Georgia Southern is preparing for the long haul of the Southern Conference schedule, and things haven’t gone according to plan.
The Eagles are just 4-11 with only one Division I win — a 74-72, overtime victory over Georgia State — but not all the news is bad as the Eagles have found a little bit of depth.
One player that didn’t figure heavily into the preseason plans is Zuri James, a sophomore walkon playing his first season of Division I basketball. He tried out for the second-straight year and this time, he stuck.
“He worked and got better, hung around and worked at it, and I decided to keep him on this year,” said second-year GSU coach Charlton Young. “Thank goodness. He’s a special kid.”
James didn’t contribute much in the early going. The 6-foot-2 guard averages just 3.5 points per game, but over the past week, he’s made a statement. In the 88-84, overtime loss to Auburn Dec. 29, James had a breakout game, scoring 18 points including 4 of 8 attempts from behind the 3-point arc. He then got his first-career start in the next game against Eastern Kentucky — a Jan. 2 loss in Hanner Fieldhouse — in which he was on the floor for 35 minutes and scored 13 points.
“He earned it,” saidYoung about James’ first start. “He worked his way from the bottom to the top. I really rode him hard, told him he was a rec player, and he looked me in the eye and it was, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ All of a sudden, boom, he’s a player.”
Though only a sophomore in his first year of basketball, James brings some much-needed maturity to a team that has only one senior.
“It’s not just him making shots,” Young said. “He’s very intelligent, and he brings so much maturity to the locker room. We’ve got Jelani Hewitt and Eric Ferguson and Tre Bussey and Sam Mike, and they’re kids. I was talking to Jelani and he said, ‘Coach, in high school, we’d be back in school. I can’t believe we’re not in school.’ You forget they’re that young.”
The youth has played a factor in the team’s inconsistency. The Eagles trailed by 27 at the half in the Auburn loss and by 16 in the six-point game against EKU.
“We allow one game to effect the next one,” said Young. “It’s as hard to get over a big win as it is to get over a big loss. Beating Georgia State was huge for us. We got very giddy and started feeling good about ourselves. Through the first 20 minutes of the next game, which was Auburn, we had a lack of focus.”
And then there was the 38-21 halftime deficit against the Colonials.
“We walk into that game moping about the loss we had against Auburn,” said Young. “It’s a young team trying to find itself and learn how to handle success and learn how to handle failure.”
Today, the Eagles resume SoCon play against Western Carolina (4-10, 0-2 SoCon), which has seen similar struggles to the Eagles. The Catamounts have played 11 of their 14 games on the road, claiming wins at William and Mary and DePaul.
They are riding a six-game losing streak into today’s game, including conference losses at Samford and Chattanooga.
The Eagles have dropped four of their last five.
Tipoff for today’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.