The college basketball season is a grind, to say the least. For the next five months, the fall and winter nights will echo with muffled roars escaping from packed gyms as hundreds of teams across the country all compete to be one of the 68 left standing in March’s annual NCAA tournament.
Georgia Southern tips off its 2019-20 campaign tonight with a trip to No. 24 Auburn at 9 p.m. And while the Eagles have plenty of hurdles and goals they want to take on before thinking about March, the fact remains that it has been nearly three decades since the team reached the national tournament.
But — if various preseason polls and publications are to be believed — this year’s squad has as good a chance as any in recent memory to get back to March Madness.
“All of our guys know that it's a long season,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “All of the doubts or accolades at the beginning of the season mean nothing. It's all about what we do once we start this journey.”
Before the season begins, much of the talk is about which Eagles won’t be back this time around.
Tookie Brown was arguably the greatest player in school history. Brown scored more points than any other Eagle in the modern era and was a four-time All-Sun Belt honoree. Also gone is Montae Glenn, who transformed from a lanky underclassman to a dominant inside force over his final two seasons in Statesboro.
“You don’t replace guys like that,” Byington said. “And we’re going to miss them. But every season, you have to adjust and build on the biggest strengths you have.”
While Brown and Glenn are significant departures, the Eagles are looking forward to the return of another all-conference performer.
Ike Smith challenged for Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2016-17, but injuries derailed most of his last two seasons. An ankle sprain limited him throughout his junior season and last year’s campaign was cut short when he went under the knife for back surgery.
Now healthy, Smith is ready for one final run at his senior season, thanks to a medical redshirt.
“He’s as explosive as ever,” Byington said. “We try to keep an eye on him and limit him a bit in practice to save him, but he feels good and he looks good. It’s going to be great to have him back out on the floor.”
Joining Smith in the rotation will be yet another All-Sun Belt performer in guard Quan Jackson. Now a junior, the hard-charging — and even harder defending — perimeter player will see his role increase yet again as he goes from a dependable scorer to one of the veteran leaders of the team.
The Georgia Southern backcourt will be bolstered by senior David Lee Jones Jr. and Calvin Wishart —who figure to handle most of the point guard duties. Elijah McCadden had some shining moments as a true freshman last season and junior college transfer Trevian Lamar could also become a factor.
In the frontcourt, the Eagles will lean heavily on the duo of Simeon Carter and Isaiah Crawley, both of which took turns dazzling the Hanner Fieldhouse crowds with punishing dunks last season. The depth behind them isn’t quite what the guards will enjoy, but smaller lineup might feature redshirt freshman and long-range sharpshooter David Viti.
Viti’s 3-point prowess has been talked about by Eagle fans since his signing two seasons ago. And for a team that struggled with jump shots at times, any help will be welcomed.
“I think people are going to be surprised,” Byington said. “We’re going to be a much better shooting team that what we showed last season.”
That confidence extends throughout the entire offense. With depth and balance, there is seemingly no limit to the different lineups that Byington will feel comfortable putting out on the floor. At least — that is — so long as they’re playing to his design.
“We’re stressing defense and focus on that end of the floor,” Byington said. “I think all of our guys know that we can go on offense and that we have a lot of guys who can score. What we need to be sure of is that we’re taking care of things when we don’t have the ball.”
The Eagles are projected for a solid season, but things won’t come easy. In addition to tonight’s opener against a nationally-ranked Auburn squad, Georgia Southern also faces perennial mid-major powers Florida Gulf Coast and Bradley in non-conference play.
This season will also feature an uptick to 20 games on the Sun Belt schedule. Defending champion Georgia State is once again the favorite to cut down the nets and head to the NCAA tournament, but Georgia Southern and UT Arlington lead a growing group of talented teams fighting to make the Sun Belt more than a one-bid league.