prospects: Trency Jackson (6-foot-2, 175; Jackson, Miss.), Cedric Jenkins (6-foot-2, 185; LaPlace, Lou.), Devonta Newbill (6-foot-4, 195; Philadelphia, Pa.) and Kody Williams (6-foot-2, 180; Niceville, Fla.).
Competition at practice is as stiff as anytime in recent memory for the Eagles.
"Competition creates success," Eustachy said. "We're deeper at every spot. If you want to take a day off you're gonna find yourself moving down the depth chart."
With more depth Eustachy insists that he can finally play the style of basketball that he most enjoys.
"We have a lot of weapons," he said. "I really want to push the ball this year, I really want to create turn-overs, really want to get back in transition."
Southern Miss kicks off the 2010-11 schedule on Nov. 4th with an exhibition game against cross town rival William Carey before hitting the road on Nov. 12th for a game against South Florida in Tampa, Fla. The schedule features 14 games against 11 teams that participated in postseason play last year and 15 home games over the course of the season. The schedule includes games against in-state competition - Alcorn St., Mississippi, and Miss Valley St. California, Memphis, UAB and UTEP also highlight the slate.
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