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Eagle hoops back hitting the gym hard
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All eyes are turning to fall football camps over the next few weeks, but the guys on the gridiron are far from the only Georgia Southern student athletes already at work.
    Season tipoff isn’t until November, but the Eagles’ men’s basketball team is already building up steam for what it hopes will be a great season.
    In the 2015-16 season, the Eagles had to replace five of their top six scorers and entered the season as one of the youngest teams in the nation. A squad packed with freshmen and sophomores faced a steep learning curve but also overachieved at times. Last season, the same squad made more strides forward while notching a third place finish during Sun Belt Conference play.
    Heading into the 2017-18 campaign, Georgia Southern head coach Mark Byington has the nearly unheard of advantage of having his entire starting lineup – and some reserves – back for a third season together.
    “It’s been a huge swing in how we approach things over the last couple of years,” Byington said. “A couple of years ago, we had a bunch of guys having to fit right in and learn on the court. I think they’ve done a great job of growing and turning us into a winning program.
    “What is good to see now is that they are all pushing each other. We’ve achieved a lot, but there is still more to do and they know it. They’ve been working to get even better this season.”
    If more improvement is slated for the future, it could very well be a special season for the Eagles. Rising junior guards Tookie Brown and Ike Smith each earned First Team All-Sun Belt honors while rising senior and 2015-16 Defensive Player of the Year Mike Hughes could have easily made the postseason accolades as well.
    That trio combines with senior Jake Allsmiller to form a backcourt that – when the 3-pointers are falling – can terrify any team in the country.
    Eagle fans have known that the ball-handling and shooting have been in good hands for the last few years. But in order for Georgia Southern to achieve its ultimate goal of qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than 25 years, it will need to be well-rounded.
    To that end, things are looking just as optimistic as the guards and the jump shooting.
    Montae Glenn, Shawn O’Connell and Coye Simmons all showed flashes of solid play in the paint last season. All of them also had bouts with injury and never quite hit their stride. The result was an Eagle squad that had to rely far too much on jump shooting down the stretch, causing attrition in the backcourt as well.
    With all returning contributors back at full strength, Georgia Southern is ready to hit the gas. Seven of last year’s top eight scorers will be suiting up on opening night. And because Byington knew he still had a young team last season, last year’s true freshmen were able to get a full year of practice and conditioning in before making their debuts this season on what should be the deepest Eagle squad in recent memory.
    “I think that we’ve got better length and athleticism,” Byington said. “That’s very important this season. The Sun Belt was ranked 13th out of 31 conferences last year and could be top-10 this year. A few years ago, we had a veteran team that won with defense. That changed a little the last couple of years, but I think we’re getting back to where we’re a team that is smart and seasoned and will play great defense to go along with scoring.”
    Better still, the fact that much of the team has been a tight-knit group for three years now hasn’t created a fracture with those who have shown up in the last year or two.
    “This team is close,” Byington said. “They’re a family. They learn together and work together. They do just about everything together and the older guys know that we need everyone on this team – younger guys included – to achieve what we want to achieve.”
    The Eagles’ full schedule is set to be released in the coming weeks. Georgia Southern is still working out its non-conference schedule but will begin its 18-game Sun Belt schedule with a road trip to Alabama as it takes on Troy Dec. 29 before traveling to South Alabama for a New Year’s Eve tipoff.
    The conference schedule will be a bit different this season. In the 2016-17 season, the Sun Belt men’s schedule called for Saturday and Monday games. This season, the men will play on Thursdays and Saturdays and will once again be playing tandem doubleheaders with the women’s teams.