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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

From the Hattiesburg American "Don't Look Now, But A Rivalry Could Be Brewing Between Eagles and Tigers"

Don't look now, but a rivalry could be brewing between Eagles and Tigers

Something may have happened in Memphis last Saturday, besides the psychiatrist convention that sucked up all the hotel rooms and had me nervous to talk to any females for fear of being psychoanalyzed.

A true men's basketball rivalry conceived? Quite possibly.

Southern Miss is 23-53 against Memphis all-time. Let's narrow our focus because rivalries need some sort of balance and that's just not there historically.

The Golden Eagles are 8-15 versus the Tigers since the inception of Conference USA before the 1995-96 season. Looking better for the Black and Gold, but I'm sure Memphis fans wouldn't consider USM a rival to its basketball program.

Memphis has turned itself into the league's premier hoops factory during the seven-year reign of coach John Calipari - though with a little help from the defection of Marquette, Louisville and Cincinnati. The Tigers have advanced to three NCAA tournaments (soon to be four) and the NIT Final Four three times, including one NIT championship.

Southern Miss has lost six consecutive games to Memphis and is 2-10 against Calipari, excluding his inaugural year.

Pretty depressing, huh? Why bring up the possibility of a rivalry?

Because of the outcome of the last two games, that's why.

The Golden Eagles could have won both games.

Southern Miss led 54-52 with 9:48 remaining on Jan. 13 before fading down the stretch and losing 75-62. The No. 11-ranked Tigers got all they wanted in Hattiesburg.

A fluke? Nope.

The Golden Eagles came back two weeks later and were ahead 62-60 in front of a hostile crowd at FedEx Forum before dropping the C-USA game 67-64. Southern Miss had seven seconds to send the game into overtime, but a Sai'Quon Stone 3-pointer missed its mark.

Moral victory? Maybe. More so for fans than the team.

But two things stand out in this year's losses.

No. 1 -The Golden Eagles completely disrupted the Tigers' offensive flow in both games. Last year, Memphis run-and-gunned its way to lopsided victories. The USM athletes just couldn't hang.

Not this year. Southern Miss forced Memphis to play its game twice. And the Tigers didn't like it either time. With his first true recruiting class, USM coach Larry Eustachy showed his team was up for the task.

No. 2 - Both teams are young. This wasn't a veteran Southern Miss team simply hanging with a new group of Tigers. This was a nine-man rotation with a combined two years of Division I experience (USM) against a sophomore-laden group with a key junior, senior - and a few phenomenal freshmen.

Memphis is certainly deeper and will be next year and the year after that. But, assuming the Golden Eagles continue to progress, Southern Miss will be an honest threat to break that 0-6 streak.

Does that mean USM will be competing for conference titles from here on out? No.

Does that mean Southern Miss should be playing in the postseason from now on? No.

(Although it's getting there and the NIT is a reasonable goal for 2007-08.)

So, what does it mean.

Means that the Golden Eagles should start pulling some W's when they face Memphis - who should continue to be nationally ranked.

And that's a good first step to building a rivalry and a good step into becoming a significant player in world of Division I basketball.


Kareem Copeland is the Southern Miss beat writer for the Hattiesburg American. He can be reached by phone at 601-584-3107 or e-mail at kmcopeland@hattiesburgamerican.com

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