HATTIESBURG, Miss. — The thrill of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 21 years has come and gone.
Now Southern Miss is trying to figure out a way to stick around for a while.
The ninth-seeded Golden Eagles (25-8) face eighth-seeded Kansas State (21-10) on Thursday in the second round in Pittsburgh. Southern Miss has never won an NCAA tournament game, but point guard Neil Watson said the program has a terrific opportunity.
"We're ready," he said. "We see they are somebody we can play with. Somebody we can beat. You see all over the country that any team can be beat at any time. We're just ready to go into it — more anxious to play than just seeing our name called."
Coach Larry Eustachy said there's plenty of similarities between the two teams, and that the Wildcats are a formidable opponent. Kansas State has had stretches of very good play this season — including back-to-back wins over Missouri and Baylor in February.
Watson, who is from Kansas City, Kan., has some added familiarity with the Wildcats.
He is good friends with Kansas State guard Will Spradling after the two spent a summer playing AAU basketball in Kansas. He said the Wildcats' strengths primarily lie with their length and strength, and that their two most productive players — Rodney McGruder and Jamar Samuels — could be a handful in the half-court game.
"We've got to limit their touches and keep them off the glass," Watson said. "Those are two guys I've been watching over the years. I know their game and they like to push it and go hard in the half-court set."
Kansas State has won four of its past six games.
Southern Miss faded some at the end of the season, losing four of seven games, including a 73-62 loss to Marshall in the Conference USA semifinals. Eustachy said most of those struggles have been the product of difficult road games — not a drop-off in production.
"This is a chance for a fresh start," Eustachy said. "I really think we're playing some of our best basketball and I really think our kids are excited to go do this."
The Golden Eagles had one final practice on campus Tuesday morning before loading up the buses and travelling to the airport. It certainly wasn't a walkthrough, with some harsh words from Eustachy and players crashing to the floor for rebounds and loose balls.
"I really do think the most physical team will win," Eustachy said. "We weren't the most physical team (against Marshall) and that's why we got beat."
The Golden Eagles also are trying to manage their emotions heading into the program's first NCAA tournament game since 1991. They do have some postseason experience on the roster — starting guard Angelo Johnson made the NCAA tournament as a freshman with Southern California, losing to Kansas State in the first round.
Now Johnson gets another crack at Kansas State, joking that at least the Wildcats "don't have Michael Beasley and Bill Walker anymore."
Johnson said he's tried to use his experience to help the team's younger players.
"It's sort of a balance," Johnson said. "It's true that the NCAA tournament is Conference USA times 10 and every possession is so important. But at the same time, you've got to treat it like any other game or the emotions can get you out of what you do. We've just got to be ourselves and make sure we're going hard every second."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company