An Improbable Season

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The prognosticators didn’t expect much from Georgia Southern men’s basketball this year. They picked the Eagles to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the Sun Belt Conference.

To be fair, however, it wasn’t difficult to understand why they came to this conclusion. The Eagles finished the 2013-14 season in seventh place with a .441 winning percentage under a brand new coach. How much better could they possibly perform against the superior talent in the Sun Belt?

Historically better, apparently.

For the first time in 23 years, the Eagles not only finished the year with a winning season, but also came within one shot —Eric Ferguson’s buzzer-beating three-point attempt that bounced off the rim —of winning the Sun Belt Championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

“We were right there,” said Head Coach Mark Byington. “We were as close as you possibly can be. I still have the sleepless nights. They’ll eventually subside. At the same time, you have to remember what you did to get there.”

To “get there,” the Eagles put together an improbable season, finishing with 22 wins and 9 losses (14-6 in the Sun Belt). The wins were far from easy, though. Out of 20 regular season conference games, 16 were decided by 10 points or fewer and two of those went into overtime. Byington said the talent in the Sun Belt forced the team to understand the length of each game and play hard every minute.

“You’re playing against more talented teams every single night,” he said. “There’s never a time when you can take a breath and say, ‘All right, even if we don’t play our best game we’re going to win this one.’ There wasn’t much separation from the first team to the eleventh team and every team has talent.”

Georgia Southern’s talent took top honors as well. Senior guard Jelani Hewitt of Miramar, Florida, won the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year award and earned a spot on the All-Sun Belt First Team. The award was a fitting end to a season in which he recorded 77 steals and set a school record of 252 career steals. He was a potent member of the offense as well, netting 18.2 points per game.

“It was no surprise to me the success we had this year,” Hewitt said. “I knew since the offseason we had a special team and chemistry like we’ve been playing with each other for a long time. My teammates are extremely hard workers and that’s how you become successful: by constantly working.”

Senior forward Trent Wiedeman of Suwanee, Georgia, made the All-Sun Belt Third Team and provided a formidable inside presence for the Eagles. Wiedeman averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game this season.

In addition, Byington was named the Whack Hyder Georgia College Coach of the Year by the Atlanta Tipoff Club. Byington’s accomplishments with the team show both on and off the court, as his players have ranked their best grade point averages in the history of the program for the last five semesters.

“I’m as much an educator and a teacher as I am a coach,” he said. “If we’re not doing the right thing in the classroom, they’re not getting the full experience of what they’re supposed to be doing here. So we make a huge deal of doing the right thing in the classroom—off the floor—and I believe it does carry over on the floor.”

Georgia Southern will lose five seniors before their next season. Forwards Wiedeman, Eric Ferguson and Angel Matias will be missed, as well as guards Hewitt and Curtis Diamond. And while it’s tough to lose such a good core of players, Byington says they left a winning legacy, which is the nucleus of winning programs, and made it easier to recruit in the process.

“When you’re taking over a program as a coach, you want a group of seniors who can leave a legacy for other guys, which hopefully lasts from year to year,” he said. “This group did that. These guys were able to build something that’s going to last.

“The Georgia Southern name is easier to sell now than it was two years ago.” – Doy Cave

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