Mike Anthony

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The Future IS Now

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

As restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic remain in place in relation to NCAA sports, college football teams are managing to remain as active as ever.

Players are working out on their own at their respective houses and online video meetings are allowing the various meetings for teams, players and position groups that normally fill the schedule preceding fall camp.

However, there is one aspect of the summer months that has had to change drastically. From the end of spring practice up through the long days of June and July, most college football coaches are racking up the mileage as they attend camps and start to make contacts with recruits they hope to sign at the end of the season.

Several members of the Georgia Southern coaching staff joined a Zoom meeting on where much of the discussion with media members was centered on how the team is continuing to recruit despite no visits allowed and few opportunities for athletes to showcase their skills.

“I’ve tried to embrace this as an opportunity,” Georgia Southern associate head coach and running backs coach Chris Foster said. “I think I’m a little more tech savvy than some others and things were leaning towards more technology even before (the virus). The teams who are going to succeed are the ones who are going to adapt.”

Coaches may not be able to see prospective recruits go up against live competitions, but the advancement of cheap video technology and the explosion of social media over the last decade allow many hopeful high-schoolers to provide colleges with expansive highlight reels.

That sort of accessibility allows coaches to evaluate film in their meetings and make informed decisions on who to pursue and what to focus on in their game.

There is also a silver lining for the coaches as meeting with a dozen recruits over the course of a few days is now as easy as setting up a streaming meeting instead of putting hundreds of miles on a vehicle and waking up in a different hotel every day.

Still, there are new issues as meetings have had to work around school and work schedules for athletes and their parents.

“Depending on when you can schedule a meeting, there have been some 14 and 15 hour days,” GS defensive coordinator Scot Sloan said. “We’re still doing all of our homework. We’re meeting with these kids and the high school coaches have been great about keeping us in touch and getting us in contact with teachers, counselors and anyone else who we might want to talk to about a guy.”

The recruiting game has certainly been turned on its’ head. If anything, it could become a net benefit for smaller schools like Georgia Southern.

No matter how good Georgia Southern coaches are at evaluating prep players or selling them on the Eagles, they don’t have the ability of larger schools with much larger budgets to employ dozens of people to scour every corner of the country.

And most schools certainly don’t have the luxury of putting a coach on a private jet straight into a player’s backyard on a moment’s notice in order to gain an edge in the recruiting battle.

The playing field has leveled in that regard, meaning that originality and innovation off of the base model of Twitter highlights and Zoom meetings is now something that can make a school stand out to a prized recruit.

It’s a whole new ballgame in the high-stakes world of football recruiting. Now it remains to be seen how the new methods of selling teams and schools will pan out.

Hole In One

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The sports world is still a far cry from being normal, but at least one item on my personal checklist returned on Sunday afternoon.

As has happened on countless spring and summer weekends, I accomplished half of the household chores my wife had asked of me, only to be lured to the television – and a nap – by golf.

In a charity event held at the esteemed Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson defeated Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff in a skins match that raised over $5 million.

With every sport trying to figure out what strange new features will enable them to return to play as soon as possible, golf certainly seems like it can deliver the same sort of product while adhering to safety guidelines.

The lack of a crowd didn’t change my personal viewing experience. If anything, it allowed viewers to take in a spectacular Seminole Club course that had never appeared on television before.

The players wore shorts and carried their own bags, but – if anything – that made the action even more relatable to the high-handicappers watching at home who don’t play with caddies and who would never show up to a course wearing slacks on a muggy Florida afternoon.

Following Sunday’s event, it dawned on me that this could be a huge turning point for the sport and for how players choose to promote themselves.

To be sure, the marquee events on the PGA Tour and the four majors aren’t going anywhere. Ratings will be stellar if and when the tour is able to play its amended major schedule this fall, and attendance at those events figures to remain high as soon as crowds are permitted back on the links.

But as for many other dates on the golf calendar, who’s to say?

