GAME NOTES: The Southern Miss Golden Eagles would like to build upon a fantastic 2011-12 campaign, and will start with a home date against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Reed Green Coliseum this evening.
Last season started off terribly for WKU, which saw its head coach Ken McDonald fired midway through before it finished 16-19 overall and 7-9 in the Sun Belt Conference. The Hilltoppers caught fire at the right time however, as new head coach Ray Harper led his team on an improbable run to become Sun Belt Conference Tournament champions, and in the process they became the first sub-.500 team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament since 2008.
Southern Miss enjoyed a 25-9 overall record last season (11-5 in Conference USA), which was a strong enough campaign for it to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament despite not winning its conference tournament. The Eagles will be under new management this season. With Larry Eustachy now the head coach of Colorado State, they will be manned by first-year head coach Donnie Tyndall, who led Morehead State to two Ohio Valley Conference championships in six seasons.
Western Kentucky has won all three previous matchups in the all-time series with Southern Miss. The teams haven't met in Hattiesburg since the Hilltoppers won, 74-50, in 2001.
Even with its late-season success, WKU still ranked last in the conference in field goal percentage (.394). However, the good news is that four starters from last year's squad return. Manning the low post once against will be George Fant, who scored 10.4 ppg on 47.6 percent shooting a season ago while grabbing 6.1 rpg and swatting 37 blocks. The backcourt remains largely intact, with T.J. Price (9.0 ppg), Jamal Crook (8.5 ppg, 2.7 apg), and Kahlil McDonald (8.3 ppg) all returning to action. While the three guards played significant roles last year, they will all need to improve upon poor shooting percentages, as the three combined to shoot 286-of-774 (.369) on the season. The Hilltoppers suffered a huge blow this offseason when Sun Belt Rookie of the Year Derrick Gordon (11.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) transferred to UMass. Replacing his spot in the starting lineup will be Teeng Akol (6.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg), who saw just 17.1 minutes per game last season.
A new coach isn't the only change at Southern Miss this season, as it will welcome back just four letterwinners to a team that averaged 71.4 ppg a year ago. The top returning performer is junior guard Neil Watson, who averaged a team-best 12.3 ppg and 4.4 apg, despite starting just four of 34 games, earning both Conference USA's Newcomer and Sixth Man of the Year awards. Senior Jonathan Mills (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) brings a veteran presence to the frontcourt and was named to the conference's All-Defensive team. Rashard McGill (2.6 ppg) and Cedric Jenkins (2.6 ppg) also return but neither have ever logged significant minutes in their careers. Obviously, the Eagles will need to rely on plenty of newcomers. Freshman Norville Carey (6-5, 230) will likely start at forward, and junior college transfers Dwayne Davis (6-5, 205) and Jerrold Brooks (6-0, 185) will see plenty of action in the backcourt.
Although this is clearly not the same Southern Miss team as last year, it still holds a great homecourt advantage, as it won all 15 games in Hattiesburg a season ago. WKU might make a splash in the Sun Belt this season, but it will have its hands full against a tough non-conference opponent in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Southern Miss 69, Western Kentucky 62
11/10 10:33:35 ET
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