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Richie Riley awakening a sleeping giant at South Alabama

After turning Nicholls State into a conference champ Riley is looking for similar success in the Sun Belt.

NCAA Basketball: Nicholls State at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Change can be a difficult, but necessary thing.

The University of South Alabama hasn’t made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2008 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2013, so it was inevitable that a change was going to come.

In steps new Jaguars head coach, 35 year-old Richie Riley, who will attempt to institute change by implementing his burn the boats mantra that allowed him to have immediate success at his previous job at Nicholls State.

In just two years at Nicholls, Riley compiled a 35-28 mark which included a 21-11 record last year, when he led the Colonels to their first conference title since 1998.

Prior to Riley’s arrival at Nicholls, the program had only had one winning season in 20 years, and with such immediate success at a program with such a low budget, it was no surprise that other suitors came calling.

He inherits a South Alabama squad that won 14 games last season and returns its five leading scorers, including senior guard Rodrick Sikes, who led the Jags with 18.7 points per game.

Riley said the opportunity to come to South Alabama was too good to pass up. With a solid core of returning players and the support from the school’s administration, he thinks it’s a chance to build something special.

“I just saw what a sleeping giant I felt it was,” he said.

During Riley’s tenure as an assistant at UAB and Clemson, he developed a reputation as a tenacious recruiter and says he’s always recruited the south heavily, which could allow him further success at South Alabama in a competitive Sun Belt Conference.

Riley didn’t waste any time in bringing in new talent and has announced the signing of several key transfers to bolster his roster, including graduate transfer Kory Holden, who comes to the Jags after playing last season with South Carolina, and before that, Delaware, where he averaged 17.7 points per game as a sophomore.

“He had some injuries at South Carolina and never really got going but we feel he is going to step in here and have an immediate impact,” Riley said.

Several of his other key transfers won’t be eligible to play until next season, including Andre Fox, who was Second Team All-Big South and was the leading scorer for High Point with 15.7 points per game last year. Then there’s Don Coleman, who was the leading scorer at Cal in 2017-18 with 14.2 points per game. Former St. Bonaventure forward Josh Ayeni will also sit out this year after starting 40 games over the past two years for the Bonnies.

Having success as a coach in the Sun Belt and getting your school to the NCAA Tournament is a much tougher task than it was during Riley’s previous coaching stint.

At the end of last year, Sen Belt rival UT Arlington fired its head coach, Scott Cross, after 12 years, in part because they didn’t feel he was having enough success. But under Cross’s watch, the Mavericks were 72-33 in the past three years, including a regular season championship in 2016-17 and three straight years of 21 wins of more.

Regardless of the challenge ahead, Riley is a young coach on the rise and South Alabama may have found the right man to bring the Jaguars back to the NCAA Tournament.