STATESBORO — The time is now for Georgia Southern men’s basketball seniors Jake Allsmiller and Mike Hughes.
Allsmiller and Hughes were the protégés when head coach Mark Byington had five seniors on the 2014-15 team that finished 22-9 and came just three points shy of a Sun Belt Conference title and NCAA Tournament berth.
Their roles haven’t really changed. They’ve been the Eagles’ most experienced players the last two seasons. But now there’s no longer a next season for either of them, and that’s why they’re pushing the players under them a little bit harder.
“There’s a sense of urgency now,” Allsmiller said. “Trying to get the guys in the right mindset, trying to get them to be more defensive-oriented and physical when it comes to rebounding.”
This year’s team is the culmination of a plan Byington set in motion after the 2014-15 season. Two years ago, he had one of the youngest teams in America. Now he has one of the Sun Belt’s most experienced. Allsmiller and Hughes will be entering their third season playing alongside juniors Tookie Brown, Ike Smith and Montae Glenn.
“We’ve finally got continuity,” Byington said. “A couple of years ago when we had a good run and we had an older group, we decided to build it from the ground floor all the way up. So we infused a bunch of young players who could play right away. Now it comes full circle. (Hughes and Allsmiller) are seniors, and they’ve played a lot of minutes, and Tookie and Ike have already done special things since they’ve been here.”
Smith led the team in scoring last season at 19.6 points per game, followed closely by Brown at 17.1 ppg.
But as much as the pieces seem to be in place for Georgia Southern this season, the Eagles aren’t the only team in the Sun Belt riding on experience. League tournament champion Troy returns four of its top six scorers from last season, and preseason favorite and last year’s regular-season champion Texas-Arlington returns three of its top five.
“UT-Arlington was the best team in our league last year, and they’ve got almost their whole team back. Eleven of the 15 all-conference players are back, so the league is going to be a top-10 league this year,” Byington said. “UT-Arlington already blew out Oklahoma in an exhibition game. Georgia State handled Georgia Tech pretty easily. Our league is a beast.”
The Eagles have been picked to finish fourth in the SBC preseason coaches’ poll behind UTA, Arkansas-Little Rock and Georgia State.
Georgia Southern will get plenty of tests before its Sun Belt slate, starting today with a road game at Wake Forest with tip-off set for 7:30 p.m. in Winston Salem, N.C.
The Eagles will also face mid-major Missouri State in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Florida and play at Bradley, while getting a home-and-home series against Cal State Bakersfield, which lost in the NIT semifinals last season.
“It got a lot tougher than I wanted, but we feel like we’re going to have a good team, I want to challenge them,” Byington said. “We’re going to tough places, and we’re going to figure out who we are, and by the time we get to Sun Belt play, we should be battled-tested.”
Georgia Southern has made first-round exits in the Sun Belt tournament the past two seasons in New Orleans, running into a buzz saw in Troy in March. Hughes battled a bone bruise through most of the season, however, and the Eagles missed his ability to rebound as a guard and make clutch shots. Now that he’s healthy, the Eagles are hoping he can them get over the Sun Belt tournament hump.
“It’s huge,” Allsmiller said. “Mike during the offseason wanted to just get healthy. Ever since he got his knee right, he’s just a totally different player. He’s back to his sophomore year.”
“He’s a big key to this team,” added Brown. “He can make tough shots under pressure. He’s just one of those players every team needs.”
The challenge as always will be playing well at the right time. The Sun Belt keeps getting tougher, but only the tournament champion will likely get into the NCAA Tournament.
Allmsiller and Hughes still know what it takes to get to the SBC championship game, and Byington said their sense urgency will have to intensify in February.
“As much pressure as there is in that Sun Belt tournament in that lose-or-go-home scenario, we’ve been there before,” Byington said. “I’ve had two guys starting in a championship game on this team. That’s as much experience as about anyone else is going to have.”