While current times are certainly an exception and not a rule, it’s not hard to fathom a future where huge names are reeled in for a payday in exclusive one-off events. Years of ratings prove that viewers follow the game’s biggest stars and plenty of non-pandemic TV specials have raked in tons of money.

If the money is there to be had, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to envision a golf club looking to make a name for itself ponying up the purse to put on a show.

If the television and online streaming eyeballs will be focused on the event, it seems like a no-brainer that top brands might organize an event featuring all the stars under their umbrella putting on a five-hour infomercial for the latest line of products.

Golf has been primetime viewing – at least during the biggest events – ever since Tiger Woods burst onto the scene. But prior to the late 90s, there was little hype for lesser events and nobody outside of the top 10-20 players in the world were getting rich off of the game.

And the truth is, anyone not consistently making cuts and finishing on the first few pages of the leaderboard every week still isn’t exactly a legend at their local bank.

It should come as no surprise that the lowest-level tour events – or those played concurrent to majors or big overseas tournaments – feature no-name players with sparse crowds and not much on the way of possible winnings.

The world’s top players already make more money in endorsements than they do through tournament checks.

If special events can guarantee big paydays – while also offering the lack of excessive media obligations, pro-ams, long days due to slow play from a 150-man field, etc. – there’s little that will stop the world’s top players from ditching smaller tournaments in favor of receiving top billing at a special event.

The Premier Golf League is currently trying to compete with the PGA. It aims to be a more global affair, playing only half as many tournaments while still offering huge purses.

However, many of the game’s biggest names have already declined potential offers to join.

But with more singular, unaffiliated events, it would be easy for big draws to pocket more money without the hassle of worldwide travel or learning the rules and format of an entirely new tour.

The PGA isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but if Sunday’s Seminole showdown proves anything, it’s that there could be more opportunities soon for the world’s top players might call in sick to lesser events in order to sneak out for a round of golf.

Power Off

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

With just over four months remaining until the scheduled start of the college football season, there is still no answer to when teams will come out of their suspended status in order to prepare.

There have been myriad discussions about what this means for the 2020 campaign. Everything has been discussed, from when to resume team activities, to how long of a period is needed from first practice to first game, to how abbreviated schedule would work, to whether or not any fans will be permitted to watch the game in person.

In short, there are still many balls in the air.

Regardless of when the games start or how they will look, there is one variable that is sure to be the main factor in the final decision – money.

That’s not some new or surprising reveal as far as motives go, but there is no doubt that money – to be made or to be made up – will determine how college football is next played.

And that factor could be the final straw in an FBS landscape that is already seriously divided between the ‘Power 5’ conferences and the ‘Group of 5.’

Power 5 teams tend to have tighter conference groupings and host more home games, which all cut down on travel expenses. They also have huge network television contracts that they will be incentivized to honor by playing games, even if an altered or limited schedule lessens the payout.

On the other hand, there is the G5. Football teams in the other half of the FBS have larger geographic footprints and travel schedules that are often exacerbated by random long trips to “payout” games at P5 opponents that will never be returned.

And while these schools and conferences also receive money in the form of media rights agreements, it’s safe to say that a check from ESPN+ isn’t keeping the lights on conference-wide in quite the same way as deals with national networks and huge corporations that sponsor P5 marquee matchups and conference championship games.

For years, it has been rumored that the highest level of college football could fracture as it has before. There is a lot of fan support and corporate money that would love to see more heavyweight regular season matchups and a prolonged national championship playoff without giving a second thought to those things coming at the expense of the G5 conferences that have much less money and national appeal.

There are currently arguments that say attended football games simply won’t happen this fall due to ongoing pandemic concerns. If that happens, the biggest and wealthiest schools could probably find a workaround.

It wouldn’t be fun or pretty, but there will be SEC and ACC and national championship playoffs played if games are allowed to continue. If G5 schools follow this schedule, the financial blow will be inconceivable.

