The Golden Eagles (6-14, 1-8) will continue their frustrating season Thursday as they travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to take on Middle Tennessee State (12-10, 5-4) in hopes of notching their second conference win.
When looking simply at records and the fact that the Blue Raiders are the home team, this game may appear to be on its way to a blowout.
But Southern Miss actually matches up well against MTSU and lost a heartbreaker to them, 62-61, just three weeks ago.
In that Jan. 15 matchup, MTSU had the lead with under a minute to play before Reggie Upshaw made what would be the game-winning layup with 40 seconds left.
USM had a chance to win at the end, but recently dismissed point guard Rasham Suarez missed a three-pointer with one second left.
The Golden Eagles held the MTSU offense in check as only two Blue Raiders scored in double figures.
What was USM’s undoing in that game was its lack of depth as the bench only logged a total of 27 minutes, leading to many of the Golden Eagle players being exhausted and forcing them to make mental mistakes, evidenced by their 18 turnovers.
USM led in nearly every statistical category: field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds, steals and blocks. But they lost in the two most important categories: turnovers and points.
MTSU is a very balanced and deep team as none of their players average double digits in points and they typically field a 10-man rotation.
That type of depth and balance gives them a huge advantage over Southern Miss as the Golden Eagles only have an eight-man rotation with Chip Armelin and Matt Bingaya seemingly never on the bench.
The Blue Raiders’ fresh legs allow them to play much smarter basketball than the Golden Eagles.
When athletes tire down physically, it becomes harder and harder to stay sharp mentally, leading to costly mistakes. Time and time again this season, USM has been in games late, but failed to close the game out due to mental errors such as poor shot selection, ball movement and assignment defense.
One of the biggest keys to the game Thursday will be Matt Bingaya’s play.Against Western Kentucky, he played arguably the worst game of his collegiate career, scoring just three points on 1-of-6 shooting with four turnovers. Head coach Doc Sadler grew tired of it and took Bingaya out of the game.
While Bingaya has not had the type of breakout season many expected, he has easily been one of the Golden Eagles’ three best players, averaging 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals.He will likely be tasked with guarding the Blue Raiders’ leading scorer in Upshaw.
The sophomore forward possesses the same blend of size, strength and athleticism as Bingaya and has taken his game to another level this season. He averages three more points and rebounds than he did as a freshman and is shooting 45.5 percent from the field.
While Armelin has become the Golden Eagles’ heart and soul this season, Sadler will need to find a way to spell him against the Blue Raiders. Over the past three games, he averages an otherworldly 40.1 minutes per game and 22.7 points.
But against MTSU, there is no way Sadler can afford to play Armelin the length of the game again with the Blue Raiders always having fresh legs on the court. It would be smart to let Armelin sub out a few times over the course of the game, even if it is only for a minute or two, to let him catch his breath and get his legs back underneath him.
It will be an interesting matchup to see how Sadler combats the Blue Raiders’ depth and balance, but without question, this game is going to come down to how well the duo of Bingaya and Armelin to play. At this point, that duo and Norville Carey is about all the Golden Eagles have going for them.
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at Murphy Athletic Center.