Both the Georgia Southern men’s and women’s basketball teams are scheduled to wrap up their respective regular seasons Saturwday afternoon. And for the first time in a while, it’s not a stretch for Eagle fans to expect that both squads have more than one postseason game awaiting them next week.
The teams entered the season with differing goals, but both have mostly met them as they have grown over the last few months. The men’s team held its own with the nation’s youngest roster during the 2015-16 season. Still young, the Eagles were picked to finish sixth out of 12 teams in the preseason Sun Belt poll, but enter Saturday with a chance to finish as high as second. A win - or just a little outside help - will guarantee a top-4 finish, which comes with a bye through the first round of next week’s conference tournament in New Orleans.
For the Georgia Southern women, making noise during regular season play was hoped for, but far from expected. The ladies’ first two runs through the Sun Belt resulted in a combined record of 6-34 and - due to the conference tournament’s setup in those years - no postseason appearances. Fears may have started to creep in when the Eagles dropped their first three Sun Belt games - all at home. Following the third loss, head coach Kip Drown said that he knew his team was capable of playing much better.
And since then, they’ve been showing it.
Since that third home loss to Troy on Jan. 7, the Eagles have gone 9-5 in conference play. The wins have seen stellar play by veteran players Angel McGowan and Patrice Butler while underclassmen such as Alexis Brown, Alexis Foulks and Nicole Franks have turned the Eagles into a well-rounded squad that can threaten even the top teams in the league.
But the Sun Belt is almost guaranteed to send only its conference tournament champion to the NCAA tournament. So for either Georgia Southern team to keep its season alive through next week, there is plenty more work to be done and some problems that must be addressed just as the lights are about to shine brightest.
As far as the women’s team is concerned, a run through the tournament is all about taking the next step sooner than expected. The Eagles are right where they wanted to be, making a clear leap past the lowest tier of Sun Belt teams while putting forth more consistent efforts. The difficulty in the postseason comes from the fact that GS is still far from the most talented team in the league. Little Rock has lost just once in league play while Troy and UT Arlington have also been forces.
The Georgia Southern ladies have already locked up the sixth seed and will face the No. 11 seed on Tuesday night. A win would be the Eagles’ first postseason victory since a 2013 win in the Southern Conference tournament and would send them into a Thursday night matchup with the No. 3 seed (currently UT Arlington).
While a tournament championship is highly unlikely for the women’s team, the same can’t be said of the Georgia Southern men.
The Eagles have dropped out of the running for the regular season title with losses to UT Arlington and Little Rock over the last two weeks, but they have also shown the ability to compete with any team in the conference and - when hitting their shots - outscore just about anyone.
Georgia Southern has been consistent, but that hasn’t always spelled good news.
The Eagles have pushed their way to the top third of the standings by riding a 3-point shooting efficiency (2nd in Sun Belt) that is nicely complimented by their 3-point defensive efficiency (3rd place). The high ranks in both of those categories, combined with a +1.67 turnover margin mean more possessions per game and more points per possession for Georgia Southern.
But a handful of games have swung in the wrong direction for the Eagles without the clock moving as a shaky 66.8 team free throw percentage has allowed opponents to stay in games even when the Eagles’ field goal attempts are hitting.
Also concerning is the up-and-down nature of most games. While the Eagles’ game-to-game numbers have been mostly consistent, there are often huge disparities in the team’s effectiveness within the course of each game. And for a couple of games that Georgia Southern has salvaged with a late hot spurt, there have been others - including the last two losses - that can be placed on the shoulders of a cold streak in the closing minutes.
In most games, the Eagles look great for anywhere from 15-30 minutes of the contest. The issues is that games are 40 minutes long. It’s encouraging that the Eagles’ hot streaks are enough to overcome the low points, but a more complete effort will be necessary to earn the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992.
But these trends and strengths and weaknesses are only variables in the totally unpredictable environment that is the NCAA basketball postseason. The only strategy that ever seems to work is for a team to play its best and maybe catch a break or two along the way.
They don’t call it ‘March Madness’ for nothing.