With all the good teams having fled Conference USA, Southern Miss is probably the jewel of the (severely weakened) conference, having won 20+ games in each of the last five years and making the NCAA Tournament as a 9 seed in 2012 as an at-large before losing to Kansas State. This year's squad has gone 29-6 overall and was 13-3 in Conference USA, losing to Louisiana Tech in the conference tournament semi-finals. To get here the Golden Eagles beat Toledo at home and Missouri on the road with that win over Mizzou one of their most impressive this season. They also beat NCAA team North Dakota State as well as quality opponent Georgia State in non-conference, and had a season sweep of LA Tech but that's basically it as far as good victories go with the rest coming against a shitty conference or really bad teams out of conference. This is not a juggernaut, but the win over Missouri is significant.
Looking at the stats, Southern Miss has four major strengths: they cause a lot of turnovers, they grab a lot of offensive rebounds, they pass well, and they get to the free throw line a lot. Their weaknesses are not shooting or defending shots very well, giving up a lot of assists, fouling a lot, and allowing an absolutely absurd amount of three pointers. I haven't seen So Miss play this year, but this statistical profile is basically textbook for a team that plays an aggressive high pressure zone (Syracuse's profile is similar). I also know that Southern Miss employs a full court press pretty much at all times, though I don't know if it's regular man-to-man or if there is a lot of trapping. The game comes down to:
- Taking care of the ball. High pressure zone and full court press are terrifying for the Gophers considering how the turnover bug has reared it's head at times this year. The Gophers have played games where they take phenomenal care of the ball and others where they seem to be intentionally giving it away. They will need to do the former to win this game. On the flip side, Southern Miss is really good at giving the ball away, and hopefully the Gophers can ratchet up the pressure to take advantage.
- Rebounding. Southern Miss is an outstanding rebounding team and as we know the Gophers are.....challenged, in that area. Creating turnovers and forcing missed shots are meaningless if the other team just gets another crack at it with an offensive board. This is Southern Miss's biggest strength, and probably the #1 key to the game. The Gophers are a bigger team than the Golden Eagles, so this should be doable with effort and proper technique.
- Creating fouls while avoiding them. Southern Miss loves to get to the line and they get there a ton, even if they aren't very good at foul shots. With only two real big men, it's imperative at least one if not both of Eliason and Walker stay out of foul trouble. On the other side Southern Miss really only goes 6-7 guys deep, so getting any of them in foul trouble, and as a team they commit a lot of fouls, could help stretch their bench further than they want to go.
- Hitting shots. An aggressive zone can be easily defeated by good ball movement and hitting open shots. 35.1% of points scored against Southern Miss this year have come via three-pointer, the 3rd highest percentage in the country. Related, opponents scored off an assist on 63.5% of their baskets, also the 3rd highest percentage in the country. It's obvious what you need to do to beat this team, it's just a matter of doing it.
5-11 senior point guard Neil Watson is probably the leader of the team, averaging 10.7 pts and 3.9 assists per game. He put up 18 points and 7 assists against Missouri, so he seems to be doing the whole I'm a senior and I don't want my career to be over yet thing. He only takes 16% of his shots at the rim so he's a clear jump shooter, but he does it well hitting 40% of his twos and 37% of his threes. He also hit 92% of his free throws this year, and buried with Missouri with four threes (on 9 attempts).
If Watson is the leader on the perimeter then 6-5 forward Michael Craig is the leader in the paint, leading the team in both scoring (11.5) and rebounding (7.6). His range doesn't extend too far, but he's an excellent scorer in the lane for somebody that short. He's their go to scorer and is an excellent passer out of the post - something to watch for.
Their other three main players are 6-7 senior Daveon Boardingham (9.9ppg/4.8rpg and a terrible name), former Temple transfer and 6-5 junior Aaron Brown (10.0ppg/4.3rpg), and 6-0 senior Jerrold Brooks (9.7ppg/2.5apg). Man they have a lot of upperclassmen. Boardingham is the closest thing they have to a center and leads the team with a whole 1.0 block per game, Brown is probably the scariest of these three just because he can score in a variety of ways and has had a few explosive games this year, and Brooks is their big time three point shooter (along with Watson) though he did hit just 33% this season.
Other than that they have some bit parts, one of which is our former good buddy Chip Armelin. Armelin played just 13.4 minutes per game this year (actually slightly less than his last year with the Gophers) and averaged 4.7ppg and 1.9rpg. In general he looks to be the same kind of player he was back then, although he's gotten much more efficient with his two pointers, hitting 60% this year compared to 46% back in 2012 mainly due to attacking the basket more. He's also turning it over more than he did back then, but that could be a product of the system. He's also nabbing more steals but again, product of the system. Anyway, I'm happy to see Chip back. I always had high hopes for him. It will be interesting to see what happens next season with four seniors departing Southern Miss, and Chip will have to step in to a bigger role.
It boils down to this being one of the more easy games to analyze that I can remember. The Golden Eagles are a decent team who can score, but a lot of their offense is predicated on getting turnovers and offensive rebounds, things the Gophers can control or limit. Offensively there's a clear blue print to beating Southern Miss - move the ball and knock down open shots. It's all about if the Gophers can execute. I'm not exactly sure why, but I have a bad feeling.
Southern Miss 70, Minnesota 65