In college basketball, everybody knows the prestigious programs of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. In the past decade, Mid-Major programs have been all the rage stealing spotlights and headlines with their exceptional play. 2006 gave us George Mason, 2010 gave us Butler, 2011 Virginia Commonwealth, and most recently Wichita State last season. Nothing is better than a Cinderella story, a true David vs Goliath matchup. Last year, Georgia State narrowly missed making it to the big dance after they fell to Elfrid Payton’s Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in the Sun Belt title game 82-81 in overtime after a 25 win season. This season Georgia State is humming along under the radar nationally, but is still a favorite to win the Sun Belt this year, but I’m here to talk about another Georgia school that might have something to say about that, the Georgia Southern Eagles.
A notorious powerhouse in football, the Eagles (10-3, 3-1) have quietly put together a very nice season and have designs on thwarting the Panthers’ dreams of making it to the big dance along with every other Sun Belt school. A true dark horse, the Eagles finished 15-19 a season ago and managed just a 6-10 record in the Southern Conference. So far, it seems like the switch from the SoCon to the Sun Belt has benefited the Eagles. Currently they are second in the conference, one game behind 4-0 UL-Lafayette.
All three of Georgia Southern’s losses this season have come by single digits. The Eagles opened their season in Champaign, Illinois against the Fighting Illini. Southern entered the half tied at 31, but eventually fell 80-71. Their other two losses came against UCF by two and to Texas-Arlington by 1; both road losses. Senior Jelani Hewitt makes things click for the Eagles on offense. The playmaking guard leads the team in points (20.2) and assists (3.8) and has been the leader in these two categories since last year as a junior when he averaged over 19 points and 3 assists per game.
A key addition to this year’s team has been former Greater Atlanta Christian state champion, Trent Wiedeman. Now a senior, Wiedeman was named to the SoCon All-Freshman Team and to the Mid-Major Freshman All-American team which was selected by CollegeInsider.com. Wiedeman found great success early on in his career under Head Coach Bobby Cremins, but found his playing time decrease under new coach Doug Wojcik after he could not get healthy after two ankle injuries.
The big man has been a major boon for the Eagles’ low post game as he is currently second in scoring with 13.6 points and leads the team in rebounding with 6.8 per game. Eric Ferguson, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and junior, is now back with the team after facing a suspension with off court issues stemming from drug charges. After missing the first six games of the season, the 6’8 forward has begun to round into shape and is averaging 8.6 points and 4.9 rebounds on 51 percent shooting.
Hewitt, Wiedeman, and Ferguson make up a formidable trio that should be able to give opposing Sun Belt foes issues with their ability to score inside and out. Georgia Southern’s main strength is its ability to control the glass. They rank 16th in the nation with 40.5 rebounds a game and lead the conference. Compare that with conference favorite Georgia State, who ranks 289th with just 32.1 rebounds per game, and the Eagles have the sizable advantage. Where the Eagles might hurt down the stretch is their inability to block shots, where they average under two a game ranking 257th in the nation.
Though it is still early in conference play, anything can happen. Head Coach Mark Byington now in his second season at Southern, seemingly has the Eagles believing they can play with anyone. They have played a soft schedule with three non-division one schools, but the close loss to Illinois and wins against South Florida and Florida International have Byington and the Eagles hoping this season’s senior ladened team can open some eyes and make some noise in the Sun Belt.