Doc Sadler, far right, has instructions for Cortez Edwards, 1, and Tyree Griffin, 55, two of the players who have led Southern Miss to six straight victories.

When Kermit Davis Jr.-coached Middle Tennessee State didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last college basketball season despite a 24-7 regular season ranking, a 16-2 league record and a No. 27 RPI, Conference USA decided to do something drastic.

“Drastic” begins Saturday when the league opens what is being called “pod play.” Southern Miss will host UAB in the first of four regular season games that were not scheduled until last week. Game time at Reed Green Coliseum is 2 p.m.

Rick Cleveland

Few people, including Southern Miss coach Doc Sadler, believe the new “pod play” will help increase the number of NCAA Tournament bids for CUSA – but at least somebody is trying something.

As CUSA commissioner Judy McLeod put it: “It’s never been done so we’re a little wary. But we felt like it was an opportunity we had to try. If we keep doing the same thing, nothing’s going to change.”

Conference USA is not alone. Nearly all the mid-level NCAA Division I conferences are limited to one bid, which goes automatically to the conference tournament champion. Meanwhile, so-called power conferences, such as the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference and SEC receive multiple bids.

After MTSU’s terrific regular season last season, the Blue Raiders were stunned in overtime by Southern Miss in the conference tournament. Marshall, which then defeated Southern Miss and Western Kentucky, represented CUSA in the NCAA Tournament.

CUSA ‘s “pod play” was instituted to ensure that the league’s best teams play against one another late in the season, which should result in higher strength of schedule and RPI ratings, two factors the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses to determine its field.

After Conference USA teams had completed the first 14 games of the league’s 18-game schedule, the teams were divided into three pods, according to records. Old Dominion (11-3), Southern Miss, Western Kentucky and UTSA (all 9-5) and UAB (8-6) are in the top pod.

Southern Miss will play the other four top pod teams in its last four regular season games.

Kermit Davis Jr.’s Middle Tennessee State team was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee last year despite a No. 27 RPI.

Davis, now the Ole Miss coach, is sympathetic to CUSA’s plight, but isn’t sure the new system will help. In fact, says Davis, it would not have helped MTSU last year.

“It would not have helped us because we finished the regular season with three of the upper teams any way,” Davis said.

“The only way I think it helps is if there are three or four top 25-to-75 RPI teams that can be paired against one another.”

That’s not the case this season. Old Dominion, which has a road victory over ACC power Syracuse on its resume, is the league’s highest rated team with an RPI of No. 83.

Southern Miss is next at No. 95. Western Kentucky, coached by former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, is next at No. 99. Western has victories over the likes of Wisconsin, West Virginia and Arkansas. USM’s Saturday opponent, UAB, is all the way down at No. 180. Should USM lose, the Golden Eagles’ RPI presumably would drop considerably.

“There’s nothing we can do about it except play the games they tell us to play,”Sadler said. “We just need to keep winning, knowing the only realistic way we get in the NCAA Tournament is to win the conference tournament.”

Southern Miss has done a lot of winning lately. After starting the CUSA season 0-3, the Eagles have won 9 of the last 11 and have a six-game winning streak. In their last game, the Eagles led UTEP at halftime 54-12 en route to a 77-47 victory.

Southern Miss faces a hot UAB team. The Blazers won their last two games, both on the road, against Marshall and Western Kentucky. UAB defeated Western 68-60 last time out.

UAB and Southern Miss played an earlier game at Hattiesburg. The Eagles defeated the Blazers 73-68 on Jan. 12.

Bottom line: Southern Miss could run the table in this new pod play but won’t get an NCAA bid unless it wins the CUSA Tournament March 13-16 at Frisco, Texas.

We end with two trivia questions: Last time CUSA put more than one team in the NCAA Tournament? Last CUSA team to receive an at-large bid?

Answers: 2012. Southern Miss, coached by Larry Eustachy, finished the regular season 25-8, and received at at-large berth and a No. 9 NCAA seed. No. I seed Kansas State defeated the Eagles 70-64 at Pittsburgh.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.