Georgia Southern beating an ACC team on opening night?
If that sounds familiar it’s because it nearly happened in 2016. The Eagles began last season at NC State, and nearly dropped the Wolfpack in Dennis Smith Jr.’s debut. But a late 10-1 run by NC State extinguished the upset bid, and Georgia Southern settled for an 81-79 loss.
"We all made key plays down the stretch that we needed to win," N.C. State guard Torin Dorn said [after the game].
A year later at another ACC school in the state of North Carolina, it was the Eagles that made all the key plays. They upset Wake Forest 85-83 on Friday night, locking up the biggest win in Mark Byington’s five-year tenure and becoming one of the first mid-major darlings of 2017-18.
But should it really be a surprise?
Georgia Southern is a serious threat in a top-heavy Sun Belt because of experience and continuity. Byington has essentially had the same rotation for the past three seasons and, in the very early going, KenPom has Georgia Southern as the 23rd most experienced team in the country with the 6th best minutes continuity.
The Eagles played like they had been there before on Friday night. Their veteran backcourt turned it over just 12 times against the Demon Deacons’ length and athleticism. The stars also all showed up in an efficient offensive outing, with big games from Tookie Brown (22 points), Ike Smith (18 points), Mike Hughes (18 points) and Montae Glenn (14 points, 13 rebounds).
And unlike in the 2016 opener, Georgia Southern didn’t cave late. Smith, a junior that has started 62 games over his career, tied the game with a three-pointer with 59 seconds left. After a stop on the ensuing Wake Forest possession, Byington let his veteran team play out the crucial trip down the floor without a timeout.
And the trust paid off, in a roundabout way. Hughes missed a three, but Smith grabbed the rebound, was fouled and knocked down the game-winning free throws.
"The guys know that sometimes chaos is a good thing and sometimes the defense isn't set up,” [Byington said in a release.] “Mike's shot was a good shot, and Ike had two wide open 3s before the one he made. We were taking good shots and making good plays, and I have a lot of trust in the guys and I'm going to let them make plays and do their thing."
One game in, it seems that the Eagles overwhelming experience and continuity will be a weapon in 2017-18. And in a tough Sun Belt, they could cause plenty of chaos.