This time last year Georgia Southern basketball was full of high expectations and dreams of a conference championship. My how things have changed in the past 12 months. Coach Charlton “CY” Young was let go after a disappointing 14-19 season that saw a high of beating Davidson and Charleston back to back and a low of ending the season with 2 losses against Davidson by an average of 31 points. To replace Coach Young the Eagles looked to somebody the SoCon is familiar with and hired former Charleston assistant Mark Byington. Byington, who spent last season as an assistant at Virginia Tech, was the interim coach at Charleston two seasons ago when Coach Cremins had to retire mid season. Due to the change and the lack of good basketball seen in Statesboro in a while, most Georgia Southern fans are torn between 8 conference wins and “don’t have any” when asked what their expectations are for the 2013-2014 season. And it’s for good reason because there are far more questions than answers heading into the season.
The Eagles return one of the best players in the conference this year in Eric Ferguson. Only problem is that he won’t be playing in any games this year. After offseason knee surgery Ferguson is taking a redshirt and preparing to join College of Charleston transfer Trent Weideman to form a frontcourt that could take the SunBelt by storm. But before that happens the Eagles will have one last farewell season in the SoCon and despite starting 4 underclassmen last year GSU will only return 2 starters. Guard CJ Reed (13 ppg, 4 apg) and forward Cam Baskerville (5.5 ppg, 4 rpg) graduated and promising freshman guard Cleon Roberts (8.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg) decided to transfer after Coach Young’s firing. That leaves the Eagles with only 22.7 ppg, 4.2 apg, and 14.3 rpg returning from last year.
The top returning player from last year is senior Tre Bussey (8.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg). Bussey mostly played the role of 6thman his first two years in Statesboro, but started 24 games last year and has close to 100 games of playing experience already. The only other players returning who saw significant minutes are senior guard Brian Holmes (4.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.7 apg), senior forward Marvin Baynham (5.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and junior center Kameron Dunnican (1.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg). I said in my preview last year that Dunnican, who was a 3 star recruit, was going to be a key piece to the 2012-2013 Eagles but for some reason he didn’t see the floor that much despite averaging 2 rpg and being 2nd on the team in blocks in only 10 minutes a game. For a team that struggled with blocking shots and rebounding this was a puzzling move. Eagle fans are hoping Coach Byington gives Dunnican more minutes this year. Baynham is a spark plug who is very good on the offensive boards and gives you everything he’s got night in and night out. Holmes spent most of the year coming off the bench, but was inserted into the starting lineup late in the season and looked very good running the point. Unfortunately he missed the last few games of the season with an ankle injury.
Obviously with only 4 returning players who saw significant minutes from last year’s team the Eagles are going to have a lot of new faces this year. The top new face will be one that Eagle fans will have to wait a year to see. Senior centerTrent Weideman comes to Statesboro after spending three very productive seasons in Charleston and his best two were with Byington on the coaching staff there. He will redshirt this year and have a year of eligibility left for the 2014-2015 season. GSU will get to welcome back a face that isn’t new to the team but was sorely missed last year. Junior guard Jelani Hewitt (10.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg in 2011-2012) returns to the lineup this year after being forced to sit out the 2012-2013 season due to academics. There aren’t many certainties about this years Eagles, but one of them is that Jelani Hewitt will be in the starting lineup and it’s expected that a lot of the offense will be expected to come from Hewitt.
Coach Byington didn’t have long to recruit, but he did go out and sign two JUCO’s and two high school seniors. 6’3 junior guard Curtis Diamond and 6’4 junior forward Angel Matias join the Eagles from the JUCO ranks while guard Torlorf Thomas and forward Kyle Doyle join the Eagles as freshmen. Coach Byington will look to Diamond, a 40% three point shooter last year, for some outside shooting while Matias could fill the small forward roll. GSU may have got one of the best late signees in the state of Georgia in Doyle who will most likely play the power forward position for the Eagles. The crown jewel of the class is thought to be Thomas though. He was considered to be a 3 star by multiple recruiting services and has a chance to start at the point guard position right away.
The out of conference schedule is set up with both winnable games at home and some challenges on the road. The highlight of the home slate is Kennesaw State coming to Hanner, while the Eagles have to go on the road to face tough opponents in Miami, West Virginia, and Georgia State. I think the Eagles get a break with the SoCon doing away with the early season conference games and also giving GSU their first three conference games at home. For a team that is going to need some time to come together this is a welcome site.
Best case/worst case
I think the best case scenario for Georgia Southern this year is finishing a couple games over .500 and winning a conference tournament game. With a new coaching staff and so many new faces it’s going to be tough to be a team that competes for the SoCon crown in the Eagles’ final season. On the flip side though, the worst case scenario is that a lot of teams send Georgia Southern out with lopsided wins. And that’s something that’s very possible. This team’s ceiling isn’t very high while the floor is potentially very low.
Most Georgia Southern fans are looking forward to seeing what Coach Byington has in store for the 2013-2014 season. While there aren’t many expectations as far as wins and losses most fans want to see the Eagles play an up tempo style of basketball on offense after watching an offense that averaged around 60 ppg the last 3 years. Fans are also hoping to see a more disciplined team on both the offensive and defensive end after seeing the Eagles struggle to do the little things that it takes to win basketball games in the SoCon over the past 3 years. If the team shows improvement from the first game to the last game then fans will be very happy with Coach Byington after his first season.
I honestly have no clue how this season is going to go for the Eagles. The two best players on the roster will be redshirting this year and the best player on the floor hasn’t played a game in 2 years. Most likely all 4 signess will see major minutes this year and outside of Dunnican at 6’8 nobody on the roster is over 6’7. Coach Byington is going to have to rely on Hewitt and Bussey to provide a lot of scoring from the guard position early in the season and hope that Dunnican and Baynham can polish their games as the season goes on and be an offensive threat come conference play. I think a safe prediction would be that the Eagles will flirt with a .500 record in conference play most of the year but finish a couple games below .500.