For a third consecutive season, the Georgia Southern men’s basketball enters play with expectations that differ drastically from the previous season.
In the fall of 2014, the Eagles were set to begin play in the Sun Belt for the first time as head coach Mark Byington was in his second year of rebuilding a struggling program. Not much was expected of Georgia Southern as it stepped into a more competitive league, but the Eagles surprised everyone, going 22-9 and coming within two points of advancing to the NCAA tournament.
Last season, almost every major contributor from the 2014-15 team was gone. Armed with a slew of freshmen and sophomores that were thrown into the fire from opening night, the Eagles were expected to take a big step back. The wins did decrease, but after some early growing pains, Georgia Southern blossomed into one of the more dangerous teams in the Sun Belt and again exceeded expectations.
That brings the Eagles to tonight when they’ll tip off the 2016-17 campaign against N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C. Last year’s youth movement is now an experienced core that returns nearly everyone. The Sun Belt has taken notice and picked the Eagles to finish fourth in the preseason poll, but Georgia Southern has even bigger things in mind.
“Two years ago, we were within an inch,” Byington said. “Last year, I think we surprised some people, as well as ourselves. This year, we think we can do it. We feel like we’re one of the upper echelon teams in the conference. The exciting thing is that we’re at this point, but we still aren’t near the team that I think we can be.”
Leading the way for the Eagles will be one of the Sun Belt’s top back courts.
Junior guard Mike Hughes was named to the second team of the preseason All-Sun Belt squad after a sophomore season that saw him average 14.9 points per contest. Getting it done on both ends of the floor, Hughes also led the league in steals and was named the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year by HoopsHD.com.
Sophomore guard Tookie Brown is on the first team of the preseason list after winning the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last season. Brown led the Eagles with 17.8 points per game and also dished out 3.4 assists per game.
“I’m normally a quiet guy,” Brown said. “This year, I’m trying to be more vocal and leading guys on the court. If we communicate and have good chemistry, we can be a good team.”
Adding to the scoring threat will be hard-charging Ike Smith, and juniors Devonte Boykins and Jake Allsmiller.
Down low, the Eagles figure to have much more depth this time around.
Shawn O’Connell, Montae Glenn and Coye Simmons were all in the front court rotation last season, but injuries and an attempt to ease the young group into action caused their production to stay low until later in the spring. All three return healthier and seasoned this fall and the addition of 6-foot-6, 210-pound Eastern Florida transfer B.J. Gladden will add another option if the Eagles opt to put more size on the floor
“We do play with a lot of guards, but we have options. We can put Ike at the 3 and O’Connell at the 4 for a bigger lineup and we have more depth with our forwards,” Byington said. “I feel good about all of our positions. We’re comfortable playing nine or 10 guys that we’ll trust to play our style of game.”
The Eagles are expecting big things from themselves, but the early portion of the schedule will force them to get their wins away from the friendly confines of Hanner Fieldhouse. Ten of the Eagles’ first 12 games will be played on the road, including tonight’s visit to N.C. State, a trip to Minnesota and road dates against mid-major conference powers in Florida Gulf Coast and Winthrop.
“We’re going to get tested and see what kind of team we have and how we respond to tough road games,” Byington said. “I’m not excited about not playing a lot of games at Hanner, but I am excited about playing a lot of games in Georgia. We have games at Savannah State and Mercer and a tournament in Savannah. That’s going to give our fans more opportunities to see this team play.”
The first chance to see the Eagles in action on their home court comes Monday as Georgia Southern welcomes Coastal Georgia. The Eagles will begin their Sun Belt schedule against rival Georgia State on New Year’s Eve.