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Eagles prep for Sun Belt road trip
GS Basketball
Georgia Southern's David-Lee Jones, Jr. celebrates as the clock runs out on the Eagles' win over Texas State on Jan. 20 at Hanner Fieldhouse. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT

Just as the new year begins, it’s time for the Georgia Southern men’s basketball team to ramp up the intensity.

With the Sun Belt adding a pair of conference games to this season’s slate, the Eagles began league play two weeks ago. It was a good start as Georgia Southern swept a pair of home games from Texas State and UT Arlington - each by three points - and now the Eagles (8-5, 2-0 Sun Belt) will see if they can keep up the good work on the road with a game at Coastal Carolina tonight, followed by a road tilt at Appalachian State on Saturday and a long trip to Little Rock scheduled for Monday.

“There’s no doubt about it. This will be one of our toughest road trips of the season,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “Not only are we playing three games in five days, but they’re all on the road. We had a similar situation a couple of weeks ago, but that was two home games and a short bus ride. This stretch with all the travel will really test us.”

If there’s a silver lining to the scheduling, it’s that the rest of the Eagles’ daily schedule is pretty open. While the conference’s scheduling will force all of its teams to face a similar crowded schedule at one point or another, the Eagles are able to have theirs while winter break is still in effect and players don’t have the normal strain of classes and studies combined with the flux of important games.

Through the first two months of the season, it seems that how games and schedules fall on the calendar could be just as important as how each team performs on any given night. While the Sun Belt continues to be projected as a one-bid league as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, the non-conference slate has proven that there are more than the usual two or three teams that will be in the hunt to claim the league’s bid to the national tournament.

“This conference continues to get better and better,” Byington said. “When I looked at things in the summer, I knew there were three or four teams - us included - that could win this conference. Now it looks like there are six, seven, maybe eight teams that can really contend.”

The glut of teams having big seasons looks as though it will combine with the expanded conference schedule to make the Sun Belt standings a spectacle - ready to flip at a moment’s notice - over the next two months.

“It’s a long season and we can only approach it one game at a time,” Byington said. “But we know every game is big. Last season, we were a game away from being the top seed. Winning another game at any point in the year would have made a big difference. So that’s how we need to look at it now. Every win and loss is going to be big when we get to the end of the season.”

The expanded conference schedule gives Georgia Southern more time to prove itself against its peers, but has also cut into the non-conference schedule. That's usually the time when teams figure out rotations and build depth while getting younger guys experience in case they need to be called on in big spots as the season progresses.

The Eagles spent most of the summer and the preseason practices and scrimmages looking forward to running out a very deep team that could count on 10 or 11 players on any given night.

But the injury bug has had other ideas.

Ike Smith - who missed most of last season due to back surgery - has looked like his old self, but the Eagles have seen other key contributors such as Simeon Carter, Calvin Wishart and Isaiah Crawley all sit out multiple games.

The Eagles aren't quite as developed as they had hoped to be at this point in the season, but the good news is that they enter this weekend's road trip as healthy as they have been all season.

"We were able to practice with 12 scholarship players the other day," Byington said. "We've had a lot of practices where we only had six or seven scholarship guys going.

"Considering what we were going through, I think we did well in our non-conference schedule. But we can still grow into a better team. We have a long way to go to get where I expect us to be."