Riding six-game win streak, Southern Miss begins ‘Bonus Play’ Saturday

By CAMAL PETRO,

The Southern Miss Golden Eagles basketball team finds themselves in an unfamiliar situation. While a six-game winning streak is uncharted territory for this group of players, that’s not the unique situation.

Like the rest of the conference, Southern Miss is set to begin the new scheduling wrinkle Conference USA implemented this season. After a dominant win over UTEP Saturday, the Golden Eagles headed to the locker room without knowing the final four games of the schedule. It wasn’t until hours later that the conference released the new “Bonus Play” schedule.

Southern Miss will host UAB at 2 p.m. Saturday in the first of four games against Group 1 teams.

While the conference wants to pair the best teams against each other one last time to boost their resumes, Golden Eagles’ coach Doc Sadler wants to look at the bigger picture.

“I think the whole deal is strange,” Sadler said Thursday. “It’s strange for your fans, and I’ve said all along, after traveling through this league, I think this league has challenges to get people to come to the games. If you don’t get in a routine, and people don’t know how to plan and they’re just waiting, it makes it easier for them not to come to the game.”

C-USA’s entire agenda for the new Bonus Play format was to get more teams in the NCAA Tournament, or improve the seeding for the one team that does make the tournament.

In the last six years, the conference has only gotten one team in the NCAA Tournament, and the most recent example of failing to get multiple teams in the big dance came last year. After Middle Tennessee State posted a 24-6 overall record, and a 16-2 mark in conference play, Southern Miss bounced the Blue Raiders out of the Conference USA Tournament in the quarterfinal round. The Kermit Davis-led squad was then snubbed from the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday.

Instead of using the RPI rankings this season, the NCAA now uses an NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking system. Currently, Old Dominion, which is sitting in first place in the C-USA standings, is the highest-ranked team in the conference at 80th. Southern Miss is second with a 105th ranking, while Louisiana Tech (117) and North Texas (128) follow.

The Golden Eagles will only play ODU out of that group, while Western Kentucky (130), UTSA (136) and UAB (142) join the Golden Eagles and Monarchs in Group 1 of the Bonus Play groupings.

“It is what it is,” Sadler said of the new format. “It’s what we’re doing, so let’s make the best of it. Obviously, there’s got to be a lot of things worked out to make it work better. The thing that’s disappointing to me is I think the most important thing in any competition is playing for a conference championship. To play for a conference championship, I think it ought to be balanced.”

Southern Miss begins the final stretch of games Saturday at home against UAB before hitting the road to WKU and ODU on Feb. 23 and March 3, respectively. It closes the season at home on March 9 against UTSA before the conference tournament starts on March 13 in Frisco, Texas.

The Golden Eagles have already hosted UAB and UTSA this season, and they’ve played ODU on the road already, too. The only difference is playing WKU on the road, unlike the Jan. 24 matchup at Reed Green.

“We’ve got two teams that have played us here that have to come back to our place, and we never go to their place,” Sadler said. “We’re playing for a conference championship. I think there’s too much being given to maybe improving your seed in the NCAA Tournament, when that’s not, in my opinion, the most important thing.”

Southern Miss (17-9, 9-5 in C-USA) beat UAB (73-69) and UTSA (78-71) this season, while it dropped games to ODU (76-62) and WKU (66-63). Currently tied for second with WKU and UTSA, the Golden Eagles can’t finish worse than fifth in the standings entering the conference tournament in March.

Quickly back to the six-game win streak. It’s the first time Southern Miss has won six straight games under Sadler, and it’s the first time the team has done it since the 2013-14 season, although, those wins were vacated.

“I think defensively we’re playing really good, and our shooting percentages are going up,” Sadler said. “Bottom line is, I really think this team is getting an idea of how we want to defend, and now they’re getting confidence on how we want to defend.”

Opponents are averaging 64 points per game during the winning streak, while Southern Miss is scoring nearly 82. Cortez Edwards and Tyree Griffin continue to lead the team in scoring with 14 and 13 points per game, respectively, but sophomore LaDavius Draine has stepped up his game during the last six games, too. He’s led the team in scoring in three of the last six games, including having two of his better games offensively in the last three.

He’s currently third on the team by averaging nearly 11 points a night. Rightfully so, Draine is getting noticed by fans for making more shots, but it’s more than that for Sadler. 

“I think more than anything, he’s in a situation where most of the people see that he’s making shots, but that’s not the only thing he’s doing,” Sadler said. “He’s rebounding, defending and do all of the other things, too, so as I’ve said, he’s a unique player who doesn’t allow his offense to affect the rest of his game. He’s going to play no matter what.”