Southern Miss had what I like to call “Conference USA disease” last year.
The malady is associated with a proclivity for teams in the conference to start four-guard lineups, due to a lack of quality big men. USM started guards Courtney Beasley, Craig Craft, R.L. Horton, and Jeremy Wise 152 out of a possible 160 times.
Seven other starts went to guard/forward Sai’Quon Stone (pictured right) before he broke his foot, and the last start went to rail-thin but skilled big man Gustavo Lino from Brazil. If Lino adds some bulk to his frame (listed at 7’1”, 230 right now) he could become a star in C-USA.
Until Coach Larry Eustachy can count on the big man to produce, he will continue to provide size off the bench.
It’s difficult to figure out why the Eagles didn’t produce better than their 15-17 record last year. The four-headed monster at guard combined to ring-up 55.4 ppg, the team held their opponents to a .433 shooting percentage, and USM out-rebounded their foes, 34.0-32.6 per night.
Now, three of the four heads of the offensive beast (Beasley, Craft, and Wise) are gone and Eustachy is searching for consistent producers.
The sixth-year coach of the Eagles has a 75-80 record at the school and is just 15 victories shy of his 350th career win. He has yet to replicate the success he achieved at Iowa State (101-59, back-to-back Big 12 titles in 2000 and 2001, 2000 National Coach of the Year with a 32-5 mark and an Elite Eight showing) in Hattiesburg.
Eustachy signed two highly-regarded junior college big men available in the late signing period: Gary Flowers and Torye Pelham from JUCO power Chipola (FL) Junior College.
Pelham, a 6’6”, 225-pound three-star prospect according to Rivals, was All-Panhandle Conference, scoring 9.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and 1.4 bpg while helping Chipola to a 32-2 mark and third-place finish in the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament.
Flowers, an absolute specimen at 6’8”, 214, with a 7’3” wingspan, has been highly sought after since 2004. He’s a combo forward who’s always played well on the AAU circuit.
He’s also had a litany of problems: driving without a license, marijuana possession, and suspension from the Oklahoma State program in September 2006. He subsequently transferred to Chipola in January 2007.
He’s a Lamar Odom-type, but will he prove to be a distraction to the program? Only time will tell, but pencil him in to start, as he has the raw tools to play in the NBA someday.
Another big body JUCO transfer, 6’9”, 235-pound Josimar “Joe” Ayarza, will be in contention for a starting berth on the front line. The native Panamanian was a two-time all-conference choice, averaging more than 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per night.
Also in the mix will be returning starter Andre Stephens, a steady 6’8”, 235-pound senior from Heidelberg, MS, who leads returning big men in points and rebounds (6.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg). He just doesn’t have the ability that some of the newer post players are showing.
As if that weren’t enough front court talent, the Golden Eagle staff is also very high on JUCO transfer Maurice Bolden, 6’10”, 210 from Jackson, MS. He first committed to C-USA rival UAB but changed his mind. Utah was also said to be pursuing him. He may actually be the most skilled of the Golden Eagle big men.
The guard rotation will be the key to the team after experiencing the loss of Jeremy Wise to the NBA draft. Wise was a three-year starter who put up 1,691 points (sixth in USM and 11th in C-USA history) and led the team in points and assists (16.7, 4.7) last year.
R.L. Horton, the back court mate of Wise’s for two years, now has his chance to shine. As a junior, he should provide a veteran’s influence and is a proven scorer (12.7 ppg). Mix his scoring ability with 3.0 rpg, 2.2 apg and what should be an improved jump shot (.390 overall and an anemic .253 from downtown), and look for Horton to be a threat for all-conference honors.
Stone is rugged, with a pro’s body at 6’6”, 225, but he’s not as fluent and skilled at two-guard, and he’s also not going to start on the front line. It looks as if he will come off the bench as a change-of-pace for the smaller, speedier Horton.
A sleeper for time at the two is an underrated sophomore, LaVanne Pennington, 6’4”, 190 and classic instant offense. Look for him to force his way onto the floor.
Point guard is wide open. With the riches everywhere else on the floor, it would be an absolute shame not to have anyone to get them the basketball. Cue the arrival of redshirt sophomore transfer Angelo Johnson (6’, 180) from USC.
Johnson, a three-star prospect who originally chose Southern California over Cincinnati, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, played in 33 games as a freshman, starting 11. He drained 27 threes and averaged 4.5 ppg and 2.1 apg. He sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules.
Jerome Clyburn (6’2”, 170) is among the competitors at the lead guard position. Last year, he suffered a broken bone in each foot, participating in just three games before redshirting. True freshman Kenneth Ortiz (5’11”, 180), who helped lead Science Park (NJ) to consecutive state titles his junior and senior seasons, has his hat in the ring, too.
Larry Eustachy is touting this as the most talented team in his six years at USM. If he can get the proper production from the point guard position, it is very unlikely this team will implode down the stretch (1-10) like they did last year. This is a very dangerous basketball team.