Now What?

The Golden Eagles of Southern Miss saw their season and their run in the Conference USA tournament end in heart breaking fashion earlier today in an overtime loss to UAB. With the season now in the books, what happens next? Is there hope for the future under Coach Larry Eustachy?

When Southern Miss head basketball coach Larry Eustachy arrived in Hattiesburg in March of 2004, there were high expectations and a renewed sense of optimism about USM basketball. Many fans believed that if given enough time, Eustachy would have the Golden Eagles not only contending for a conference championship but also vying for a spot in the postseason. The hiring brought national attention to a program in need of good publicity.

In fact, ESPN's Andy Katz remarked that Eustachy has "breathed new life into the basketball program." However, last Saturday saw another basketball regular season come to a close, and another bad taste in the mouths of Southern Miss fans.

After five seasons with Eustachy at the helm, some tough questions need to be asked. Is Eustachy really the right man for the job? Has he done all he can possibly do for this program? Can he right the ship and bring a winner to Southern Miss?

Athletic Director Richard Giannini seems to thinks so. He continues to pour his support into his basketball coach saying in a press release recently, "The administration is supporting Larry Eustachy's efforts because our goal is the same, and that is to see the program grow and succeed, and I believe he is the coach that will make it happen."

He has a good argument as there is no disputing the fact that Larry Eustachy can win games as a basketball coach. He has been successful in all stops before coming to USM, including tenures at Utah State, Idaho, and Iowa State with an overall career record of 334-224. His resume includes conference championships, tournament appearances, and the highest honor of being named the AP National Coach of the Year in 2000 at Iowa State. While he brought an impressive resume to Southern Miss, after five years and zero post season appearances the jury is still out on whether he can bring that type of success to a school starving for basketball wins.

Southern Miss fans are trying to be patient, but have yet to see the type of improvement that most expected to see after five years. While Conference USA is still a respectable conference, it is no where near the conference it once was with the likes of basketball powers Cincinnati, Marquette, and Louisville. Even with the revamped conference, the best the Golden Eagles have done under Eustachy in conference play has been 9-7, which they did twice. The other three years have seen them with records of 2-14, 3-11, and 4-12 this year. The non conference records are better, but that is accompanied with a very low RPI every year. Even with a 20 win season in ‘06-‘07, the Eagles were kept out of the post season because of a lack of quality opponents.

Following Saturday's loss against UTEP, Southern Miss was 14-16, losing 5 in a row. In his fifth season directing the program, Eustachy is 75-80. Golden Eagle fans are not being unrealistic to expect more from a coach who is a proven winner. Eustachy admits this himself in a recent classy move of giving back part of his yearly compensation package to the University for failing to meet expectations.

Perhaps of larger concern after five seasons the program does not seem to be gaining any momentum going forward. This is certainly showing up in the amount of fans dressing up as empty seats in Reed Green Coliseum. In fact, from '05- '07 there was a 16.6% drop in attendance. Winning will certainly help bring fans, but in order to win you have to recruit, and it is hard to draw recruits with an empty stadium. It is a troubling cycle that continues to go around and around. With all of that said, is there any reason for optimism?

Even riding the heels of a five game losing steak and unmet expectations, there are still several reasons for fans to keep the faith. The first comes from the admission by Larry Eustachy that the current struggles fall on him. Eustachy is a smart basketball guy, and he seems committed to seeing Southern Miss succeed. This is, after all, the school that gave him a second chance. While a change in philosophy is unlikely, we can expect a sense of urgency to make something happen out of next season that we have not seen before.

Speaking of having a sense of urgency, there is a solid nucleus returning of players who also have something to prove. Jeremy Wise, assuming he does not jump to the NBA next year, has all the tools to provide solid senior leadership and take over games. The Eagles will need him to step up and become the player they had envisioned when they signed him three years ago. Teamed with a more experienced R.L. Horton, the pair should make for a dynamic duo in the backcourt next year. While the team will miss Craig Craft and workhorse Courtney Beasley, the lone seniors on the current roster, the Eagles are looking to a pair of transfers with size that can help fill in the gaps left from their departure.

There is a word that will be sure to spark interest that was sorely missing this year: depth. There is no way Eustachy could have predicted the hand he would be dealt this season. Guards Jerome Clyburn and Sai'quon Stone were lost for the season early on, and the Eagles were left with a thin six man rotation at times. Being so short of numbers and undersized, especially up front, wore the team down throughout the season and found the Eagles struggling game in and game out against bigger, stronger opponents. Barring unforeseen injuries, next year's team should be able to go deeper into a bench that can provide some quality minutes.

Make no mistake; next season could be the start of something new or the end of the Eustachy era. Can a renewed commitment from the coach, a sense of urgency, and key players returning translate into wins? One would hope, but Southern Miss fans are more than a little tired of filling out their March Madness brackets without the Golden Eagles as an option.

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