Georgia Southern men’s basketball is finally at the end of its non-conference schedule. They finished November and December with a respectable 9-4 record (7-4 vs. DI) with wins over Wake Forest, George Mason, and Cal State Bakersfield on their resume. The Eagles start their Sun Belt slate Friday night at Troy and Sunday afternoon at South Alabama. Both games will be on ESPN3. It will be the end of a six-game road trip and expectations are at an all-time high.
Real Time RPI has the Eagles projected to go 23-6 in the regular season. Their RPI currently is 98, it was higher but the 79-59 loss to ETSU at the end of a long road trip. College Insider has Georgia Southern ranked 19th in their latest mid-major poll. Conference mates UT-Arlington is ranked 8th and UL-Lafayette is 11th in the same poll.
GS basketball got entangled in that Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport freak power outage on December 17, flying back from Bakersfield. The Eagles basketball team had to be rerouted through Dallas, then split up, flown to separate airports, and then they had to shuttle to Kennesaw. The basketball version of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles.
They ended up still beating Kennesaw State 78-69, but you can forgive them if they were a little flat for the ETSU game in Johnson City. Despite the setback, this is the best Eagles basketball team since at least 2006, possibly since 1992. Eagles basketball fans know the significance of those years. ’06 was Georgia Southern’s last NIT trip, ’92 was its last trip to the Big Dance. A return is well past due.
One of my favorite twitter accounts is @SouthernStats and they’ve done an excellent job providing Eagle Nation with good friggin’ information about Georgia Southern basketball and other things.
This is significant. Georgia Southern ranked 311th in offensive rebounds, 327th in defensive rebounds, and 329th in total rebounds last season. To jump 300 spots in one offseason, with virtually the same core groups as last year is remarkable. It is a testament to how great Mark Byington is at coaching basketball. He pinpointed a weakness, worked at it, and the results are bearing fruit.
This team is experienced, battle-tested, and deep. The Eagles take care of the ball as evidenced by the stats above. Guards Tookie Brown and Ike Smith get the headlines, but their supporting cast has stepped up in a big way. Seniors Mike Hughes and Jake Allsmiller are averaging double-figures. F/C Montae Glenn is 6th in the country in offensive rebounds per game. They are balanced, deep, and unafraid.
Despite the unexpected departure of Jared Hamilton and a lingering ankle injury to Ike Smith, guys like Quan Jackson, David-Lee Jones, and BJ Gladden have stepped up and contributed significant minutes. There is a legitimate 10-man rotation on this team and a balanced group of skill sets. While they do not have a player above 6’8″ on the active roster, their bigs: Glenn, Simmons, O’Connell, and Gladden, are tenacious on the boards. Glenn is averaging just a shade under a double-double.
Competition for the Conference Crown
If the Eagles are going to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a quarter-century, they are going to have to win the conference. The Sun Belt very seldom gets two bids from the selection committee (this is my argument for letting New Mexico State in, but that’s another discussion). The top two finishers in the regular season get automatic byes into the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Georgia Southern getting one of those two bids is their top priority now. Conference tournaments are weird and freaky. I will never forget the 2006 Southern Conference tournament when Georgia Southern was the #1 seed. A group of friends and I already had our bags packed, we planned on going to stay the weekend in lovely Charleston, SC. Before we could even pull out of the parking lot, the Eagles had lost to #8 seed App State in the early Friday game. Our weekend plans and NCAA tournament hopes that year disappeared like a fart in the wind.
I like that the Sun Belt reduces any chance of shenanigans happening by putting its best two teams into the semifinals. It is in a conference’s best interest to have its best teams in the postseason. If you look at what Little Rock and Georgia State were able to do during their trips in recent years, then it is easy to understand why. The money and exposure you get from winning just one game in the Big Dance mean the world to these programs.
Who does Georgia Southern have to beat to get to the promised land? It’s the usual suspects:
UT-Arlington – January 27 in Statesboro, February 22 in Arlington – ranked 8th in the College Insider mid-major poll, another senior led team. Led by frontcourt monsters 6’7″ Kevin Hervey (24 ppg, 9 rpg) and 7’0″ Johnny Hamilton (12 ppg, 8 rpg) and guards Erick Neal (9 apg) and Kaelon Wilson.
Georgia State – January 20 in Atlanta, February 16 in Statesboro – eternal nemesis, good at defense: 29th ppg, 34th in FG%, 33rd in forced turnovers. Led by dynamic backcourt of D’Marcus Simonds, Devin Mitchell, Malik Benlevi.
Louisiana-Lafayette – February 10 in Statesboro – ranked 11th in College Insider mid-major poll, lead by Effingham County product 6’8″ Jakeenan Gant (16 ppg, 7 rpg), only have to play the Cajuns once, in Statesboro, during the regular season.