The most intriguing college basketball game of the week will take place in Hattiesburg, Miss.
When Memphis (15-6, 6-1) and Southern Mississippi (19-3, 6-1) meet at Reed Green Coliseum in Hattiesburg on Wednesday night, sole possession of first place in Conference USA will be on the line. The Tigers and Golden Eagles are tied for first, 1/2 game ahead of surging Tulsa (13-9, 6-2), which has won six in a row.
In many ways, though, this game is much more important for Southern Miss. Memphis has long established itself as Conference USA's premier program, even though Texas-El Paso (2009-10) and Alabama-Birmingham (2010-11) won the last two regular-season titles. Southern Miss, though, still hasn't been taken seriously on a national level this winter.
Southern Miss doesn't just have a gaudy record but a No. 11 ranking in the RPI. However, the Golden Eagles haven't been able to crack either of the top 25s. The Pomeroy Ratings are also skeptical--they have Southern Miss at No. 54.
However, Southern Miss has lost only once in its 16 games since Nov. 27 and that was a narrow 60-58 defeat at Memphis on Jan. 11. The Golden Eagles' other two losses were at Denver and in double overtime to Murray State, the last unbeaten team in the nation, on a neutral court.
The Golden Eagles are also coming off one of their best wins of the season as they beat Central Florida78-65 last Saturday to end the Knights' 16-game home winning streak.
"We've got a good chance for revenge," Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said of facing Memphis. "(The win at UCF) was a great step in the right direction as far as who we're trying to be, but we're not out of the woods. We're not even halfway through this league."
Southern Miss plays at a slow tempo as it ranks 255th in the nation with 64.9 possessions a game. However, the Golden Eagles are efficient, ranking 48th with a 109.6 adjusted offensive efficiency and 87th with a 95.6 adjusted defensive efficiency. They are also 17th in offensive turnover rate at just 17.3 percent of their plays.
Southern Miss is also a team without stars. Five players have scoring averages in double figures: junior guard LaShay Page (12.9), senior guard Darnell Dodson (12.5), sophomore guard Neil Watson (11.3), senior guard Maurice Bolden (10.7) and senior guard Angelo Johnson (10.1).
Watson's 121.4 offensive rating is 84th nationally and his 32.3 assist rate is 63rd in his first season after transferring from Kansas City (Kans.) Community College. A sign of Southern Miss' depth is that senior forward Torye Pelham's 125.7 offensive rating is 30th in the nation but he has been involved in just 17.1 percent of the Golden Eagles' possessions and is averaging 7.1 points and 20.9 minutes a game.
Johnson says the diversified offense is a key to Southern Miss' success. Last season, senior Gary Flowers was 18th in the nation with 33.6 percent of shots when the Golden Eagles went 22-10
"We all trust one another," Johnson said. "Last year, we always depended on Gary. This time, you don't know who's going to get it. I just think we're more talented, more of a team, much more dangerous."
Southern Miss has proven to be dangerous, yet a win over a Memphis, which has won the last 18 games in the series, would boost the Golden Eagles' profile and help their chances of getting to the NCAA tournament for just the third time in school history and first time since 1991.
"We don't want to settle for what we have now," sophomore guard Cedric Jenkins said. "We want to do something that hasn't happened in a while. We want to work hard. We want to know what else we can accomplish. Our main goal keeps getting bigger and bigger."
Memphis, meanwhile, has been resurgent since its record fell to 6-5 with a loss at Georgetown on Dec. 22. The Tigers have won nine of their last 10 and have been led by sophomore guard Will Barton, who is making a strong push for All-American honors.
Barton leads Conference USA in scoring with an 18.8 point a game average and leads Memphis with 8.7 rebounds a game. He ranks seventh in KenPom.com's kPOY standings. Barton ranks in the top 500 in the nation in 12 of Pomeroy's 15 statistical categories.
"Part of the season is how you finish," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "It's about improvement. It's about are you getting better. You don't want to peak in the early part, you want to make sure you're playing your best basketball in the later part. We've still got a ways to go. We're not a finished product, but we are getting better and that's the most important thing."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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