“To The Top.”
That’s Southern Mississippi’s rally cry and in just one season, they’ve completed the turnaround from the bottom of the country to the top, finishing a perfect 15-0 at home with a dominating win against Georgia Southern over the weekend.
If you had told a Golden Eagles fan this over the offseason that, they would’ve probably laughed in your face. Last season, Southern Mississippi finished 1-11 at home against Division I opponents, only beating Lamar who was 0-27 against D1 competition.
Sitting at 24-5, Southern Mississippi is closing in on a Sun Belt regular season title and have turned the Frat Basement (Reed Green Coliseum) from sigma to beta.
But, one sneaky assistant coaching hire seemed to make a world of change for Jay Ladner’s bunch.
The story begins in 2014 on the northern coast of Puerto Rico at Carmel Sol High School. Juan Cardona, a well-traveled basketball coach, was coming off two head coaching stints at universities in the country. A quiet freshman named Neftali Alvarez was just starting his basketball career.
He impressed the coach, albeit with little said back and forth.
“We didn’t speak a word to each other in ninth grade. We didn’t have a great relationship,” Cardona told Mid-Major Madness. “He comes back to his sophomore year, we talked a little bit. I saw his potential but I wanted him to understand that it goes with talent, hard work, and attitude. They all go together. So, long story short, I sent him to my mentor (Pilin Alvarez) down in Miami and that’s when he exploded.”
Little did he know, Cardona would become the head coach at that school, Miami Christian. He originally came over to be an assistant coach on the Miami Tropics AAU team with Pilin, but it was not paid and he needed to find something else.
“This is a guy, my prior mentor Miguel Mercado, Rest In Peace, introduced to me when I was 18,” Cardona said. “He told Pilin, ‘You see this kid over here? He’s going to be the first born-and-raised Puerto Rican to be a head coach in Division I basketball.’ He’s a mentor to me, like a second father figure, an advisor. He’s a special person in my life. A person when I came to the states, I stayed in his living room for two months because I came with nothing.”
Pilin again joined him on the sidelines at Miami Christian and they won consecutive Florida high school state titles, winning the first on an Alvarez buzzer-beater.
“Coach Juan means a lot to me, he’s like my dad,” Neftali said. “When he moved to Miami, I was like ‘Wow, Coach Juan is moving. I want to jump and play in the United States and try to make my dreams a reality.’”
Also on that team was a tall Chilean named Felipe Haase. He averaged 19.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game in his lone season in American high school basketball. Once again, he was found by Cardona. This time, though, more unconventionally.
Haase had already succeeded in Chile and was playing for the U18 team in the FIBA Americas against Puerto Rico when he caught Cardona’s eyes. He was so impressed that after the game, he shot him a message on Facebook Messenger. The rest was history.
“We were only missing a five,” Cardona said. So, I’m looking at the FIBA qualifiers under 18, when I saw this kid, I said ‘There is no way he’s a high school kid.’ I sent him a text message and he responded the next day and he was actually looking for a school.”
He chose Miami Christian over five other schools and a pro contract in Argentina. After one season, Haase was a three-star recruit who ultimately ended up going to the University of South Carolina.
Haase says he couldn’t have done it without Cardona.
“He’s the one who believed in me since the beginning. As soon as I got to Miami, he believed in me even more than I believed even more than myself,” Haase said. “He’s the one who changed my mentality, the way I look at things. He’s like my second father. He’s taught me so much about life and basketball.”
After winning another state title, Alvarez started his college career at Fairfield, where he won MAAC All-Rookie Team honors. Cardona jumped to the women’s team at Miami Christian, leading them to the 2A State Semifinals for the first time in school history.
Reconnecting at the D1 Level
When their first full season apart ended, Cardona felt as if it was time to make the jump to D1 coaching. He landed a job under Greg Gary at Mercer. That hire brought along Haase and Alvarez via the transfer portal, but injuries and other circumstances never let major success come to fruition.
Alvarez sat out for the majority of the 2021-22 season because of a joint fracture that he later had surgery on. When he played, he made an impact, averaging 13.1 points per game over two years.
Haase was a double-double machine, reeling in 10 in his two seasons.
In a game against Winthrop, he scored 41 points and picked up 10 rebounds. He was the talk of the college basketball world, that weekend.
Games like that opened Haase’s possibilities over the offseason when he hit the transfer portal. Pretty much everyone reached out. Alvarez followed and so did Cardona.
The trio was hoping for one last victorious hurrah.
Landing in Hattiesburg
“I thought I had to make a move and my only question to Art (Pilin) was, ‘If I leave Mercer, can I get back to Division I basketball?’ And he said, ‘Juan, absolutely,’” Cardona said.
