Georgia Southern faced with challenge of handling success after impressive wins

Georgia Southern point guard Tookie Brown goes up for a basket Monday during the Eagles’ 77-53 win over California State-Bakersfield in Statesboro. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Southern Athletics)

STATESBORO – Georgia Southern head basketball coach Mark Byington will have to treat his team in a different way this season.

 

The past two seasons, he’s had to work with a young team that made mistakes and had to learn how to win.

The growing pains are over.

The Eagles clearly know how to win, having raced out of the gate with a 2-0 start to the 2017-2018 season with a road victory over Wake Forest and Monday’s drubbing of California State-Bakersfield, a team that made the NIT semifinals last season.

But the Georgia Southern basketball team of the last two years might have had too big of an ego after a win like Wake Forest.

This year’s team has a goal, but the players know in order to reach it, they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.

The Eagles just ran over what was probably the most difficult team on their nonconference schedule, and watching them play on Monday, it’s easy to start thinking about the possibility of them being undefeated entering Sun Belt play.

“You always worry about how guys respond to success,” Byington said after Monday’s 77-53 win over the Roadrunners. “Usually, when you respond to adversity, they respond a little easier, you get their attention. We had a lot of guys give pats on the back the last couple of days, and I was trying to keep those away. We were able to handle success.”

Junior guard Ike Smith said the Eagles took in and celebrated the Wake Forest win all the way up the bus ride home.

“Wake Forest is a good team as well,” Smith said. “That was a big win for our program. We celebrated for 10 minutes and then moved on to the next game.”

When Georgia Southern returned from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at 4 a.m. Saturday morning, Byington told his players they had only one practice to get ready for CSU-Bakersfield.

“We never look far ahead,” Byington said. “I told the guys, ‘Let’s have a good practice tomorrow.’ You’ve got to stay in the moment. If you do that, you’ll be good when the time comes.”

The formula worked. Georgia Southern looked vastly different from the team that was embarrassed in its final game last season against Utah Valley in the College Basketball Invitational, which came on the heels of another first-round exit in the Sun Belt tournament. The Eagles dropped seven of their final nine games last season.

“Handling success is hard,” Byington said. “We had stretches last year where we were really playing good, but guys get caught up in different things. To stay focused like they did tonight was a great sign of maturity.”

The guard tandem of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith looked better than ever Monday, combining for 45 points, but the question over the last couple of seasons has been how can the Eagles scratch out a win when their two best players aren’t at their best?

That’s been answered in the first two games this season. Everyone around them has gotten better. The Eagles can go 10-deep into their roster, and role players such as Montae Glenn and Coye Simmons are now holding their own in the paint.

“We’ve got to learn to win in different ways, especially on the road,” Byington said. “Certain things travel on the road — the defense and rebounding. We can carry that wherever we go. You’ve got so many different styles in college basketball, you’ve got to be multi-dimensional.”

The Eagles will face some of those different styles in the upcoming weeks with games against some more strong mid-major opponents in Missouri State, Bradley, George Mason and a rematch on the road against CSU-Bakersfield.

“We’ve just got to keep going,” Smith said. “We don’t get happy and we don’t get satisfied. You’ve got to keep coming to practice with a mentality and get better.”

Byington is also reminding his players how a team is playing in Novemember isn’t nearly as important as how it’s playing in February and March.

The Eagles have gone 10-16 over the last two season in games played in those months.

“This team is just scratching the surface,” Byington said. “We’re playing well right now, but we can fix a lot of things, and we will. We’ve got to continue to get better and hopefully we’re at our best in March.”

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