Coming off a school record 27 wins and a 1-seed in the NIT Championship, the Golden Eagles are looking to have similar success and reach the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in school history.
They lost some talented players though that were a huge component from a season ago, including three players who averaged over 20 minutes a game. The biggest hurdle will be finding a way to grab rebounds as the players who left combined for over 55 percent of the team’s rebounds.
However, USM is returning several key players that can make a run into March Madness possible. Neil Watson, Jerrold Brooks, Michael Craig and Daveon Boardingham are all returning for their senior seasons which will provide USM with the veteran leadership needed to reach the NCAA Tournament once again.
Watson missed a significant portion of the offseason due to a broken jaw, but he showed that it will not hinder his play as he recorded a career-high in rebounds in the season opening win against Jackson State. He has been playing with face mask since he returned from injury, but said it doesn’t affect his game.
“It took a little toll on my shot, but it wasn’t what everybody thinks it was,” Watson said regarding the mask. “It’s just a little adjustment that I’m going to have to get used to over time.”
With the departure of Dwayne Davis, last year’s leading scorer, Watson will be relied on heavily to pick up the scoring load. Head coach Donnie Tyndall believes he will have no trouble in doing so.
“Neil is a great shooter. We did a drill the other day. He shot 80 3’s and he made 71. So every time he lets it go, you think it’s going in,” Tyndall said.
Boardingham will be a huge factor down low for USM. His play could dictate what kind of identity their offense will have whether they play inside-out or rely on the perimeter play.
He had a couple of huge dunks in Friday’s game that set the tone for the game and got the crowd into it. One of his second half dunks stretched the lead to four and after that play, USM never looked back.
“He looked like Tim Duncan on that play,” Tyndall said.
His play earned him some high praise from Watson as well. “Daveon is one of the big monsters in this league. I think he’s one of the monsters throughout the country,” Watson said.
One of the biggest indicators on whether or not USM can fill the void of the players who have graduated and be able to win their conference will be the play of transfers Aaron Brown, Chip Armelin and Ude Ifeanyichukwa.
If Friday’s game against Jackson State is any indication, they have a good chance at doing so. Brown was second on the team with 12 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and Ude showed off his ability to protect the rim with two blocks in limited minutes. Armelin missed the game with a thigh bruise.
USM’s schedule this year should bode well for them as they only play two teams that reached the tournament a year ago, most notably the NCAA Champion Louisville Cardinals. Western Kentucky is the other team on their schedule that made it a season ago.
Conference USA appears to be much weaker this season as national powerhouse Memphis, along with Central Florida, SMU and Houston have left the conference. USM lost to Memphis three times last season including the C-USA Championship Game in double overtime which would have sent the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament had they won.
New conference opponents include Charlotte, UTSA, Old Dominion, North Texas, FAU, FIU, Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Tech. Charlotte and La Tech both posted 20-plus wins last season and made the NIT. USM defeated La Tech 63-52 in the second round of the tournament.
While the conference realignment may have weakened the conference, there still are several teams that could challenge for the throne atop C-USA. Fox Sports predicts that the top four will consist of La Tech, UTEP, USM and Charlotte in order.
However, this year is probably the hardest to predict in recent memory. Not only will the conference have eight new teams, but new rule changes in college basketball is changing the way the game is played.
The rule changes make it to where fouls will be called for hand checks, if a defender puts two hands on the offensive player, if a defender uses any type of arm bar, etc. The reason the NCAA made these changes was to increase scoring and make the game more exciting for fans.
As of now, all it has done is make games lack pace because fouls are happening at a staggering rate. USM’s opening game had 61 total fouls called in it which is an average of 1.53 fouls every minute.
“The whole complexion of the rule changes is to give the advantage to the offensive player so if it’s even close, they (refs) are going to call the foul on the defender and you go to the line,” Tyndall said regarding the rule changes. “I won’t be the only coach telling my team that (forcing contact), trust me.”
Due to the rule changes, USM will have to be efficient from the free-throw line and keep opposing teams away from it. If they do that, look for them to make a serious run at the conference championship.
They possess the talent to keep up with any team in their conference and could easily be participating March Madness. If they can simply get in the tournament, anything is possible. There are countless teams every year that pull upsets and make it much further in the tournament than expected.
“I feel like if we get things clicking, we have a chance to compete in the conference, well in the country actually,” Boardingham said.