Cardona was hired by Southern Mississippi as an assistant coach on May 22, 2022, but the story is much deeper than that.
He remembers meeting head coach Jay Ladner for the first time after he won his back-to-back state titles at Miami Christian. Ladner walked into the gym at 6 a.m. to watch a player he was recruiting, and the next thing you know the two were chopping it up at a Hooters in South Florida.
I was not told what was eaten that day but what I do know is that an important bond was created. They immediately clicked.
Ladner had fought his way up from the high school level to D1 and that’s what Cardona ultimately hoped. They kept in touch and Cardona made enough of an impression on him to be offered an assistant coaching job in 2020. The only problem was that he signed on to become an assistant at Mercer three days before.
When Cardona was looking for a job this offseason, it aligned up perfectly and Ladner came calling again.
“God is perfect. The timing was right because when we started talking, I didn’t know it was going to happen,” Cardona said. “I said, ‘Coach, all we need is an opportunity and I’ll take that right away.’”
At this time, it was tough for both coaches. Ladner didn't know if he’d have a job after a 7-26 season. They were entering a new league and his seat was hotter than ever.
Cardona was living even more on the edge as his family of five kids and his wife slept in a hotel for eight months. Nightly, they took turns sleeping in the bed to make sure everyone was treated equally. He believes this adversity is why he is able to connect with the kids.
“I just want to show people that whenever you have a dream or a vision, it’s going to be hard. Hard can’t stop you, you have to keep pushing,” he said. “A lot of people have situations, but I don’t know how many are going to resolve that as a family. So, I’m proud of each one of them. We made it through and we’re here.”
Success at Southern Mississippi
On June 2, the crew reconnected as both Haase and Alvarez announced that they would follow Cardona to Hattiesburg. It was a match made in heaven.
Southern Mississippi opened the season 3-0 for the first time since 2018, beating its first SEC opponent (Vanderbilt) since 2011. One game later, they played Loyola (LA) and that was where the team dealt with its first real adversity. Alvarez aggravated his joint fracture and was forced to sit out for two months,
“At the beginning of the year, I got re-injured in literally the same spot. It was a hard time for me. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep playing basketball,” Alvarez said. “But, at the same time, I was like ‘This is what I do. This is the sport that I love. This is my life. I want to keep hooping.’ But it was a hard situation, being out for a year and a half.”
The Golden Eagles kept pushing without him, moving to 8-0 before their first loss of the season. Remind you, Jay Ladner had never won more than nine games as the head coach of Southern Mississippi.
“He really cares about all of his players, day to day. It’s just not when we’re winning, he’s just so concerned with the day to day of each other,” Haase said on Ladner. “He has no ego, in terms of ‘This is my program, I’m going to do it my way.’ From the walk-ons to the starting five, it’s just a lot of togetherness in terms of ‘Let’s find out the right way for the team.’ He really gives it all for his players, he says all the time how proud he is of us and how he enjoys this team.”
Ladner’s coaching led the program to an impressive 11-2 nonconference record and a 2-0 start to league play.
They would hit adversity again, losing two of the next four before Alvarez came back for the South Alabama game.
It was in that game that the Golden Eagles started to hit their stride. It was win No. 2 of a nine-game winning streak. Throughout, the crowds became larger and larger, leading to the fifth-largest attendance in Reed Green Coliseum history when they beat Louisiana for their eighth win in a row.
Frat Basement is BUMPING tonight— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) February 10, 2023
Game of the Week in mid-major basketball.pic.twitter.com/d6ol75Epum
“The community is amazing. When we got here, we called it was a sleeping monster. There was a lot of history behind this program and we needed to bring it back,” Haase said. “You go to Walmart, guys come up to you not even wearing Southern Miss stuff. They know who you are, they know you by name, and they know everything. They’re just so appreciative of what we’ve done for the program and how we’ve gave them life.”
What’s next for Cardona?
Continued success at Southern Mississippi and hopefully a head coaching job down the line.
I’m not the only one who believes this. His mentor Pilin Alvarez emphatically thinks so as well. “To me, he is the best I’ve ever seen. He really is a fantastic coach,” he told the Flavor Your Ear podcast in December.
This comes from the man who has given stars such as JJ Barea and Norchad Omier their first breaks.
What's next for Southern Mississippi basketball?
A chance at clinching the first Sun Belt regular season title in school history.
With a game lead on Marshall, the Golden Eagles will hit the road to play Old Dominion and Texas State. They control their own destiny. The conference tournament begins on Tuesday, Feb. 28. After that, it’s about how far they want to go.