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Eagles face tough tourney field in Iowa
GSU to play Northern Illinois Friday at Drake University
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Georgia Southern’s Louis Graham looks to score over Illinois’ Trent Meacham in Champagne, Ill. The Eagles have won three straight since dropping the game to the Fighting Illini on Nov. 17 and Graham is scoring 11 points, bringing in nine rebounds and blocking two shots per game. - photo by Associated Press
    If Jeff Price had his druthers, he probably wouldn’t play seven of his first eight games on the road. But ideal or not, the Georgia Southern men’s basketball team is making the best of it.
    “We have difficulty getting home games, so this is what we have to do,” said the coach, whose team faces Northern Illinois at 6 p.m. tonight in the opening round of the Drake Regency Challenge in Des Moines, Iowa. “It helps prepare us. I think it’s why we had the best road record in the league last year — because we played a lot of road games. We are hoping again that these games will help us play better on the road when we get in the conference. We are definitely ready to come home.”
    The Eagles (4-2), winners of three straight, will be up against a Huskies (3-2) team that has dropped its last two games, most recently a 71-48 home loss to Illinois-Chicago. Northern Illinois likes to pound the ball inside and relies heavily on 6-foot-11 senior center James Hughes, who leads the nation with a 68.2 shooting percentage. Hughes is also NIU’s leading scorer (14.6 points per game) and rebounder (7.4 rpg).
    The Eagles will try to counteract the inside-oriented Huskies with speed and a fast tempo.
    “We need to get up and down the floor and find a way to control him,” Price said. “He’s the guy they want to go to. But they also have a really good shooter and have weapons both inside and out. They post up their guards a lot, so I think it will be a very physical game. They won the West division of the MAC last year, so we know they are a very good program.”
    NIU is converting a Mid-America Conference-best 53.1 percent from the floor, while Georgia Southern leads the Southern Conference in field-goal percentage defense at 37.0 percent (23rd in Division I). The Eagles have held their last three opponents to 31.6 percent from the floor.
    Though GSU has been playing well defensively, the Eagles have uncharacteristically struggled on offense, averaging 67.3 points per game. Junior Louis Graham said the Eagles aren’t panicking as they look to improve offensively.
    “You just have to let it come to you — you can’t rush it,” Graham said. “Basketball is a game of runs. You have to go with the flow and play defense. Defense turns into offense sooner or later, so right now we are just playing defense and keeping it rolling. This tournament is really going to test us to see how well we play together and how our cohesion is on the court.”
    The Eagles will meet either host Drake of the Missouri Valley Conference or Troy from the Sunbelt in the second round of the tournament Saturday.
    “It’s a really solid mid-major tournament,” Price said. “It’s really our first true mid-major game. We’ve played a couple low-majors and a couple high-majors, so this tournament is going to give us a pretty good idea where are.”
    The Eagles haven’t played since a 59-49 win at Winston-Salem State Saturday. They practiced all week but were limited to an hour a day because of final exams. After wrapping up their school obligations in the afternoon, the Eagles flew to Iowa late Thursday night and will have to make a quick turnaround for tonight’s game.
    “This tournament is going to be a great opportunity to help us prepare for our conference,” junior Dwayne Foreman said. “Northern Illinois has length at all positions, and all their guards are big and are going to be physical with us.”
    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.