Southern Miss to compete in CBI tournament

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Griffin, Draine and Baker get set defensively for a Hilltoppers possession.

Southern Miss head coach Doc Sadler said after the team’s loss to Western Kentucky in the semifinal round of the Conference USA tournament that he had hoped for his team to have another opportunity in the postseason.

“Hopefully, that’s not the last game that this team plays; if it’s not then we’ll be better the next time we play,” Sadler said after the loss to WKU. “We were a laughing stock for maybe a while but I think we’re back to where people respect us.”

The Golden Eagles received that opportunity and will head to the postseason for the first time since its vacated 2014 NIT trip and play in the Roman College Basketball Invitational (CBI).

“This team deserves the opportunity to keep playing,” Sadler said on Monday. “You’ve got five seniors in this program that have given a lot, and they wanted to continue to play. Sometimes seniors are ready for it to end but this group isn’t. I’m excited that we get to go up there. Anytime you play in these games, you have to hope that your team is excited to play because that what comes down to it, and I think we will be.”

It was just over three years ago that the NCAA handed down the sanctions to Southern Miss, which is something Sadler remembers vividly.

“It was January 21st,” Sadler said. “I remember it because it’s been hard. It’s been really really hard to really not know what’s going to happen. Again if you go over the history of schools and teams that have been put on probation. It takes a long time to recover. There’s so many programs that never recover for a long time and some never recover. Saying that, our probation has probably been the worst it’s ever been, besides the death penalty. We’re the first team that’s ever gotten two seasons of postseason ban. It’s been hard [but] it’s been rewarding, and hopefully, now we’re going to head to the right direction and not look back but just look forward.”

The program is in its final year of the sanctions, which included recruiting restrictions, the vacation of all of the program’s wins and NIT appearances from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, as well as the first six wins of the 2014-2015 season. Additionally, the NCAA handed down three years of probation, and former athletic director Bill McGillis also implemented a self-imposed two-year postseason ban that was upheld by the NCAA.

It’s been a season of firsts for the Golden Eagles under Sadler, as Sadler received his first postseason bid at Southern Miss and the team’s 20-12 record marked his first winning season since taking over the program. After going 30-60 in his first three seasons, Sadler has guided the program to a resurgence, going 36-30 in the last two seasons.

“I started to leave on two different occasions in this process,” Sadler said. “I had other opportunities and basically took one of them, and then at the last minute, I decided not because I felt like I owed it to Cortez, Kevin, Tyree and Dominic [Magee] because I had told them that I would stay, and I did.”

Sadler received a contract extension after the 2018 season that rolled over and turned into a three-year deal. As for the basketball program itself, the sanctions will officially end on January 29, 2020.

“It’s been a tough five years. Not very many coaches survive probations, and I’ve been able to do that because I’ve got good kids, good character and they’ve improved and not just this year, but last year’s season was a good season. Bottom line, if you win anything, you win a game, it helps you, but to win 20 games is pretty impressive with this group of guys.”

The CBI features a field of 16 teams with three rounds that will be played from March 19 to 28 before the championship round. The championship itself is a best of three series that will be aired on ESPNU starting on April 1.

The Golden Eagles will face Longwood (12-17) in the opening round of the tournament and would face the winner of the DePaul-Central Michigan game if they were to win against Longwood.