Article by: Robert Wilson
Photos Courtesy: Southern Miss Athletics

One of the biggest turnarounds in college basketball history happened this season in Hattiesburg and leave it to Southern Miss men’s basketball coach Jay Ladner – who he admits he likes cajun food as much as anyone – to interject food into his quote about how his Golden Eagles made such a dramatic rise in victories this season.

       “There were two key factors that helped us go from worst to first,” Ladner said. “There were seven players who decided to hang in there coming off such a rough year and give us some stability. Then we had four high impact transfers who brought new energy and attitude to the team. They came together like a good gumbo.”

       Boy, did they ever.

       Southern Miss – which had won only 24 games in the three previous seasons under Ladner – turned into the one of the best tasting gumbo dishes – in this case one of the best playing basketball teams – in school history. The Golden Eagles, picked last out of 14 teams in their first year in the Sun Belt Conference, won the league and won a school record 25 wins going into the National Invitation Tournament.

Coach Jay Ladner photo courtesy Southern Miss Athletics

       Southern Miss will visit Conference USA Tournament runner-up Alabama-Birmingham Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in a first-round game on ESPN+. UAB is coached by Louisville, Miss., native and former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy.

“This group of young men have been so much fun to work with,” Ladner said. “They’ve been incredibly consistent with their attitude and work ethic. I don’t think we’ve lost two games in a row all year. Of course, we had better than expected – surprising to most – success in our non-conference portion of our schedule (winners of its first eight games, for the first time in 62 years, finished with a 11-2 non-conference record) and it seemed most people expected us to fall apart once we started conference play. We opened with Troy and Appalachian State, two very good programs. I felt like when we won those two, we had a chance to have a good team.”

       Ladner took the lack of success for his first three seasons personal. After all, Southern Miss is his alma mater – he played basketball for the Golden Eagles in the late 1980s – and he wanted badly to bring a winner to Hattiesburg. Ladner 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.

But 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.

It all came together this season.

“This year has been a blessing,” Ladner said. “The last few years have been rough. No one took it harder than me. This university, city and program mean the world to me. It hurt and I felt totally responsible that we couldn’t turn it around sooner. With that being said, this was so much fun. People said we would never sell Reed Green Coliseum out again (the last sellout was in 2008). We had the fifth largest crowd in school history (8,097 watched Southern Miss defeat Louisiana-Lafayette to put them in first place in the Sun Belt), 15-0 at home, most wins in school history, won the league for only the second time in school history and have a great nucleus coming back. Hopefully league for only the second time in school history and we this is the beginning of consistently competing for league titles and post season play.”

Austin Crowley photo courtesy Southern Miss Athletics

West Point native and Ole Miss transfer Austin Crowley, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, has made the biggest impact for Ladner 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 16.1 scoring average, including a career-high 30 points against Appalachian State, and has a team-high 62 steals, nine short of the school record. He was named the Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year and has been named a finalist for the Lou Henson National Player of the Year award, given to the nation’s top mid-major player.

“Austin filled a great need for us at guard and has had a great season,” 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, averaging 15.3 points (second to Crowley) and has a team-high 97 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 played in 15 games with six starts and has been slowed by injuries. 

“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.” 

Top returnees – DeAndre Pinckney, a 6-8 forward, and Mo Arnold, a 6-1 junior from Picayune – have started 32 and 29 games respectively. Pinckney is third with a 12.9 points per game and leads the team with 6.8 rebounds per game. Arnold is second with 96 assists.

DeniJay Harris, a 6-7 junior forward from Columbus and Southwest Mississippi Community College transfer, is fourth in scoring with 9.0 points and started 21 games.

Ladner has four players from Mississippi, six others from around the South, three players from Chile, two from Puerto Rico and one from Wisconsin on the roster and meshed them together to form great team chemistry.

Ladner is a proven winner. Ladner 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.

Now, Ladner must get his team to refocus after losing to South Alabama in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament last week in Pensacola. Ladner knows first-hand about this situation.

       “I told our team that this is very similar to 1987 when we won it (Ladner was a junior when Turk led Southern Miss to the NIT championship after losing in the Metro Conference Tournament),” Ladner said. “We were emotionally crushed after losing in the conference tournament. We drew Ole Miss (and Turk’s college roommate and Ole Miss coach Ed Murphy) in the NIT first round. That didn’t take much to motivate us for that.”

       Southern Miss defeated Ole Miss, then won four more games to capture the NIT championship at Madison Square Garden in New York. Turk also led the Golden Eagles to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 1990 and 1991, the first time Southern Miss had made the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Eagles have made the NCAA Tournament once since, with Coach Larry Eustachy in 2012. Southern Miss has never won an NCAA Tournament game and its last NIT appearance was in 2014. The Golden Eagles defeated Toledo and Missouri and lost to Minnesota in the quarterfinals in 2014.

       Ladner and his teammates were one of the top scoring offenses in the country in 1987 and showed it in the NIT, averaging 87.4 points in the five wins in the tournament. Long time Golden Eagles fans will remember the talented starting five of Derrek Hamilton, Randolph Keys, Casey Fisher, John White, and Kenny Siler. Hamilton, Keys, Fisher and White each averaged more than 15 points per game.

Southern Miss’ defense has been a big part of its success this season and ranks in the Top 50 in the country in three team categories (36th in scoring margin, 40th in turnover margin and 45th in steals).

       “After last season, we reevaluated every detail about our program with a willingness to change even if that’s the way I had always done it,” Ladner said. “I wanted us to be hard to prepare for. Of course, I give assistant coach Juan Cardona a lot of credit. He’s our defensive coordinator to borrow a football term. He and I spent many hours developing our attack, which begins with full court pressure, and it marries our defensive system. One word describes how we want to play on both ends and that’s pressure. The players bought into it and it’s been a lot of fun to watch and coach.”

       Ladner hopes his players take him on an NIT run like Southern Miss did in 1987.