- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2014

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Southern Mississippi’s Neil Watson knows the joy of playing in the NCAA tournament. He also understands the disappointment of just missing a trip to the Big Dance.

Now for the third time in three seasons, the Golden Eagles (24-5, 11-3 Conference USA) are squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble heading into March.

Because Southern Miss doesn’t reside in a power conference, there isn’t much room for error in the season’s final weeks. The Golden Eagles are in a four-way tie at the top of C-USA with Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Tulsa.

The 5-foot-11 Watson is already one of the most successful players in Southern Miss history. He’s one of only two Golden Eagles to have 1,000 career points, 400 assists, 250 rebounds and 100 steals.

But second-year coach Donnie Tyndall said Watson’s most impressive accomplishment is the team’s 76 wins over three seasons.

“That’s the life of a point guard,” Tyndall said. “You get judged on winning and that guy has won a ton of games in his three years at Southern Miss.”

Southern Miss recently completed a perfect 14-0 regular season at home after beating Florida International on Thursday, but the conference schedule ends with a two-game road trip against Florida Atlantic and Tulane.

The road wasn’t kind to the Golden Eagles the last time they ventured away from Reed Green Coliseum. They were blown out by UAB and Middle Tennessee in back-to-back games last week.

Watson said the trip wasn’t much fun, but served as a reminder of how hard it is to win a conference championship and make the NCAA tournament.

“You’ve got to go in and play hard,” Watson said. “You can’t underestimate any team because anything can happen on any night. That’s just the way basketball is. Our last road trip, we went into the games comfortable instead of going in hungry.”

Watson is used to life on the NCAA bubble. He helped lead the Golden Eagles to the NCAA tournament in 2012 and the program just missed a return trip last season, falling to the NIT and advancing to the quarterfinals before losing to BYU.

Tyndall said NCAA tournament talk is unavoidable, but his team isn’t going to obsess over the day-to-day bracket discussion that dominates college basketball this time of the year.

“I do my best not to think about it, because last year it felt like the last 15 games of the season I was coaching a conference title game every night,” Tyndall said. “If you lose, it feels like your season is over. And I don’t think it’s healthy to coach that way and I don’t think it’s healthy for your team to play that way.”

Southern Miss didn’t look like it was under much pressure on Thursday, easily beating Florida International 78-66. The Golden Eagles used their usual pressure defense to force 25 turnovers.

The team’s best quality might be its depth and balance. The top five scorers - Michael Craig, Watson, Daveon Boardingham, Jerrold Brooks and Aaron Brown - are all averaging between 11.1 and 9.5 points per game.

That balance has allowed the Golden Eagles survive the recent absence of Craig, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle. Tyndall hopes Craig can return for Sunday’s game against Florida Atlantic.


Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP



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