By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss is playing really good basketball these days even though few have noticed.
There’s one quick way to change that: Beat Memphis.
Southern Miss (19-3, 6-1 Conference USA) hosts Memphis (15-6, 6-1) on Wednesday night as the Golden Eagles try to snap an 18-game losing streak in the series that dates back to 2004.
Jonathan Mills and his teammates aren’t hiding from the game’s importance. The two teams are tied for first place in Conference USA.
“It’s absolutely huge,” Mills said. “We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done at this school in a long time.”
Memphis — with its recent NCAA tournament success and historical pedigree — has been the dominant team in C-USA for so long that it’s now the standard for which all the other programs are judged. But Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said he’s trying to make sure his team doesn’t get caught in the hype.
“I’m glad our program has improved to the point where this game has some real significance, and I certainly want to win for our players,” Eustachy said. “But you can’t make it more than it is. At the end of the day, I think both of these teams are easily NCAA Tournament quality.”
Maybe. But whichever team wins on Wednesday will certainly solidify its case, not to mention take sole possession of first place in C-USA.
Memphis has won nine of its last 10 games, including three straight. Sophomore Will Barton is averaging 18.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
Southern Miss counters with a balanced roster that includes five players who score in double figures. Junior LaShay Page, who averages a team-leading 12.9 points per game, said the Golden Eagles certainly have the capability to end the streak.
“We don’t let each other down on the defensive end,” Page said. “And then on the offensive end, our scoring can come from anywhere, so that makes us really difficult to defend.”
Page said he and his teammates aren’t obsessing over the lack of national recognition. The Golden Eagles rank No. 11 in the NCAA’s official RPI rankings, yet received just five votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll.
A win over Memphis would undoubtedly give Southern Miss a status boost. Lately the games have been excruciatingly close.
Memphis needed a last-second 3-pointer to beat Southern Miss 76-75 in Hattiesburg last year. The Tigers barely escaped with a 60-58 win earlier this season in Memphis.
In the early years of the streak, Memphis simply had superior talent. But Southern Miss has closed the gap some in that regard.
The mental gap still remains.
“They’re talented. So talented,” Page said. “And on top of that they carry themselves with a swagger because they’ve been so dominant. They still think they’re the best team. We think we’re the best team. Now we’ve got to go out and prove it.”
Southern Miss is not known as a basketball school and Reed Green Coliseum — with its aging concourse and usually sparse crowds — doesn’t often put any fear into the opposition. But it should be close to packed on Wednesday night as the Golden Eagles try to get a resume-enhancing victory that could prove noteworthy when the NCAA tournament committee puts together its 68-team bracket.
Southern Miss hasn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 1991.
Eustachy has molded a surprisingly talented roster from a hodgepodge of returners and transfers. It’s a group filled with reclamation projects or guys overlooked in the recruiting process, giving the Golden Eagles a blue-collar approach that has served them well in recent road wins over Central Florida, East Carolina and Tulane.
Darnell Dodson, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Kentucky, has given the Golden Eagles added production from the bench. He scored a season-high 22 against Central Florida on Saturday and is averaging 12.5 points and 5.6 rebounds. The win snapped UCF’s 16-game home winning streak.
“It’s taken a little time to figure out the system, but I’m right where I want to be now,” Dodson said.
So is Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles have won 15 of 16 games going into their biggest game of the season. But if there’s anything the rivalry with Memphis has taught them, it’s nothing comes easy.
“We’re just staying together and not getting too big-headed,” Mills said. “We’ve got to stay hungry because we know we’re not that good yet.”