By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy was so nervous halfway through the NCAA tournament selection show he had to step outside and stand in the parking lot, leaning against a truck while he regrouped.
Turns out there wasn’t anything to worry about.
The Golden Eagles (25-8) are headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 where they will face Kansas State (21-10) in the first round in Pittsburgh. And it appears Southern Miss got into the 68-team field with room to spare, picked as a No. 9 seed while Kansas State is a No. 8.
Eustachy had a sheepish grin afterwards, admitting that there were some anxious moments.
“You’re supposed to be in, but you never know that you’re in until you’re in,” Eustachy said. “But what a moment for Southern Miss basketball — it hasn’t happened in 21 years. And now we’ve got the opportunity to do something we’ve never done and that’s win a first-round game.”
It’s been a long road for Eustachy, who has rebuilt his career in eight seasons at Southern Miss.
Eustachy was once regarded as one of the best young coaches in the country. He took Iowa State to the Elite Eight in 2000, but had to resign after the 2003 season after photos surfaced of the coach partying with young women.
He got a second chance at Southern Miss, but it hasn’t been a quick fix. The 56-year-old slowly built the program back to respectability and narrowly missed an NCAA bid last season after winning 22 games.
This time, the Golden Eagles did enough, even though a loss to Marshall in the Conference USA tournament put a little doubt in everyone’s mind. Finally seeing “Southern Miss” on the screen brought a huge cheer from players, coaches and fans who had gathered at a local restaurant.
“I almost came to tears,” Southern Miss point guard Neil Watson said. “Watching selection Sunday as a kid, you always want your team to be called … I’m pretty ecstatic.”
Watson said he was excited to play against Kansas State because he’s good friends with Wildcats’ guard Will Spradling, who has started all 31 games this season. The two played AAU basketball together in Kansas.
Eustachy and the players said they weren’t particularly concerned about tournament seeding, though the No. 9 seed is an indication that the selection committee respected the Golden Eagles’ 25-win season.
“It really is,” Eustachy said. “It shows the credibility of the selection committee. They said this is the criteria of how it’s going to be … and this is over a long season. We played Murray State to double overtime. We went to Colorado State and won. We beat New Mexico State, who is in. Three weeks ago we beat Memphis.”
Eustachy was especially happy for seniors Angelo Johnson, Torye Pelham and Maurice Bolden — who have all played an important role over the past few years as the program has improved. The coach gave big hugs to all of them almost immediately after Southern Miss’ named popped on the screen.
“They’ve put a lot of time in and a lot of effort,” Eustachy said.
Also making the field is SWAC champion Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils will play Western Kentucky in a play-in game with the winner getting No. 1 overall seed Kentucky.