Over two years on, Larry Eustachy claims not to remember much about his early practices at USM. Trying to recall that sad-sack squad after the biggest single win of his USM tenure Monday night, he used phrases like "prepare for the worst" and "tear the whole house down" about his first impression of the program.
I remember one of those earliest practices. Far from its latest victory—a 74-69 win over Conference USA's second-place team, Houston—was a group of returnees wary and probably a little resentful of their new coach. Eustachy was still followed by scandal then, and stalked around the practice court in a rumpled t-shirt and loose pants bordering on pajama bottoms. His perpetual scowl was a combination of natural intensity, frustration with the effort of his players and an epic wad of tobacco in his mouth. He was a screamer, a taskmaster who eventually grew so irate he stopped practice after every play and sent the entire squad on baseline-to-baseline gassers for some error or another.
A rebuilding job is about finding guys who fit, Eustachy said after beating Houston, "and none of those guys were fits." Not a single player from those early practices was on the court Monday night. Perhaps it's no coincidence the tilt was the first the Eagles entered over .500 this late in league play since 2001. It doesn't take much to see how thoroughly the house has been smashed and remodeled: 11 of the team's 14 players are freshmen or sophomores. In December, USM started four freshman for the first time since World War II. There are three juniors, all first-year transfers, and zero seniors of any stripe.
There is Jeremy Wise, a scrawny, sleepy-eyed freshman from Murrah High who could represent the school's most potent scoring threat since its last NBA product, Clarence Weatherspoon, 15 years ago. Houston coach Tom Penders called Wise "so smooth," which is true, but his other descriptive, "tough," is also apt. The 6'2" guard works harder than anyone else without the ball, and he is the first perimeter player in the program in ages who is consistently able to create his own shot. By far, Wise leads the team in scoring at 17 points per game. He poured in 22 against the Cougars Monday for his 16th straight game in double digits, usually pulling up for a three or 12-foot jumper but occasionally slicing to the basket.
But where the freshman draws rave reviews, the face of the program is unquestionably Eustachy's. At 45, he was fired from a successful stint at Iowa State after published photos of him drinking and smooching coeds at a house party after an ISU road game made him a laughingstock. By the time he came to Mississippi, Eustachy was better known for that incident (and his subsequently rehabbed alcoholism) than for his coach-of-the-year awards in the Big Twelve and Big West. USM, coming off a dreadful 2-14 conference season, its third straight losing effort under James Green, was willing to take Eustachy despite the scandal. This December, though, the inevitable whispers began about Eustachy moving north again to the more high-profile vacancy at the University of Minnesota.
He waves off questions about his contract, set to expire at the end of next season, but the now-50-year-old has always said the right things about turning the ship around in Hattiesburg. When he talked about his old players, Eustachy questioned their toughness and commitment to the game. These days, while the obligatory "long way to go" remains, he's more generous with praise. Sophomore Courtney Beasley, who matched his teammate's 22 points against Houston, "really mirrors what the game is all about." Of Wise, Eustachy gushes: "He's very much into me. He's got the right mental makeup." In the closing moments of the Houston win, it was Eustachy, not his players, who waved frantically for the home crowd to get loud during a crucial Houston possession. It was Eustachy who most vocally charged forward to protest a no-call when one of his players was apparently shoved after a whistle. It was Eustachy, not any of his players, who received the loudest cheer from the modest student section when he left the court.
Wise brought up the NCAA Tournament after Monday's game, a goal the Eagles haven't reached since the halcyon days of Weatherspoon in '91 and that still seems farfetched. Eustachy is undoubtedly right when he projects the Eagles would have to earn the automatic bid that comes with winning the conference tournament and, in all likelihood, upsetting Memphis on its home floor. The National Invitational Tournament is a far likelier destination for a lowly regarded Conference USA team with nine or ten losses, whose marquee win before Monday was over Auburn, a below-average SEC team.
It's not certain whether USM's exceedingly young team talks about any of that specifically. But Wise, for his part, is at once vague and prescient about the primary subject of the squad's internal dialogue. "The future," he says. "We talk about the future."