Wherever P5 universities with budgets for over-the-top amenities, constant facility upgrades and a private-jet-based recruiting strategy have to skimp through some lean times, G5 schools will already be tapped out as soon as football programs lose any sort of revenue.

One G5 school (Cincinnati) has already cut loose its men’s soccer team. Others are putting coaching staffs on furlough. It’s not just possible, but probable, that these measures will only get more drastic and more prevalent if sports remain shut down.

As advertising and fundraising trends go, it’s pretty safe to assume that when games and attendance resume, it will be the P5 schools who benefit first, even though G5 schools will need the return to normalcy more.

There is also the growing pressure for student athletes to be paid in some form – a totally new cost that would demand an overhaul of every athletic department’s finances.

Unless things change course in a hurry, the already abundant theories of what will happen to Division I sports needs to have another theory thrown onto the pile.

When all of this is done, there could be a complete split. Some big-name and high-dollar schools could easily survive and split off to form some new quasi-professional level of competition.

Less fortunate institutions will be left scrambling just to keep their athletic departments intact or petition the NCAA for rule changes as any significant decrease in football revenue will put in jeopardy the ability for many schools to fund the requisite 16 varsity sports in the coming years.

There are no easy answers for the upcoming economic impact that is coming. There isn’t an FBS school out there that doesn’t need every cent generated by its football program to set budgets for the rest of its teams.

And there isn’t a school out there that isn’t going to see a decrease in that revenue, regardless of what games do or don’t get played.

It will be weeks before any schedules are set and months – or years – before the true impact on the collegiate sporting world is known, but one certainty is that we’re about to be in a whole new ballgame.

The Right Thing

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The NCAA has long been a punching bag for fans and member institutions alike and, for the most part, deservedly so.

The Indianapolis-based institution has all-encompassing power over its members, but it is often accused of being too strict in hamstringing the rights of student athletes, while also catching flack for doing too little in the face of major violations at marquee institutions.

That said, the NCAA received nearly universal applause for its quick action in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The organization cancelled all spring sports championships – including the immensely profitable March Madness men’s basketball tournament – on March 12, weeks before many local and state governments took similarly drastic shutdown measures in the name of public health.

Cancelations were preventative in nature and aimed at decreasing the impact of the virus, but the NCAA also acted quickly in announcing that seniors participating in spring sports will be afforded an additional year of eligibility should they choose to return to school and compete again next year.

That was undoubtedly the right call to make, but there is still a long way to go in achieving that goal.

The NCAA has cleared up the question of eligibility, but the national organization has no say in how each school finds the money to afford scholarships.

The NCAA has said that it will figure out an adjustment to the scholarship limits for spring sports, but it is up to each school to figure out a way to accommodate seniors wishing to return and play while also honoring scholarships that have already been awarded to incoming freshmen.

It will likely be months before the next year of collegiate athletics can set a firm schedule, but there’s no doubt that every school will face its own set of complications moving forward.

Things will eventually get back to normal, and that will be a great day. But normal is a relative term. For fans, it will be enough to have the opportunity to go see a game and cheer on their team.

For schools, there is the much more complicated matter of putting on those events, while financing an athletic department that could be at risk for shortened 2020-21 seasons and heavily decreased ticket sales due to ongoing public health fears and economic circumstances.

It’s still far too early to know how any schools will be able to deal with this unprecedented set of circumstances. There is no easy answer, but there is one thing that is perfectly clear and that might lead to a new way of doing sports, business and athletics at the collegiate level.

Players want to play and have earned the right through their work on both the athletic and academic side.

Academic institutions routinely rely on the millions upon millions of dollars raised on the backs of those athletes and their accomplishments in order to advance the school’s brand and build bigger and better opportunities for the athletes of tomorrow.

This pandemic has caused an impasse. Athletes most definitely deserve the right to return to get their part of the agreement they signed up for.

Athletic departments will likely have to take a hit in the wallet to make that happen.

Next spring will be all about making things right on a contractual level. Everything after could lead to bigger movements about what athletes bring to their respective schools and what more should be asked of those schools to make sure that both sides are getting as much as they give.

