As Southern Miss hits the midway point of the Sun Belt Conference men's basketball season, tied with Marshall and Louisiana atop the league standings, the Eagles are enjoying a boost to their roster for the home stretch.
Mercer transfer Neftali Alvarez averaged 13 points per game over two seasons with the Bears and was expected to give Southern Miss a scoring boost in the backcourt. But the 6-foot playmaker from Puerto Rico was injured three games into his first season in Hattiesburg. He only returned to the court in the past week, helping Southern Miss (17-4, 6-2 SBC) to victories against South Alabama and James Madison.
"I'm glad to be back," Alvarez said. "I'm trying to do whatever I have to to help this team win games. I didn't play in a long time. It's literally my second game back, and I'm trying to do whatever I can to help the team.
Against the Dukes, he put up five points with four assists and two steals. Interestingly, the Alvarez injury has sparked a role reversal on the Southern Miss roster. The Eagles landed three major transfers in the offseason, with Alvarez joined by Felipe Haase and Austin Crowley.
Haase and Crowley, along with returner DeAndre Pinckney, have carried the scoring load for USM, with Crowley boosting that aspect of his game in Alvarez's absence. Crowley was known more as a distributor at Ole Miss before heading to Hattiesburg, averaging 4.9 points and 2.5 assists last season.
This year, Crowley is putting up 17.6 points per game, and Alvarez is okay with becoming a pass-first point guard as long as Crowley has the hot hand.
"I'm trying to change my game now and make more assists than to score because this team doesn't need me to score more points," Alvarez said. "They already have the three leaders who can score 20-plus."
Fans and coaches alike celebrated in November when the Sun Belt and MAC announced that starting next season, the two conferences would take part in a Sun Belt-MAC challenge pitting schools from each league against each other twice a year.
The response was so positive that coaches such as James Madson's Mark Byington said they'd love to see similar arrangements with other conferences. It appears he'll have to wait for that, however.
Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill, a guest on the FunBelt podcast this week, said he's all for setting up similar deals with other mid-major conferences, but nothing else is on the horizon for the Sun Belt.
"We would love to do it, the reality is we've been trying for four years to get this done and the MAC is the first league that has agreed to do it," Gill said. "I don't know that there is a lot of leagues out there that want to do it with us, because we have certainly been asking. That being said, we are certainly open to doing it with other leagues and having more opportunities like this to secure more home games for our teams, but also play really good competition that will help us, hopefully with seeding, or down the road when we start to position ourselves for at-large bids on Selection Sunday."
Based on NET rankings, the arrangement would match up teams from the Sun Belt and MAC twice a year. The first meetings in November or December would be based on this season's NET, while later games in February would use the in-season NET ratings.
For instance, if the season ended today, one such game would pit No. 35 Kent State against No. 67 Marshall in an early-season contest for 2023-24.