The Golden Eagles scored just 56 and 46 points in back-to-back losses on Dec. 22 (Canisius) and 23 (North Florida). Moreover, Southern Miss played four NAIA teams in the 2009 portion of its season schedule, which is the only reason its points-per-game averages haven't been even worse. The ledger sheet might indicate that this middle-tier Conference USA club owns a 9-3 record as 2010 begins, but an honest assessment of USM should note that the Golden Eagles are just 5-3 against Division I-A opponents.
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI AT-A-GLANCE
Coach Larry Eustachy once owned a prominent place in the college basketball firmament. The young, rising bench boss took Marcus Fizer, Jamaal Tinsley, and the rest of the Iowa State Cyclones to the Elite Eight round in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. Had the Cyclones drawn a regional site almost anywhere other than Auburn Hills, Mich., Eustachy's team might have been able to defeat Michigan State and advance to the Final Four. As it was, however, Michigan State's home-state, home-court advantaged proved to be an important factor in a second-half surge that sent Iowa State packing.
The next season, Iowa State once again entered the NCAAs as a No. 2 seed, and figured to have a great shot at the Final Four after being placed in the same region as upset-prone Stanford. But while Stanford advanced to the Elite Eight, it was the Cyclones who got stung in the preliminary rounds of that year's Dance. A little 15 seed from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference fashioned a Cinderella story against Eustachy's goliath. MEAC champion Hampton strode into Boise, Idaho, and toppled ISU, 58-57, as Tinsley's last-ditch foray to the rim couldn't produce a basket.
Ever since that stomach punch, Eustachy's life and career have never fully recovered. The coach was seen drinking with underage girls, and tumbled downward in the college basketball world. Southern Miss gave him a second chance, but the man who – one decade ago – stood just a few minutes from a Final Four has not been able to do anything of note in Hattiesburg, Miss. Since being hired at the end of the 2004 season, Eustachy has failed to get USM to a single postseason tournament. The story of Larry Eustachy – linked to the Southern Miss program – is one of the more dreary narratives authored in recent college basketball memory. Nothing the Golden Eagles have done this season indicates that their middling ways are about to change anytime soon.
NOTE: Southern Mississippi uses a four-guard lineup.
Forward – Gary Flowers – Junior, 6'8", 214; 2009-10: 14.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg
Flowers is the one Golden Eagle who has earned the right to poor-mouth his team. Flowers was USM's only double-digit scorer (with 20 points) in the Dec. 23 loss to North Florida, and he's the team leader in points, rebounds, blocked shots, and – among starters – field goal percentage. After a 59-56 loss to Canisius on Dec. 22, Flowers said the following in a game report from the Hattiesburg American: "This half of the season is about to be gone and we're still taking stuff for granted. We're still not playing as if it's our last game. We've got to play every game as if it's our last possession. We're too loose right now going into midseason."
Guard – Maurice Bolden – Sophomore, 6'9", 200; 2009-10: 13 ppg, 7.2 rpg
If Flowers is plan A for Eustachy, Bolden is plan B. The Jackson, Miss., native is second on the Golden Eagles in scoring and rebounding. What has to concern the USM staff, however, is the fact that Bolden disappeared in a 53-46 loss to North Florida just two days before Christmas. The guard in a forward's body – for all of his size – competed meekly and feebly in that particular contest, hitting just one field goal and scoring just four points in 27 minutes. Bolden's bad night had nothing to do with foul trouble, either; the second-year player committed just two fouls in the seven-point loss.
Guard – Sai'Quon Stone – Junior, 6'6", 225; 2009-10: 4.2 ppg, 3 rpg
In another lineup quirk for Southern Miss, Stone – much like Bolden, his teammate – has a forward's body but is listed as a guard. While Bolden is long and rangy, Stone is thick and muscular. What's telling about the Brooklyn, N.Y., product is that he hasn't attempted a single 3-point shot this season. That's not very "guard-like," but at any rate, the Commodores need to treat Stone as a power forward and not view him as a perimeter playmaker.