Time Waits For No One

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There is still plenty of speculation about how much of the 2020 Major League Baseball season – if any – will be played.

But one sure thing is that when play resumes the Atlanta Braves will still be one of the better teams in baseball, with every reason to believe that a World Series title is within their grasp.

However, the agreement reached by MLB and its players’ association regarding pay and service time could put a dent in the length of the Braves’ current run of great play.

Over the last decade, many baseball teams have adopted a roller-coaster philosophy to competing. They will ride out success for a while, but are now more apt to trade off aging and expensive talent.

The rebuilding process can be painful for fans and is done for financial benefit of the club – the thought being that there’s no reason to pay top dollar for declining veteran talent that won’t make the playoffs when a roster full of marginal veterans and young players can lose just the same at a much smaller price.

That’s where the current pandemic and suspension of play is hurting the Braves. If play resumes this season, all will be fine. Atlanta will contend for a third consecutive NL East title, although a shortened season figures to be a disadvantage for more talented teams better suited to handle the grind of a full schedule.

If a shorter 2020 hampers the Braves’ competitiveness or the worst case scenario happens and there is no baseball until next spring, that’s when the numbers will start working against them.

The biggest item in the agreement is that, in the event of a total cancellation of the current season, all players will receive an identical credit of their MLB service time accrued in 2019.

That would mean the Braves’ big offseason adds of Cole Hamels and Marcel Ozuna would again be free agents as both are signed to one-year deals.

Mark Melancon would also be a free agent as the contract he signed before being traded to Atlanta expires this year.

There is also the issue of age as Freddie Freeman will turn 31 this season and has just one year remaining on his deal.

Losing players is one issue, but adding on payroll seems to be an even bigger concern for Braves ownership group Liberty Media, which had often been criticized for being tight with money prior two the last two seasons of winning baseball.

The wave of youth that has been instrumental in the Braves’ rise is about to get a considerable pay raise. Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, A.J. Minter and Chad Sobotka will all be arbitration-eligible next season, guaranteeing a pay raise for all and increasing in accordance with their performance over their first three seasons.

Star outfielder Ronald Acuna will be the biggest hit on the payroll. Acuna is slated to make just $1 million in 2020, but the contract extension he signed last year bumps that to $15 million in 2021 and levels out at $17 million per year after that.

Ozzie Albies will also be breaking the bank as he will make an additional $2 million in 2021.

The Braves’ roster, as currently constructed, will remain relatively young, even if no baseball is played this season. But the contract structure of the team shows that 2020 is definitely the year Atlanta thinks it can make a World Series push.

If the Braves don’t see any action this year and want to be in a similar spot for 2021, they’ll have to make tough decisions on free agents while the payroll begins to soar.

No Azaleas

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Over a whirlwind 48-hour span, the entire sports world came to a halt. Over the course of a few days.

What started with the NBA suspending its season quickly turned into the NHL following suit, MLB nerve wracking days, a domino effect went into full effect; suspending all operations in the middle of spring training and every collegiate sport coming to a screeching halt.

Lifelong sports fans were in a sort of state of shock as each news update brought about worse news and more cancelations.

By the time Friday, March 13 rolled around, the gravity of the situation still hadn’t quite set in, with plenty of rumors circulating about how quickly everything could get back on track.

And then it happened. The Masters – a shining jewel in American sports and one of the most fiercely protected events and brands in the world – put its annual tournament on hold.

Calendars, warmer weather and the beginning of baseball aside, anyone with roots to the south knows that the true arrival of spring comes during four magical days in April when the world’s best golfers descend upon Augusta National Golf Club.

It is possibly the most mythicized and celebrated tournament in all of sports. It gets played amongst the backdrop of an impossible green and vibrant course.

It has always been a hint to the sports world that it is safe to come outside and play for the spring and summer months.

But just like everything else, the Masters will also be empty.

