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Georgia Southern Basketball Senior Day closes out regular season
GS seniors
Georgia Southern seniors (from left), Jake Allsmiller, Mike Hughes, Tione Jones, B.J. Gladden, Coye Simmons and Shawn O'Connell play their final home game today. - photo by JONATHAN CHICK/Georgia Southern AMR

 It was a tough sell to say the least.
It had been eight years since the Georgia Southern men's basketball program had a winning season. A majority of the renovations to Hanner Fieldhouse were still in the planning stages. They would join a team with seven seniors, including five projected starters, which meant that they were going to be the wily veterans as sophomores.

For most coaches who take over a program in April and try to build it for the long haul, the recruiting class they bring in the following season is paramount to long-term success. For coach Mark Byington, that class was Jake Allsmiller, Shawn O'Connell, Mike Hughes and Coye Simmons.

They, along with B.J. Gladden, who would join the program as a junior transfer, make up Byington's first true senior class and will be recognized at Saturday's home finale against Troy in Hanner Fieldhouse. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m., but get there early because Senior Day ceremonies will begin at 4:45 p.m.

A first time head coach at a program without much in the way of recent success to point to, Byington and the coaching staff had to paint a vivid picture of what they wanted their program to become.

"One of the quotes I told all those guys when we were recruiting them is a famous Martin Luther King quote, 'Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase,'" said Byington. "I had to get those guys to believe in what we were going to do because there was no proof of what we have already done."

Allsmiller and O'Connell, whose fathers each played college basketball and whose families had strong connections to the game, were the first believers along with Hughes. They all signed in the fall of 2013. Simmons signed on in the spring period with a smidge more to go on.

"I just fell in love with the coaching staff and fell in love with the guys on the team and fell in love with Statesboro as a whole," said Allsmiller. "It felt really comfortable down here."

The 2014-15 campaign went according to plan as the Eagles posted a 22-9 record and advanced to the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in just their first season in the league. When the 2016-17 campaign arrived, just as promised, the group of now sophomores were given the keys to the program.

Getting thrust into leadership roles tends to make one grow up a little faster. Hughes started every game as a freshman and was now the face of the program. It was an opportunity he relished but had to grow into, and his ability to lead has expanded ever since.

"I used to be super shy and super closed off, especially freshman year, just come to practice and go home," said Hughes.

"I had to get out of that coming into my sophomore year. I'm more open, and I hang out and talk to my teammates, talk to my coaches, talk to people around here more. I've been thankful for the journey. It taught me a lot, and I became a better player and a better man."

The growth in maturity this group of seniors has gone through is certainly one of the joys of coaching and has set them up for whatever may come after basketball. It is what college athletics is supposed to be about.

"One of my favorite parts with four-year guys when they come in as freshmen is watching them find their way and grow up and make mistakes but learn along the way to the point now to where they are men," said Byington.

They have recorded three winning seasons in their four years, and their basketball resumes are pretty stout. Though their last games in Hanner Fieldhouse may be this week, the Eagles are looking to have an extended stay at the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans next week. A senior-laden team led them to the Sun Belt championship game when they were rookies — maybe they can return the favor.

"We've grown a lot as individuals and as a team, and I think we're more resilient this year and we know how hard we're going to have to play to accomplish our goals," said O'Connell.

No matter what happens over the next two weeks, this group can take a lot of pride in getting Georgia Southern basketball back on track and that they will leave the program better off than they found it.

"They mean a lot to what we're building here and what we have built here," said Byington. "Those guys have been really good basketball players, really good people, they are all on pace to graduate and they have helped us recruit other players who are coming in and are going to build upon what they have already done."

They also have built some lifelong relationships in the process.

"I'll always think of this team as family," said Hughes. "Everything, we do together. We go down together, we win together so that's the biggest thing to me. It's been a crazy ride, and I wouldn't want to go through it with nobody else."