After each home victory, Southern Miss players join the celebration in the student section at Green Coliseum. The Golden Eagles are 12-0 at home and 19-4 overall. (Joe Harper/Southern Miss)

Eleven moths ago, Southern Miss finished the 2021-22 men’s basketball season with only seven victories versus 26 defeats. If you think that’s bad — and it is abysmal — the Golden Eagles won just one of 18 conference games. That’s worse.

That’s also a winning percentage of 21.2% overall and 5.8% in the league. Fan support reached an all-time low. You look around Green Coliseum and count the people in attendance. It didn’t take long. 

Rick Cleveland

Few head coaches would keep their jobs after that, especially when completing their third season at the school. Southern Miss coach Jay Ladner knows it.

“I’m forever thankful my bosses saw fit to keep me around,” Ladner said recently. “I’m aware that wouldn’t be the case most places.”

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon at Green Coliseum, where Ladner’s current Golden Eagles polished off two-time defending Sun Belt champion Texas State 67-58 for their 19th victory of the season against just four defeats. The Eagles are 8-2 and tied for first place in the Sun Belt Conference. They are 12-0 at home. More than 16,000 people attended the recent four-game home stand and while that might not sound like a lot, the crowds were extremely loud and boisterous and made for a decided home court advantage. It is not stretching matters to say that the thunderous cheering made a critical difference in USM erasing a two-point deficit and winning by nine in the last three minutes, 30 seconds Saturday.

Jay Ladner’s Eagles are rolling. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Amazingly, Ladner’s fourth Southern Miss team is approaching historic accomplishment on a national level. Few programs in the sport’s history have improved as much as these Golden Eagles in a year’s time. Certainly, no team in Southern Miss history has.

The 1998 Ohio State and 1979 Murray State teams are tied for the biggest turn-arounds in NCAA Division I history with victory increases of 19 games. Ohio State went from eight victories to 27. Murray State went from four victories to 23. 

With eight regular season games to be played, Southern Miss already has increased its victory total by 12. While it’s not likely the Eagles will eclipse that previous record in the regular season, it’s possible. And they will definitely play in the Sun Belt Tournament at Pensacola and after that also will play in some kind of postseason tournament barring a total collapse.

At 6-9, Felipe Hasse shoots 40 percent from 3-point land. (Joe Harper)

Eight more victories, which would constitute an improvement of 20 and an NCAA record, are entirely realistic.

Ladner acknowledges that possibility while declining to talk much about it. When you’ve been where he was last season, you really do take everything one game at a time. You can’t afford to do otherwise.

So, really, how did this happen? How do you go from winning 21% of you games one season to winning 83% of your games the next year. The first thing you do is you don’t stand pat. In Ladner’s case, he darn near started over. Gone are six of last season’s top seven scorers. The current roster includes 11 newcomers.

First, Ladner hired two new assistant coaches and used those coaching hires to bring in some desperately needed new talent. Juan Cardona, the man Ladner calls his defensive coordinator, used prior relationships to help land multi-talented Chilean Felipe Hasse and Puerto Rican point guard Neftali Alvarez. Ladner also hired former Ole Miss graduate assistant Nick Williams, who helped him land former Rebel Austin Crowley in the transfer portal.

Crowley leads the team in scoring with 17.6 points per game and presumably will be a candidate for Sun Belt Player of the Year. Hasse is second on the team in scoring and rebounding and assists. He is a highly skilled, 6-foot-9-inch Swiss army knife who scores both inside and outside and might be the team’s best passer. He shoots 40% from 3-point land.

Austin Crowley leads Southern Miss in scoring. (Joe Harper)

Crowley and Hasse share leadership duties with returner DeAndre Pinkney, who has to be among the most improved players in the country. “Pink,” as he is known, is another big man (6-8 with a long wingspan) who can shoot the 3-ball or slam-dunk it depending on the situation. He scores 14 per game and leads the team in rebounding with seven a game.

Says Ladner, “When your three best players are your three hardest workers, it’s really a huge plus for a coach. They lead by example, as well as vocally. The others see how hard they work. It really helps our team chemistry.”

That chemistry might be the team’s best ingredient, especially when you realize how many of the players are new ingredients. The Eagles play with a collective passion, especially in Cardona’s pressure defense. (As long as USM defenders work as hard on the court as Cardona does on the bench, opponents will have problems. Cardona, a whirling dervish on the sidelines, sweats through his sports coat every game.) Offensively, they share the ball with a readily apparent selflessness.

“It’s been that way from day one,” Ladner says. “It may sound trite, but they really do like each other.”

Keep in mind, the Eagles have played much of the season without two of their best players. Alvarez, the lightning quick point guard, started early and helped the Eagles win by 12 at Vanderbilt in only the third game of the season. Then, in the next game, he suffered a foot injury that sidelined him for the next 16 games. Alvarez, who seemingly amps the energy level every time he enters the game, is now coming off the bench and playing himself back into shape. Denijay Harris, another starter who averages eight points and five rebounds a game, also missed several games with severely bruised ribs.

With Alvarez and Harris sidelined, Ladner plugged others into the lineup with a show of depth that he could have only dreamed about previously. Picayune native and Jacksonville transfer Mo Arnold was particularly dependable at point guard during Alvarez’s absence.

Ladner’s leadership should not be overlooked when listing all the critical factors in the Southern Miss turn-around. Talk to his peers and you will hear little other than respect for his coaching acumen. After playing for Hall of Famer M.K. Turk at Southern Miss, he won more than 500 games as a high school coach and then a national junior college championship at Jones College. Just prior to coming to USM, Ladner coached at Southeastern Louisiana where his teams won nine, then 12, then 16 and then 22 games. His Xs and Os acumen is readily apparent, as the Eagles often score on set plays after timeouts or other stoppages in play.

When Ladner played for Turk, Green Coliseum was often packed to the rafters. He knows what 9,000 people sound like in the place.

“I remember. Anybody who was here remembers,” Ladner said. “I want our guys to experience what I did. Here lately, we’re making strides in that direction. We’re getting there.”

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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.