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Senior backcourt powers Eagles

    After compiling a 14-50 record in two seasons as Georgia Southern’s men’s basketball coach, Charlton Young expects his third season to be the program’s turning point.
    GSU begins its season at 7:30 tonight against Valparaiso at Hanner Fieldhouse.
    The Eagles finished 5-27 overall and 1-17 in the Southern Conference last season. GSU played without All-SoCon point guard Willie Powers, who missed the season because of a knee injury.
    Powers (14.7 points per game, 5.5 assists per game) returns for his senior season along with senior guard Ben Drayton III (15.8 ppg., 4.6 apg.) to form one of the SoCon’s most promising backcourts.
    “Wow, what a difference it makes to have two seniors in the backcourt,” Young said. “We have our star point guard, Willie Powers, back. Ben Drayton, who had a great junior year, really carried the mail for us last year, has really developed into a great Southern Conference player.
    “I feel comfortable with playing with basically two point guards, which gives us good decision-making in two senior point guards who have veteran leadership. That’s the biggest thing coming out of this preseason.”
    During preseason exhibitions, GSU defeated Voorhees, 97-66, and beat Paine College, 97-76. The Eagles had eight turnovers against Voorhees and committed 12 miscues against Paine, a sign of progress to Young.
    “We had 97 points and eight turnovers. That’s foreign territory for us,” Young said. “We used to turn the ball over eight times per minute last season. Just having Willie, and being back together in our first exhibition, you can see what a difference they make in our team.
    “The biggest thing I’ve seen in practice is we get so many open shots that we never used to get. And a lot of it is because Ben Drayton’s decision-making has improved, and he’s a senior now. And then a lot of it is Willie Powers. You know, that’s just his game. He likes getting other people shots. He engineers so much offense, and it’s just a tremendous difference from last year when it was such a struggle.
    “I don’t think we shot the ball well because it was such a struggle to get an open shot. We didn’t really have people who understood the game enough to get people open shots, consistently. So eight turnovers and 97 points in our first exhibition game is a huge difference in where we’ve been 365 days before this.”
    GSU, which returns four starters, was picked to finish third in the South Division behind Davidson and College of Charleston in the SoCon preseason poll. Chattanooga was picked first in the North Division.
    Joining Powers and Drayton are sophomores Eric Ferguson and Jelani Hewitt. Ferguson, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound former Statesboro High School player, has moved from guard to forward. He averaged 12 points and 5.6 rebounds last season. Hewitt started 29 of the 32 games in which he played last season, and averaged nine points per game.
    “Our freshmen group are now sophomores who were thrown into the crock pot so to speak last year and got a whole lot of cooperative education,” Young said. “They are much improved. We go from being probably the youngest team in the United States of America to one of the more older, savvy teams in our conference. It’s a good feeling. It’s a good thing to see that natural maturation.”
    GSU must replace Rory Spencer, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward who was a senior last season. He averaged 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
    Big non-conference road games include Wake Forest (Nov. 16), South Florida (Nov. 23) and Auburn (Dec. 30).
    The SoCon Tournament will be March 2-5 in Asheville, N.C.
    “I’ve learned a lot, taking over a new program,” Young said. “The first year, I came in and I had to teach not only every single player that was in the program but also all the assistants and the trainer and the SID (sports information director) and everybody else involved on how we wanted to do things. And that’s a lot. Everybody is learning a whole new system, and it’s difficult. It’s very difficult.
    “The second year, we basically were teaching an entire new team because we had six new freshmen that were going to play a substantial amount of minutes. Our staff was comfortable with what we were doing and felt good about it, but we still had a bunch of new people. And then our key ingredient (Powers) went down before practice ever started.”
    Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.