Southern Miss basketball programs enter first season in Sun Belt Conference


Southern Miss basketball programs prepare to play their first season in the Sun Belt Conference. | Charlie Luttrell, SM2

Southern Miss’ basketball programs are gearing towards the start of the season in November but also have their eyes fixed on further down the schedule to gauge what competition they will face as new members of the Sun Belt Conference. 

Joining the SBC has a different impact on the women’s and men’s basketball teams, but one common element persists: the excitement to compete against new teams all while competing against some familiar faces. 

“We needed a reset…so I think in the terms of getting back to where we want to be as a basketball program and setting some goals, it’s all wide open because we don’t know what Georgia State [for example] has- we haven’t played against them. There are a few teams in the league that we have some experience with, but there’s a number of them that we haven’t and it just gives us a breath of fresh air and gives us a restart,” Golden Eagles Head Coach Jay Ladner said. 

Women’s basketball Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis shared the excitement and said that the team will have to adjust to a different style of play in the Sun Belt. 

“I don’t know much about them, but what I can say is that I think the league will be different,” Lee-McNelis said. “We’ve watched some film from the past year and just on their flow, it’s a much more guard-oriented league. The pace of their game is a lot quicker and a lot of shooting the ball in seven seconds. Lots of the teams play four guards and one post player and we are a bit more traditional where we play the two post players, so we have worked on that throughout the summer and we’ll continue to work to increase the pace.” 

Lee-McNelis noted that transition defense will be a key to counter the quick pace and said that the staff has even considered different lineups against certain opponents. Coaches on the Lady Eagles staff have scouted opponents in the Sun Belt to prepare for the conference slate.  

“The guards definitely know the strength of the league is the perimeter game, and again, I think they’ve accepted that challenge,” Lee-McNelis said. “We still have a long ways to go and we’re just getting started, but I think they have made a lot of strides and have taken it upon themselves to be a difference maker.” 

On the men’s side, Ladner noted that Sun Belt will also be a transition, but praised the strength that Southern Miss faced in what he called “underappreciated” competition in the Conference USA. Six teams in the conference had made the NCAA Tournament in the past decade and Southern Miss faced teams like North Texas and Louisiana Tech in the western division, each of which has developed pro talents such as Javion Hamlet and NBA rookie Kenneth Lofton Jr. 

Men’s basketball earned 34 votes in the preseason coaches poll to earn a No. 13 ranking out of 14 teams in the conference. Assistant Coach Juan Cardona said he has confidence in the team’s ability to compete, regardless of whatever the rankings indicate. 

“They can pick us 20 if they want- that’s why you play this season now. They’ll say when they see Southern Miss, ‘oh what’s happening here,’ Cardona said on the 4th Street Sports Show. “I told one interview that we’re going to win it [the SBC] and I stand by it. I’m not going to change. Whatever you think we are…can we move on? We’re going to be ourselves no matter where we go and you’re going to see it. We’re going to show it with actions.” 

The Lady Eagles earned a No. 4 preseason poll ranking, only behind Louisiana, Old Dominion, and Troy. Junior guard Domonique Davis earned Preseason All-Sun Belt First Team honors and Melyia Grayson made the second team. 

Sun Belt action will begin for both of Southern Miss’ basketball teams with matches against Troy on Dec. 29. This is just one of the regional matchups that Ladner and Lee-McNelis hope will spark regional interest and an increased road following. 

“It does generate some camaraderie with the fans and with their teams. Fans have an opportunity to travel to those places and I think that’s a huge plus for us,” Lee-McNelis said.