If there’s one bit of silver lining, it’s that the official scoreboard for the Masters reads ‘postponed’ where so many other events are canceled outright.

Communications from Augusta National have stressed that efforts will be made to hold the tournament at some point. There have also been rumors floating out of Augusta that the club might be aiming for a Masters held in the fall as the course usually shuts down during the summer months.

For as much as the stoppage of other sports stung, the postponement of the Masters may have been the signal to the sports world that the response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic isn’t an overreaction, but rather a very urgent and necessary step to protect the masses.

No golf at Augusta in April is like the constant halts to trading on stock exchange floors. It’s the near total halt of international travel. It’s the empty shelves in stores and longtime local businesses that are now shuttered.

It’s a punch in the gut, is what it is. But hopefully a measure that will work out once the world catches its breath.

This is already guaranteed to be a sports year unlike any other. Here’s hoping that we still get our tradition unlike any other.

 

Spring Hope

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Opening day is still over a month away, but the first members of the 2020 Atlanta Braves have officially arrived at Spring Training in Kissimmee, Fla.

For those who live for baseball, the date, which sees pitchers and catchers report, may as well be the first day of spring, even if there is currently snow on your front lawn.

Teams that came up a bit short of their expectations last season will use the next week to remind themselves that hope springs eternal, dreaming of what could be with plenty of new faces and infinite possibilities laying ahead in the 162 game schedule.

The Braves may well have some of those feelings. After all, it’s impossible not to hope – and want – more after consecutive heartbreaking exits from the divisional round of the playoffs.

Then again, the team’s title of two-time defending National League East champions also allows the Braves to storm into 2020 with some hard-earned bravado.

Despite plenty of notable moves being made by teams throughout the division this offseason – and even with the defending World Series champs residing in Washington – it’s hard to keep from thinking of Atlanta as the favorite to win the East yet again.

While Atlanta bid farewell to Josh Donaldson and his resurgent 2019 season, the Braves continue to boast a young team that still has everyday players coming into their primes, to say nothing of a minor league system that remains one of the deeper and more talented farms in the game.

The starting pitching additions of Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez would have been much more impressive about five years ago, but Hamels is still very effective and the Braves are risking next to nothing on what amounts to a lottery ticket that could always produce a few games of Hernandez in his old form.

Simply put, there will never be another 14-year run of division titles – for the Braves or any other team. Baseball rosters just don’t work like that anymore and Atlanta was never going to be able to keep everyone from the 2018 or 2019 squads in hopes of matching and building on success.

But the Braves can take solace in the fact that they currently possess the sort of blueprint that is leading to playoff success. Atlanta has a solid starting rotation – although they still lack a shutdown ace. The Braves completely overhauled their bullpen at the end of 2019 and should have a solid back end again this year.

Most importantly, the Braves have a potent mix of young, cheap and improving talent in Ronald Acuna, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley. Throw in the veteran MVP-level talent and leadership of Freddie Freeman and this season’s hired help in Marcel Ozuna and you’ve got a lineup that is going to be a tough out all season long.

For two seasons, the Braves have had to end a season with the promise of “Wait ‘til next year.”

As Spring Training gets underway, Braves fans have every reason to think that next year is finally here.

 

Bringer Of Rain

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Late Tuesday, news broke that Josh Donaldson had agreed to sign with the Minnesota Twins.

Donaldson, 34, had suffered through a few injury-plagued seasons, as he fell from his former MVP status before signing a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves in 2019 and reigniting his reputation as a slick-fielding third baseman, who can power his team to victory at the plate.

The immediate reaction from many Braves fans was one of dismay. After all, Donaldson had plenty to do with turning the team from a surprise division winner in 2018 to a legitimate powerhouse and a dark horse World Series contender last year.

There’s no doubt that Atlanta’s lineup won’t be as imposing on Opening Day 2020 as it was in last year’s playoffs.

