‘It means more than you would ever know’: Southern Miss basketball is soaring after historically low season
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - After losing 26 of 33 games last season, changes were inevitable during the offseason for the Southern Miss men’s basketball program.
Head Coach Jay Ladner, who is a former Golden Eagles’ hooper who won the National Invitational Tournament in 1987, said he first had to look at himself during the long break.
“When you come off of a bad year, it forces you to think,” Coach Ladner said. “I wanted to reevaluate every bit of the program, starting with myself. I’m in charge of the direction of the program and I take great pride in that. I was very fortunate to play for some of our greatest teams, so I know what it can be like and what it means to our community and university. Nobody took last season any harder than I did... We lost enough games to last me for the rest of my life.”
Sometimes you just need a fresh start, and that’s what happened for Southern Miss through new, incoming players - thanks to the transfer portal - staff changes, and a change of conference in July.
“We had some staff changes... and they did a great job recruiting. I can’t say enough about the returning players and the mix of the new players,” Coach Ladner said. “Some of it was part of a plan, but how do you convince guys to come to a program that won just seven games?”
“The change from us going from the Conference USA to the Sun Belt [helped],” Coach Ladner continued. “CUSA men’s basketball was and is very, very underappreciated and undermarketed for whatever reason. That’s not any shade. The teams are very good. I have great regard for CUSA basketball. But [joining the Sun Belt] was new and it came during that reset. We have some new players and are in a new league... it just kind of gave us a fresh start.”
The newcomers have hardly had enough time to fully get to know each other and understand one another’s game. Two - and sometimes three - of the five starters are transfers. Yet, they have gelled tremendously thus far with the Golden Eagles who decided to stay and change the culture.
“I do feel blessed with the young men,” stated Coach Ladner. “From day one, they have been fun to practice. They allow you to coach them. They truly like each other and they are just fun to be around.”
Former Ole Miss guard Austin Crowley and former Mercer forward Felipe Haase have specifically been major game-changers this season, with Crowley sinking Vanderbilt with his late-game dagger and dropping a career-high 26 points against Liberty, and Haase oozing confidence all season and icing the game against Liberty.
“Both players are very good players and both have been successful in their prior schools,” Coach Ladner said. “Felipe is a very talented player. I’ve been a head coach for 32 years at about every level. I’ve had some really smart players and I’ve been blessed to coach a lot of great young men, and he is up there at the top. He’s like having another coach on the court and he gives us a level of sustainability.”
“Austin Crowley is a guy who led Ole Miss in assists last year and started most games last year,” Coach Ladner continued. “We are very thankful that he chose to come to Southern Miss. When we went to Vanderbilt, you know Austin has been there three times. It wasn’t that big of a deal for him. With that being said, those two guys have been huge with their on-the-floor production, but keeping the locker room headed in the right direction has been as important.”
The Golden Eagles are soaring on the hardwood at the start of the 2022-2023 season in Ladner’s fourth year in charge. Southern Miss has won its first four games of the year for the first time since the 2010-2011 season, with two of those wins as a double-digit underdog coming against two outstanding programs, Vanderbilt and Liberty.
There’s still a long season ahead for Southern Miss, but the early season success of his alma mater means more to Coach Ladner than anyone.
“From someone that was fortunate to play on some of the best teams in their history, our goal from day one has been to try and restore Southern Miss basketball to a place of national respect and prominence. I’ve been disappointed that we haven’t been more successful, so every win is sweet. I want our present team to experience what I got to experience. I love the school and I love the program. It means way more to me than most. This is make-or-break for me. I don’t have a plan B.”
The Golden Eagles have another tough test ahead of them against Winthrop University on Tuesday at 2 p.m. in Cancun, Mexico in the Cancun Challenge tournament.
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