With only four players back from its NCAA tournament team last season, plus new coaches and a new system, Southern Miss is expected to finish near the bottom of Conference USA this season.
Which makes the Golden Eagles a perfect fit for Phoenix native Michael Craig.
The 6-foot-5-inch forward played prep ball at Precision High School, a Phoenix charter school competing in the low-profile 2A division, though he did get a chance to play in travel-ball tournaments against UA sophomore Nick Johnson, whose No. 8-ranked Wildcats face Southern Miss tonight at McKale Center.
Then Craig began his college career in Yuma at Arizona Western, and nearly disappeared off the radar completely: He was charged with burglary following his freshman season, and Craig said he was dismissed from the team.
He wound up at South Mountain Community College, sat out a year and played last season. Then he committed to Texas Southern … and found himself searching for a new home last summer when coach Tony Harvey left.
Finally, Craig accepted an offer from new Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall … but arrived in Hattiesburg, Miss., 35 pounds over his ideal playing weight.
"I've always been an underdog my whole life, at Precision, and at Arizona Western, we were always near the bottom of the league," Craig said Monday. "I'm pretty used to fighting off adversity, coming out and competing."
In 2010-11, Craig didn't get the chance to compete. He was charged with burglary in July 2010, according to court records, and while that charge was dismissed, he was found guilty of criminal trespass.
Unable to play that season, Craig had time to think exactly where he wanted to head in life.
"I made a mistake and I got kicked out of Arizona Western," Craig said. "But I learned a lot from it, and I never want to go back to (trouble with) the law. I learned during that year that by doing that, I can't get what I want, which is to play professional basketball, either overseas or in the NBA."
So, with a push to clean up his act on and off the court, Craig took off last season. Craig was Arizona Western's second-leading scorer as a freshman with an average of 9.3 points, but morphed into a junior college all-American at South Mountain.
He averaged 22.5 points and 9.3 rebounds last season and was dominant in the Arizona Community College Athletic Association tournament, averaging 41 points, 13 rebounds and 10 points in league play.
Then he ran into another obstacle of his own doing. Craig ballooned from about 230 pounds last season to 262 by the time he arrived in Mississippi.
"I was just pretty much enjoying home cooking," Craig said, laughing. "Playing junior college ball, I was 230 but during the offseason I wasn't really playing, so I gained a couple pounds. I knew I had to come in and work hard."
He did. Craig said he now weighs 228 pounds, and he's averaging 9.9 points and 5.4 rebounds while averaging 23.4 minutes as a starter for the Golden Eagles so far this season.
Tyndall says dropping another six or eight pounds will make him even more effective.
"He's a talent," Tyndall said. "As his conditioning improves, he'll play more. But right now, he gets tired and once he does, he settles for jump shots and doesn't drive it."
He's a work in progress, on a team that's a work in progress.
While it is loaded with junior college transfers, Southern Miss is tied for the least Division I experience overall this season - with just six total seasons of D-I ball played by those on its current roster.
"We're kind of a team of misfits," Tyndall said. "I don't mean that in a negative way but … we're just trying to overachieve."
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• Who: Southern Miss (6-1) at No. 8 Arizona (5-0)
• When: 7:30 p.m.
• TV: Pac-12 Arizona
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM