The Troy men’s basketball team begins Sun Belt Conference play on Thursday night. More accurately, Troy jumps into conference play with both feet.

The Trojans are in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for a Sun Belt Conference opener against a Southern Miss team that went 11-2 in non-conference play. The Golden Eagles are currently 34th in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Net rankings, which is tops in the Sun Belt Conference. Southern Miss is 6-0 at home and the lone losses came at Northwestern State and UNLV.

“They are playing as good as anybody in the league,” said Troy head coach Scott Cross. “They’ve got a great basketball team. They’re good on both sides of the ball. They play great defense and have some big-time players. We got our work cut out. We’ll have to defend a lot better than we have the past couple of games. We tried to simplify things a little bit with our guys, hopefully that will help the feet move faster and be a little bit more aggressive and tougher.”

Ole Miss transfer Austin Crowley and Mercer transfer Felipe Haase each average 16.2 points for the Golden Eagles and they’ve combined for 57 3-pointers in 13 games. Crowley is a 6-foot-5 junior guard and Haase is a 6-foot-9 graduate student, who played for two seasons at South Carolina before transferring to Mercer.

For Troy, it’s also been a successful start to the season, but it could have been better. The Trojans are 8-5 overall with a notable win at Florida State. The lone double-digit loss was a 74-61 setback at Arkansas. The other four losses were by a combined 16 points, including a 60-55 setback at San Diego State and a 82-79 loss to visiting Mercer in the non-conference finale.

“If you would have asked me before the season what would have made me really, really happy, I would have said 9-4,” Cross said. “I would have felt really good about where we are. We let that one against Mercer slip. We were beating Arkansas in the second half, beating San Diego State in the second half, Lost to St. Thomas on a buzzer-beater. All our games have been close.”

Troy spreads out the scoring with five players averaging in double digits. Leading scorer Duke Miles, however, has been out of the lineup with an injury earlier this season. Christyon Eugene, a 6-foot-3 junior, has scored in double digits each of the past eight games, including 19 points against Mercer. Nelson Phillips, an All-Sun Belt Conference transfer from Georgia State, averages 11.9 points per game and had an NCAA-record-tying 13 steals in a game earlier this season. Zay Williams, a 6-foot-9 senior from Parker High in Birmingham, averages 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

“We got a lot of guys who can pass, dribble, shoot and score,” said Cross, whose team is fourth in the conference in scoring offense at 79.5 points per game. “We’re moving the ball pretty good. We’re tough to defend because of that.”

For Troy, the non-conference has also been a learning experience with six new scholarship players and three walk-on additions. It’s a different look than a year ago when the Trojans won 20 games. Cross said an off-season trip to Costa Rica was helpful.

“I think that helped us appreciate each other,” Cross said. “We were able to spend a lot of time off the court. That’s really been good for us. This has been a fun team to coach, guys get along, we do have good team chemistry. That’s the biggest thing. If the guys are coachable, then it doesn’t matter how many new guys you have. It’s like a puzzle, you’re just continuing to work on it and shape it and mold it, until you get it exactly where you want it. Usually, you never can get it to where you want but you’re always working and building and trying to tweak things to get it a little bit better.”

After Thursday’s game, Troy stays on the road with a trip to Texas State for a game on Saturday. Troy’s home opener in conference play is January 5 against Old Dominion.

In other Sun Belt Conference openers today, South Alabama (6-6) plays at Georgia Southern (7-6), Arkansas State (8-5) plays at Old Dominion (8-4), James Madison (9-4) plays at Georgia State (7-5), Louisiana (10-2) plays at Coastal Carolina (6-5), Appalachian State (7-6) plays at Marshall (11-2) and Louisiana-Monroe (4-9) plays at Texas State (7-6).

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