Mid-February finds the college basketball season raging into the last quarter of the season with a handful of conference games remaining prior to the conference and NCAA tournaments. In each gym, the banners hang from the rafters of all the schools in the conference like a proud fraternity.
The facade of conference unity continues throughout this season as the landscape of “haves” and “have not” programs within college athletics continues to widen with the six power conferences raiding the assets of the other leagues.
Two days ago the Mountain West and Conference USA announced the formation of a new league starting in 2013. It’s a story that gets far too little coverage, mostly by design, as college presidents want to avoid the undeniable fact about the business of college athletics as they hide behind their tax-exempt status, squeezing every dollar possible out of the student-athlete.
Last month in what was deemed a “bold move” by the media, the Big East acquired a share of the five top 50 media markets at the expense of Conference USA. Yet for this season the show must go on and for Conference USA. Standing with and above the coveted jewels is a cast-away, University of Southern Mississippi, representing the 167th biggest media market in the US in Hattiesburg, MS.
The Golden Eagles are led by Larry Eustachy who was run out of Ames, Iowa, in 2003 after a meteoric start taking Iowa State to the Elite Eight and a second NCAA tourney birth before the infamous Columbia incident with Eustachy caught on camera kissing co-eds and drinking alcohol led to his dismissal. After taking 2003 off to stabilize his life, Eustachy landed at Southern Mississippi to rebuild the program once led by his mentor, Tim Floyd’s father Lee Floyd. Now in his eighth year at Southern Miss, Eustachy has the Golden Eagles tied for the conference lead.
In the modern world of college athletics, Hattiesburg, Miss., Southern Mississippi and Larry Eustachy are castaways and the Golden Eagle roster is filled with those discarded, ignored or forgotten about. It isn’t a spicy story.
In 2002, future pros Eddie Badsen and Delonte West won the Maryland state championship for Eleanor Roosevelt High School. The next superstar to come out of Roosevelt was supposed to be Darnell Dodson.
After a year of junior college, Dodson was part of the University of Kentucky team that lost in the Final Four to West Virginia. Dodson was dismissed from UK after one season. Two arrests and a suspension later, Dodson is providing Southern Miss scoring punch and experience as he iced the Memphis game with a pair of free throws to capture the lead in the Conference USA standings. Most would have given up on Dodson, but not Eustachy.
Lashay Page grew up in the shadows of Raymond Felton in Latta, S.C. He tried to continue the legacy of Felton who led Latta to two state championships. He was on varsity starting in seventh grade and the pressure by junior year to live up to expectations became too much.
Page was dismissed from high school for violating a school policy and moved to Dillon High School for his senior year. He averaged 31 points, earning all-state honors at Dillon, yet still landed at Chipola Junior College with Coach Greg Heiar.
After leaving the team at Chipola to be closer to his daughter, Page enrolled at Cape Fear Community College. He opted in the last minute against it and called Heiar to return to Chipola where he averaged nearly 15 points per game and was 2nd team All-Panhandle Conference. Now the junior leads the team averaging over 12 points a game.
This team is filled with other “no-name” types of players, who are now carrying their team and the conference to further respectability.
They do a good job protecting the basketball keeping turnovers and stolen possessions down. Undefeated at home, the challenge will be winning the conference championship in Memphis with dangerous teams such as Marshall, UCF, Tulsa, UTEP and the home town Tigers to contest with. Last season the mettle of the team was tested with three buzzer-beating defeats and now this experienced group tries to return Southern Miss to the NCAA tournament where it hasn’t been for 20 years.
Not too bad for a team of players no one wanted in a conference struggling for its identity.
Leigh Klein is the owner of Five-Star Basketball Camps and formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island. Each year at Five-Star, he trains hundreds of future college basketball and NBA stars such as Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He will be blogging for 247Sports on college basketball and recruiting.
Follow Leigh Klein on Twitter @leighalanklein and let him know what you think about the blog.
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