Changes continue to come to Southern Miss basketball as Jay Ladner enters his second year at the helm.
Despite the team finishing in 13th place in Conference USA last season with a 9-22, 5-13 record, the Golden Eagles have a lot of reasons to be hopeful with the many changes coming to the program.
“Our goal is to win the league, and we will do whatever we can to do that,” Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner said. “It’s a crazy year, and crazy things can happen. We have a lot of new faces and inexperience at this point, but I couldn’t be happier with the way our team has approached every day. They’re a joy to be around, good guys and talented basketball players that work their tails off. I truly look forward to come to practice every day, and I’m sure they feel the same way.”
Southern Miss brings in almost a completely new roster for the 2020-21 season. Out of 17 roster spots, the Golden Eagles have nine newcomers. Of the nine, five are true freshmen, three junior college players and one transfer.
“Once you see us in person, you won’t recognize a lot of our guys,” Ladner said. “Seeing [junior-college transfers] Justin Johnson, DeAndre Pinckney and Tae Hardy, who have been the more-heralded guys of our recruiting class assimilate so well is some thing to compliment. They’re good guys and good basketball players.”
Southern Miss’ team now features six players over 6-foot-8. For comparison, last season, the Golden Eagles had just two players of that size. Freshman Javarzia Belton, who was a three-star recruit, is the tallest member of the roster at 6-foot-10.
“We’ve got better depth and overall talent, and that should happen every year,” Ladner said. “Jaron Pierre, a freshman from New Orleans, is going to be a good one if he continues to stay the course and lock in. Tyler Morman is a newcomer a lot of people won’t recognize. He transferred from Wyoming, and we hope he checks all the boxes for immediate eligibility from the NCAA.”
While Southern Miss brings in a plethora of new faces, the Golden Eagles return four starters. Sophomore Artus Konontsuk, senior LaDavius Draine, junior Tyler Stevenson and redshirt junior Jay Malone, who returns after being ruled academically ineligible mid-season last season. The group combined to average 28 minutes a game last year.
Stevenson, notably, has put on 25 pounds of muscle during the offseason, which is 50 pounds more since his freshman year. Stevenson now weighs 225 pounds and stands at 6-foot-8-inches.
“I think we are closer to the style we’d like to play,” Ladner said. “We’re longer, more athletic and physical. We want to play more of an up-tempo brand of basketball. Last year, we played a lot of guys 36-38 minutes a game, and we had to be very methodical in our style.
“We’re looking to stay on the attack this season, and to borrow an old phrase from our football program, to become the ‘Nasty Bunch on the Hardwood.’”
Another adjustment coming to Southern Miss is a change to the conference schedule. For the past two years, C-USA implemented bonus play in which after all 14 schools played one another; teams were put into one of three pods between the top five, middle five and bottom four teams in the standings.
The initial goal was to increase the chances of teams earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. The idea not only was a failure as the C-USA tournament champion was only selected each season with the automatic bid, but raised the cost of travel for all C-USA teams.
The new schedule will have teams play schools close in proximity to their location twice each week. In addition, due to the NCAA pushing the start of basketball season to Nov. 25, Southern Miss was forced to cancel several non-conference games and postpone a game against TCU and an exhibition game against Ole Miss at the Coast Coliseum.
“We lost four (non-conference) games, but there has been some rearranging going on,” Ladner said. “We have seen a model of what it’s going to look like. We are playing nine opponents, so we will not play all the (conference) opponents. Eight of those we will play two consecutive games, similar to the baseball model where you play the same team consecutive days, to cut down traveling to different places. Four of those will be away on Thursday and Saturday. Then those other four will be home on Thursday and Saturday. The travel partner is the one exception, which ours is Louisiana Tech. We have our non-conference schedule ready, and we are waiting on the conference to give us our schedule.”