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GSU men's basketball starting from scratch

    This report is part four of a six-part series about the state of Georgia Southern Athletics, running Wednesdays throughout the summer. Part four takes a general look at Georgia Southern men’s basketball, head coach Charlton Young, and the direction of a program that has nowhere to go but up.

    When Charlton Young left after his senior year as a Georgia Southern guard in 1993, the Eagles had gone from being the bully on the block in the Trans America Athletic Conference to the newcomers in the Southern Conference with a chip on their shoulder.
    They brought with them three NCAA tournament appearances and two trips to the NIT in a nine-year span and were a Division-I program on the rise.
    While Young was gone, the program had some seasons that, at their best, could be described as respectable. The Eagles won 20 or more games three times under Jeff Price and made a postseason appearance in the 2006 NIT, making a quick exit after a 77-61 loss to Charlotte in the first round.
    That was the beginning of the end of the Price area, as the NCAA discovered over the following years academic violations by two of Price’s assistants and two players which caused suspensions, probation and loss of scholarships. It also negated the 20-win season of 2007-2008, as the Eagles had to vacate wins due to the violations. It was the second time the NCAA investigated Georgia Southern men’s basketball in as many decades.
    The program is still suffering the penalties, so needless to say, when Young returned in 2009 as the new head coach, the program was a shadow of what he remembered. 
    “There’s no question we were starting off from ground zero,” said Young, who inherited a team with an 8-22 record and didn’t fare much better in his first season, though he doesn’t make excuses. “But we were 9-23 last year.”
    It was a quick fall from where the program was in the middle of the decade.
    “We’re not that far removed from 20-win seasons. We had probably one of the darkest moments in my career with the infraction a few years ago,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker. “To this day it still leaves me feeling sick to my stomach that anybody would feel they needed to do something improper to run a program.”
    So where does that leave GSU?
    “Are we going to win a national championship in men’s basketball? I don’t think so. But can we win the Southern Conference at some point and have a run like (Davidson’s 2008 Elite Eight appearance) to bring excitement? I really believe we can do that, but at the same time, I want to win, and I want to win in the right way. We don’t need to do anything outside the norm in any of our programs,” Baker said of the violations. “That’s not winning. That’s not winning in the right fashion. That was a dark day, a dark year for us. I’m glad that’s behind us other than living with the penalties and what we have to address, but at least we’ve got this thing going and now that that’s behind us it’s like a breath of fresh air.”
    The most exciting news has come in the form of five new recruits — players that Baker and Young feel have the potential to turn around a program which has won only 17 games over the past two seasons.
    “The group we have here now is very talented, and they’re guys that could’ve played anywhere in the country,” said Young. “They chose ‘The’ Georgia Southern University over the Auburns and the East Carolinas and the UABs, and I think that speaks volumes about where we’re headed and what we have to offer here as a university.
    “If they work, if they’re focused and they don’t get off track, they got a chance to be the winningest class to ever come through here. I was a big-time recruit for Georgia Southern. So was Jeff Sanders. So was Mike Curry. But I don’t think there’s been a better group of guys at one time entering the program ever at Georgia Southern from a basketball standpoint. Whether or not that pans out — they’ve got to dedicate themselves and not get caught up in the hype.”
    The team has a long way to go in a league that has been up for grabs since Georgia Southern joined the SoCon in 1992. Eight different teams have won a tournament title in the span while the Eagles have never made it past the SoCon semifinals.
    Baker’s main goal is to see GSU become competitive in the SoCon again, and he doesn’t feel GSU should compare with high-major programs which use men’s basketball as one of the primary sources of revenue.
    “If we start worrying about, ‘Well, we’ve got to reach this number of wins in our basketball program,’ well one time I sat down and did the math on our arena,” Baker said. “We seat 3,900 right now with some of the seats we’ve lost with the renovation to the upper level. If we split it in half and sold half the seats in the arena, one time I figured out that we could generate like $70,000. Well, that would be great, but that is not of the same nature that Kentucky is selling $2 million or $3 million worth in tickets. It’s not like the pressure is that we’ve got to generate money in the men’s basketball program to feel like we’re doing a good job.”  
    Baker feels the success of the program should be measured as much on the performance in the classroom as it is on the hardwood.
    “Coach Young wants to build his program on solid ground. It’s going to take time,” he said. “I haven’t got a timetable in my mind that he’s got to win 20 games or be in the Elite Eight on X day. I want him to work hard with our student athletes and have a good product on the floor with young men that want to graduate just like he did and Michael Curry did.”
    As for Young’s expectations:     “I don’t know what a reasonable timeframe is for us, because we want to win it right now, and we want to coach and recruit to win it right now,” he said. “As a rule of thumb in coaching, usually it’s year four or year five where you should have it up and going, and if you don’t, people aren’t going to be very happy. We’re trying to get it done as soon as possible, and we’re not affected by expectations because we put the highest of expectations on ourselves.”
    Young feels the SoCon has gotten more prestigious with its level of coaching and recruiting over the years, and hopes to join the other member schools in increasing the leagues’ national exposure.
    “I think right now the Missouri Valley and the MAC are probably two of the top mid-major conferences,” he said. “Some would argue that the Big West, some would argue that the Mid-American Conference — some would argue that those two conferences are right there, but I think with (Charleston coach Bobby) Cremins and (Davidson coach Bob) McKillop in our conference, it gives us a lot of credibility with who our league has started to recruit. I think eventually in the next couple of years, you’ll see the Southern Conference become a two-bid league.”

    Over the next two weeks, we will take a look at and evaluate the final two sports through which GSU competes in the SoCon and take a look at the goals and expectations as the 2010-11 athletics season approaches. Part five will run next Wednesday and focus on GSU baseball and head coach Rodney Hennon.

    Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.

My Conclusion
    While the Eagles have won a share of three regular-season titles, other Southern Conference programs have gone on a roller-coaster ride from the top to the bottom and eight ­— Wofford, Chattanooga, Davidson, East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro, College of Charleston, Appalachian State and Western Carolina — have won the tournament since GSU joined the league.
    Each time Georgia Southern has appeared to have been on the rise during the last two decades, the NCAA has investigated violations. The program will be on probation until January 19, 2012.
    Of course, that hasn’t stopped Charlton Young from coming in and recruiting the best players he can get for the program, and, on paper, the team could improve in a hurry.
    Potential can be hyped-up, talked about and anticipated, but unfortunately, potential only reflects positively on events that haven’t happened yet. Young has proven to be one of the nation’s best recruiters for programs up and down the east coast, at major programs and mid-major programs alike, and he showed his share of in-game coaching chops last season. But the only body of work that can be graded is what GSU has done in the SoCon until this point.
    The facts are that the Eagles haven’t competed for a SoCon tournament title or the league’s March Madness bid and historically have a losing record in league play. They’re on probation, have shifted from the middle of the SoCon pack to the bottom, and are coming off a nine-win season is which they won only once on the road.
    A year from now, things could be entirely different. A swift turnaround for the Eagles is a distinct possibility, and Charlton Young has shown every sign of being the man for the job.  
Overall grade for GSU men’s basketball: D+