By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss senior Gary Flowers has been nearly unguardable and his play has the Eagles battling for the Conference USA title as the regular winds down.
Golden Eagles’ fifth-year senior Sai’Quon Stone, considered the team’s defensive specialist, says his teammates don’t even like trying to guard Flowers in practice.
“I get killed day in and day out and it’s no fun at all,” Stone said. “The only thing that’s good about it is it’s made me better. I haven’t had to guard anybody nearly as good as him.”
Flowers is a big reason Southern Miss (20-6, 9-4 C-USA) is at the top of a five-team scrum in C-USA that includes UAB, UTEP, Memphis and Tulsa. The Golden Eagles and UAB are tied for first place with the other three teams a half-game behind.
Southern Miss might have the toughest road to the title, with a home-game against UAB sandwiched around road trips to Central Florida and Tulsa.
But the Golden Eagles are confident with Flowers, a 6-foot-8 senior from Dallas, playing the best basketball of his career.
“It’s that time, it’s nearly March,” Flowers said. “No excuses from anyone — just wins.”
Flowers was named the C-USA Player of the Week for the third time this season on Monday after averaging 22.5 points in wins over East Carolina and UTEP. In his second season with the Golden Eagles after transferring from Chipola (Fla.) College, Flowers has blossomed into one of the league’s premier players, leading the conference with 20.1 points per game.
Flowers’ versatility is his greatest advantage, with the touch to score from outside and enough to bulk to finish in the lane. He’s shooting 49 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range and 75 percent on free throws. He also leads the team 7.6 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game.
“That’s what people don’t always understand — how hard Gary works and how his game is complete,” Stone said. “Yeah, he scores. But he also plays great defense, sets good screens and attacks the boards like a madman. He’s got this aura around him that makes the whole team better.”
But even with Flowers filling up box scores, Southern Miss’ resume is quite bubble-like as March approaches. The Golden Eagles are No. 44 in the RPI rankings according to the NCAA’s latest list that was released on Monday.
Their schedule doesn’t have many bad losses, but is also short on premier victories. Two of the team’s 20 wins came against non-Division I opponents, and the Golden Eagles play Loyola (La.), an NAIA opponent, on Tuesday before resuming conference play.
There’s also a few opportunities the Golden Eagles would undoubtedly like to have back — including a last-second loss to Memphis in Hattiesburg.
The team’s urgency has even been apparent during practice. During Monday morning’s workout, three players crashed into the courtside chairs, chasing a loose ball that had just gone out of bounds. Once they emerged from the scrum, there was some pushing and shoving before a few teammates broke up the minor scuffle.
Flowers was among the peacekeepers, but he wasn’t upset with the chippy behavior. Instead, he says it’s indicative of the mentality the Golden Eagles need. Southern Miss hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since back-to-back appearances in 1990 and 1991, which are also the program’s only two appearances.
“We’re like this gigantic sponge right now,” Flowers said. “Guys are soaking up the experience and listening to every word the coaches say. It’s intense. Guys want this. We’re tough on each other so we can be even tougher during games.”
Flowers said there’s no point in getting too worked up about RPI.
“We let the coaches worry about that,” Flowers said. “Our view is that we have to win them all. A lot of the national people aren’t even looking at our conference, so we’ve got to leave no doubt.”
Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy says C-USA has a weaker perception than deserved. Besides Southern Miss, UAB (No. 32 in the RPI rankings) and Memphis (No. 34) appear to have the best chance at grabbing an NCAA at-large bid.
“It’s sad about the perception of this league,” Eustachy said. “There’s a lot of talent and coaching at these schools. But our players know the situation. It’s out there in front of us to get — that’s the good thing.
“In the end, we’ll either be good enough or we won’t be. I like our chances.”