After finishing second-to-last during the 2019-2020 Conference USA season with a 9-22 record, Southern Miss looks to improve in its second season with Head Coach Jay Ladner.
“We are trying to be better than we were last year,” Ladner said. “I do like our team. Our goal is to win the league, and we will do whatever we can to do that. It’s a crazy year, and crazy things can happen. We have a lot of new faces and inexperience at this point, but I couldn’t be happier with the way our team has approached every day. They’re a joy to be around, good guys and talented basketball players that work their tails off. I truly look forward to [coming] to practice every day, and I’m sure they feel the same way.”
The Golden Eagles have nine new players on its roster, which include five freshmen, three junior college players and a transfer. Ladner believes this year’s roster will fit the team’s play style better.
“I think we are closer to the style we’d like to play. We want to be pressure-oriented on both ends,” Ladner explained. “You’re going to see two things. First, we definitely look the part. We had some good players last year, but as I’ve told people this year, we have more of those guys now. We’re longer, more athletic and physical. We want to play more of an up-tempo brand of basketball.”
The biggest reason for the changing play style are the new additions to the team, who Ladner is excited to see perform.
“Seeing [junior-college transfers] Justin Johnson, DeAndre Pinckney and Tae Hardy, who have been the more-heralded guys of our recruiting class assimilate so well is something to compliment,” Ladner said. “They’re good guys and good basketball players. We’ve got better depth and overall talent, and that should happen every year.”
The Golden Eagles will also have returning veterans on its arsenal. Senior LaDavius Draine, who averaged nearly 13 points and 5 rebounds per game last season, needs only 16 three-pointers to earn the second-most in school history. Last season, Draine had seven games with over 20 points.
Since he came to Southern Miss, junior forward Tyler Stevenson has gained 50 pounds to gain physicality at his position. Last season, Stevenson averaged nearly 13 points and 7 rebounds per game. He also led the team with a 55.7% field goal percentage. On top of adding weight, Stevenson said that he’s been focusing on improving his ball-handling and three-point shooting for the upcoming season.
“I want to get my three-pointer consistent and be able to dribble the ball well so if I’m getting a rebound, [I can] push it out and then give it to a guard,” Stevenson said.
Ladner talked about how Stevenson trained during the pandemic to continue his goals.
“Once you see us in person, you won’t recognize a lot of our guys,” Ladner said. “You’ll see Tyler Stevenson and Denijay Harris [who redshirted last season]. We hadn’t seen them from spring break till July, and it could have gone one of two ways. They could have sat around, but they went back home to Columbus and set up a weight room inside a barn. Their physicality has been impressive.”
That seems to be the overarching attitude about the upcoming season. Recent transfer Tae Hardy, who played last year for the undefeated PRCC basketball team, describes how well the team has been developing communication and chemistry in their first practices together.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Hardy said. “At this early, I wouldn’t expect us to be perfect, but just the fact that we’re working on it and it’s getting better day by day really impresses everybody on the team and it shows on the court.”
Southern Miss’s schedule for the 2020-2021 season has yet to be released, but the team held its first official practice on Oct. 14.