By Robert Wilson
When Jay Ladner took over the Southern Miss men’s basketball program four years ago, he had a vision to bring the Golden Eagles back to the national prominence like when he played for Southern Miss coach M.K. Turk in the late 1980s and when star players like Clarence Weatherspoon and Darrin Chancellor played for Turk in the early 1990s.
Taking over a program hurt by three years of probation and scholarship limitations, Ladner struggled in his first three seasons, winning nine, eight and seven games.
But it appears, Ladner and Southern Miss are turning the corner. There aren’t sellout crowds at Southern Miss’ Reed Green Coliseum like when Ladner played or when Weatherspoon and Chancellor played, but Ladner can see improvement.
Said Ladner: “I could feel the Reed Green magic, the Reed Green spirit coming back the other night when we beat Montana (in Tuesday’s 64-54 win).”
Southern Miss has made an incredible turnaround since last season and has gotten off to an 8-0 start for the first time in 62 years and are one of 18 teams in the country still undefeated after its win Tuesday against Montana in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss goes for its ninth straight victory against Northwestern State Sunday at 3 p.m. in Natchitoches, La.
Ladner isn’t predicting his Eagles will jump into the AP Top 25 just yet – Southern Miss hasn’t been there since the 1990-91 season – but he is excited about his team and the progress they have made so far.
“I would love to say I’ve got a magic wand and we instantly turned this around, but it’s a combination of some of our guys from last year being older with more experience and some transfers who have found a new home and new beginning and had great starts,” Ladner said. “We wanted to find guys who were experienced, bigger and more talented to come to our program and we did. And since Day One of practice, I haven’t had to raise my voice due to effort and attitude. It’s been a blessing.”
Southern Miss ranks nationally in several categories: second in turnover margin (19.1 per game), seventh in scoring defense (55.0 points per game), 13th in scoring margin (21.1), 15th in steals (10.2 per game) and 19th in turnovers forced (18.75 per game).
West Point native and Ole Miss transfer Austin Crowley, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, has made the biggest impact for Ladner and the Golden Eagles through the transfer portal. After playing three years for Ole Miss and never averaging more than 4.8 points per game in a season, Crowley has blossomed for Southern Miss and leads the team with a 16.5 scoring average, including a career-high 25 points against Liberty, 17 3-pointers and 23 steals (ninth in the nation in steals per game).
“Austin filled a great need for us at guard and has a great start,” Ladner said. “He is one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever had. Austin is a pleasure to coach.”
Graduate student and Mercer transfer Felipe Hasse, a 6-9, 245-pound forward, has also been a big help so far this season, averaging 15.9 points (second to Crowley), and leads the team with 6.8 rebounds, 6 blocked shots and is second (to Crowley) with 20 assists. Hasse, from Chile, is one of two players who transferred from Mercer. Neftali Alvarez, a 6-foot guard from Puerto Rico, also came from Mercer along with assistant coach Juan Cordona. Alvarez started the first three games, but is out with a foot injury.
“Felipe is a very skilled player who has great leadership valued and a high basketball IQ,” Ladner said. “He has played on the Chile National Team, so he has great experience against older players.
DeniJay Harris, a 6-7 junior forward from Columbus and Southwest Mississippi Community College transfer, is third in scoring with 10.3 points, but is out with cracked ribs.
Both Alvarez and Harris are expected back before Southern Miss begins its first year of playing conference games in the Sun Belt.
DeAndre Pinckney, a 6-8 forward, and Mo Arnold, a 6-1 junior from Picayune, have both started every game and are returnees from last year’s team.
“We have a lot of better depth than in the years past,” Ladner said. “We are missing two starters now (Alvarez and Harris) and the other guys are stepping up and playing well.”
Ladner has four players from Mississippi, six others from around the South, three players from Chili, two from Puerto Rico and one from Wisconsin on the roster and meshed them together to form so far an unbeaten combination with great team chemistry.
This isn’t Ladner’s first rodeo. He knows how to win. Ladner, who was a part of Southern Miss’ 1987 National Invitation Tournament championship team as a player, won 511 games as a high school coach at St. Stanislaus High (winning a state title in 2011) and his alma mater Oak Grove High. Ladner took Jones County Junior College to a national junior college championship in 2014 – the first coach to take a Mississippi community college team to a national title in men’s basketball – and led Southeastern Louisiana to a Southland Conference regular season title before coming to Southern Miss.
Trying to win a conference title and make a possible NCAA Tournament appearance are lofty goals. Southern Miss has won two regular season conference titles in school history (Turk led the Golden Eagles to the Metro Conference title in 1991 and Coach James Green won a Conference USA crown in 2001). Southern Miss has been to the NCAA Tournament three times in school history (1990 and 1991 with Turk and 2012 with Coach Larry Eustachy) and has never won a NCAA Tournament game. The Golden Eagles have been to 10 National Invitation Tournaments, winning it in 1987. The last appearance was in 2014.