Guard – R.L. Horton – Junior, 6'0", 175; 2009-10: 9.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg
Horton has scored in double figures on three occasions this season, but not since an 81-79 loss at Mississippi on Dec. 5. Horton's shot has deserted him in recent weeks. USM's disastrous back-to-back losses against Canisius and North Florida were due in part to the fact that Horton hit just five of the 18 total shots he attempted in that two-game sequence. It's also worth noting that Horton – as a relatively small guard – has handed out more than one assist in only three games this season.
Guard – Angelo Johnson – Sophomore, 6'0", 180; 2009-10: 9.4 ppg, 3.3 assists per game, 2.6 rpg
The leading assist man on the Golden Eagles is also the owner of a very erratic shot. When Johnson isn't setting up a teammate for an open look, the young man from Minneapolis tries to develop a healthy relationship with the nylon... just not with consistent success. Johnson has tickled the twine in his better scoring games, going 5 of 7 from the field in a Dec. 21 win over New Orleans and hitting 6 of 11 shots in the two-point loss to Ole Miss on Dec. 5.
However, if 1930s Hollywood starlet Mae West was better when she was bad, the same isn't the case for Johnson as a shooter. The transfer from USC (who sat out last season after spending his freshman year with the Trojans in Los Angeles) went 1 of 7 from the field in a Dec. 15 win against Louisiana-Lafayette, and he hit just 1 of 9 shots on Dec. 23 against North Florida. All things considered, this is not a player who can be trusted from 3-point range.
There are two major contributors on the Golden Eagles' bench. On the interior, burly 6-8, 230-pound forward Josimar Ayarza adds some muscle to USM's guard-heavy lineup. The powerful native of Panama is the third-leading rebounder on the team, with an average of exactly five boards per game. Ayarza's other noteworthy attribute is his effectiveness as a finisher near the rim. Of the seven USM players who average at least 18 minutes per game, Ayarza has the highest shooting percentage, with Flowers rating a clear but distant second.
The other reserve to keep an (Eagle) eye on is one of the best snipers VU will meet all season, shooting guard Buchi Awaji. Pure, cold-blooded sharpshooters aren't an abundant species in college basketball, but Awaji is one of them. From 2-point range, he's actually quite ineffective, but the 6-3, 185-pound senior is shooting a whopping 50 percent from 3-point range. As is the case with many long-distance shooting specialists, Awaji can't create off the dribble and lacks touch on medium-range shots. But if he's left open for a spot-up look off a catch, he's lethal. Take note, Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley.
Keys to the Game
- Keep an eye out for Awaji. What the numbers don't tell you about Southern Miss is that the Golden Eagles' two recent losses to Canisius and North Florida were due in part to Buchi Awaji's lack of health. Eustachy said that Awaji suffered from a virus during that stretch; he missed the Canisius game, and then played 24 low-value minutes against North Florida. The Los Angeles native was out of sorts in that contest - Awaji proved unable to get off even one 3-pointer versus an opponent (UNF) that is competing in its first season at the Division I-A level. After a week off (which was followed by a Dec. 30 game against the NAIA Dillard Blue Devils), Awaji should be healthy for this game at Memorial Gym. His ability to stretch a defense – and produce clusters of points in the process – makes Awaji a foremost priority for Vandy's defenders.
- Use forward thinking on the guards. It bears repeating that Southern Miss – in the forms of Maurice Bolden and Sai'Quon Stone – possesses a pair of guards with the bodies of forwards. The fact that the Golden Eagles have a number of players who are "in between" positions means that VU can't get caught in switches or screen-roll situations that will create bad matchups. It's important for the Dores' team defense to communicate well and ensure that USM's struggling offense doesn't get a lift from the likes of Bolden and Stone. As long as the defensive rotations are smooth and picks are accounted for, Vanderbilt should be able to shut down another opponent that is finding it hard to put the ball in the bucket.