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McNeese men's basketball in rare company

Last Modified: Monday, December 17, 2012 8:32 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

Remember the time McNeese State basketball was rated higher than Kentucky?

Take a picture. That time is right now.

The Cowboys’ five-game winning streak, which includes victories over Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech, has earned McNeese the respect of the college basketball number-crunching machine. McNeese is ranked 49th nationally in the CBS Sports Ratings Percentage Index this week, while the defending national champion Wildcats are down at 66th.

No one’s confusing Dave Simmons for John Calipari just yet — especially not their respective personal accountants — but as the numbers prove, Sunday’s 80-75 triumph over the Red Raiders finally gives Simmons the signature win he’s been searching for the last seven seasons.

McNeese has come close on many occasions.

The Cowboys fell to LSU in overtime in 2010, and two weeks later led Texas A&M most of the way before a slew of late free throws allowed the Aggies to pull away. In 2009, McNeese had Texas Tech on the ropes before falling 76-75. In 2008, LSU eeked out a 62-59 win over the Cowboys.

The opportunities have been there, but on Sunday one was finally seized as McNeese beat a major conference opponent for the first time since downing Ole Miss in the 1994-95 season.

“It’s very difficult when you go into an environment like that,” Simmons said. “You just look at the facilities and everything compared to where you play. But the thing about it is, last time we felt we left some business undone out there (in Lubbock). We talked about that in our pregame speeches. It was a good feeling for the coaching staff because we’ve been close, but we didn’t finish the job.”

The Cowboys are proving themselves to be a far different team than the one that was blown out in a dreadful 73-48 loss at LSU on Nov. 13.

Heck, McNeese is even a different team than it was a week ago thanks to the additions of Craig McFerrin and Ledrick Eackles.

McFerrin was named the Southland Conference and Louisiana Sports Writers Association player of the week for his efforts in his first two games this year. He made his first 5 shots on the way to 14 points against Louisiana Tech, then led McNeese with 18 points and 6 rebounds against Texas Tech.

The Cowboys also would not have beaten the Red Raiders without the contributions of Eackles, who came off the bench for 13 second-half points, including three 3-pointers.

“No question we wouldn’t be able to win these (last) two games without those two making a contribution as they did,” Simmons said.

Early in the year, McNeese seemed to struggle with figuring out who its leader is without the defending Southland player of the year, Patrick Richard, in the lineup.

However, the Cowboys are now building on their new plural identity. Instead of deferring to a single star like Richard to win the game, multiple players are learning they can also get the job done. That’s how McNeese managed to make a run to take the lead at Texas Tech midway through the second half even though its newest budding star, sophomore forward Desharick Guidry, was on the bench with foul trouble.

“We learned that we’ve got some other guys we can rely on as far as depth,” Simmons said. “When you’ve got four and five guys in double figures, you’ve got a great opportunity. A team can’t key on one person. One of those four guys can hit the big shot, make the big play. That’s a comfort zone. If we can get five guys in double figures, that puts us in an advantageous spot to win a basketball game.”

Simmons must turn around after his signature win with the sternest test he has ever faced — Saturday’s game at No. 23 North Carolina, a place where the banners of legends past can swallow a lesser opponent before the Tar Heels do.

“We’ve got a huge mountain ahead of us,” Simmons said. “We know that. We live in reality. We’re playing one of the most historic programs in the nation. But we’ve got confidence. Can we meet the challenge? We accepted it, so we expect to try to meet that challenge. But it’s a huge task for a very young basketball team.”

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