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A year later, Georgia Southern has taken flight

Tookie Brown, Ike Smith and the young-but-experienced Eagles are growing into the Sun Belt favorite.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Southern at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes a turning point becomes apparent right away.

Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington can point to a frigid day in Minneapolis as the moment things started to change.

“We went up to Minnesota a day after exams and got embarrassed,” Byington said in a phone interview. “Afterwards we made some schematic changes, but more so had a mentality change. We’ve just competed more, held guys more accountable and seen the guys hold each other more accountable.”

The 86-49 loss to the Golden Gophers on Dec. 9 dropped the Eagles to 4-5, and led to the hallmark of a Hollywood sports turnaround: the team meeting.

“After the [Minnesota] game we had a team meeting,” said sophomore guard Ike Smith. “We said we had to do better, had to play defense, needed to hold ourselves accountable. Ever since then, we’ve clicked.”

Georgia Southern has certainly clicked.

Since that loss, the Eagles have gone 10-1, the lone loss being a hard-fought game at Winthrop in which they led most of the way. This has included a 7-0 Sun Belt start, the program’s best start to conference play since 1991-92.

Maybe the improvement shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Georgia Southern is a young team, led by a pair of sophomore guards (Smith and Tookie Brown) and without a senior in the rotation. But at the same time they’re an experienced team, with essentially the entire rotation back from last year’s 14-17 (10-10) team.

Player 15-16 MPG 16-17 MPG 15-16 PPG 16-17 PPG
Player 15-16 MPG 16-17 MPG 15-16 PPG 16-17 PPG
Tookie Brown, Soph. 30.8 33.2 17.8 18.5
Ike Smith, Soph. 25.5 30 11.7 19.9
Mike Hughes, Jr. 30.2 30.2 14.9 10.6
Jake Allsmiller, Jr. 26.9 24 7.8 7.9

And like with the Minnesota game, the Eagles have learned and grown.

“Our success is a product of some of the adversity we faced last year,” Byington said. “The biggest difference is when something would go wrong [last year], it would go really wrong. We couldn’t respond to adversity. Now we can withstand some adversity — foul trouble, an injured guy, something not going right — and still come out the other end.”

Now, the Eagles are closing out close games. Sun Belt POY candidates Brown and Smith are a big reason why.

A week and a half ago, Brown scored 11 points in the final 11 minutes to erase seven-point deficit at Louisiana Monroe. The next time out he scored 32 points, including 17-of-23 from the free throw line, to win a high-scoring game against Appalachian State.

For his part, Smith is the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Week.

Both played heavy minutes as freshmen, and are flourishing as sophomores. They lead an attacking, balanced team that has posted the best free throw rate (53.2%) and effective field goal percentage defense (47.4%) in Sun Belt play.

“Both of them are a perfect fit for the style that we play,” Byington said. “They’re guys that are aggressive and make plays, and don’t look over at me and expect me to call a play.”

Yet it’s too early to declare that post-Minnesota team meeting college basketball’s launching point of the year.

The Eagles have yet to play UT Arlington or Arkansas State, the league teams that made the strongest impressions during the non-con. And their schedule closes with a nasty punch: three consecutive road games, including at Arkansas State and Georgia State.

“We’re only seven games into an 18-game conference schedule,” Byington said. “We just need to have a mindset of ‘play the next game, let’s get ready to go.’”

They also can look down the bench and know that whatever happens the rest of the way, so much will be on the line at the Sun Belt tournament. Juniors Mike Hughes and Jake Allsmiller were part of the 2014-15 Eagles team that lost to Georgia State in the league tournament final.

Still, the recent hot stretch has put Georgia Southern in the NIT discussion, a place the Eagles have not been since 2006. That’d be a big step as Byington continues to build the program in his fourth year.

And it would cloak that post-Minnesota meeting in even more lore.