But the Braves are positioned for success beyond 2020. And in the current structure of Major League Baseball and how its payrolls and contracts work, letting the Twins win the bidding war for Donaldson may prove to be a good move.

As much as Donaldson did for the offense and contributed to the team’s identity, last year’s performance was a personal showcase for exactly what transpired in the free agent market. Donaldson’s injuries left him with few options in 2019.

Plenty of teams would have taken him on at a low rate for a few years in hopes of getting a steal.

Instead, Donaldson bet on himself. He took a lucrative deal in Atlanta that came with the pressure of a single-year contract that could have spelled the end of his career if he didn’t produce.

But he returned to All-Star form and – because of that – was able to get right back on the open market for a premium price over a longer span.

And while the Braves are in a position where they could have competed with just about any team vying for Donaldson’s services, it is probably in their best interest to have bowed out and saved their money for other ventures.

Sure, Austin Riley might not be able to play third base at an MLB level. Sure, Johan Camargo is nowhere near the offensive threat as Donaldson in the everyday lineup. And sure, the stats of Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna could suffer a bit without a third true power bat in the order to keep pitchers honest.

But the current state of baseball is all about adjusting strengths to where money can be spent most efficiently.

Atlanta is currently enjoying the likes of Riley, Max Fried and Mike Soroka on dirt-cheap contracts, but those numbers will skyrocket in the next few years if those players continue to perform at their current levels.

There is also added spending for the Braves this season on the mound as they now own the full contracts of the high-price relief pitchers traded for last season, to go along with the offseason acquisitions of closer Will Smith and starter Cole Hamels.

In the end, the decision was probably a simple one for the Braves’ front office.

There is every possibility that Donaldson will have another huge year in 2020 that won’t help the Braves, but years of statistics suggest that the money the Twins will be paying him over the last couple of years of his new contract won’t be met with comparable results.

As for Atlanta, all of the money that could have been sunk into Donaldson can now be spent to lock up much younger and still-progressing players, or could be saved for leverage in a midseason trade to make a necessary move.

By letting Donaldson walk, the Braves will pay a price in offensive production on the front end, but will extend their financial flexibility as a younger core that continues to improve over the next few years.

Eagle Departure

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Most Georgia Southern fans still hadn’t shaken off the haze of the always-blurry week between Christmas and New Year’s when they were surprised to hear that the Eagles will have a new person heading up the athletics department in the coming weeks.

With Tom Kleinlein’s announcement that he’s off to Ole Miss, Georgia Southern finds itself looking for an athletics director for the first time since it was an FCS school. While the university is roughly the same in terms of students, it will be a whole new ballgame for the next person to take the reins.

For starters, Georgia Southern Athletics is a much larger operation nowadays. The budget is now well over $20 million, where it hovered around half that mark before Kleinlein took over.

There are also more sports to oversee as women’s golf and women’s rifle began play in conjunction with the school’s move to FBS.

There is also the pressure to keep up with the Jones’ as the Sun Belt features large public schools that are continually growing as opposed to the Eagles’ former home in the private school-dominated Southern Conference.

So, with all the changes that have taken place since the school’s last athletic director hire, I think it’s time to keep that trend going.

It’s likely that – following Kleinlein’s final day on the job and during the school’s national search for his replacement – a member of the current athletics administration staff will be named the interim athletic director.

The Eagles definitely have an ideal candidate in current Deputy AD Lisa Sweany, who served as the athletic director at Armstrong Atlantic before the school was absorbed by Georgia Southern.

By all accounts, Sweany did a good job at Armstrong and has continued the good work in Statesboro. But the athletic program, in its current state, is in need of a shove forward and keeping the administration in roughly the same order isn’t the best way to accomplish that.

Five years ago, the school boasted a skyrocketing football team, a men’s basketball squad on the verge of making the NCAA tournament and a baseball and men’s golf team that were postseason regulars. Nothing has fallen off a cliff since then, but nothing has gotten significantly better either.

More importantly, the surge of money and fans that ushered in the FBS era has slowed. The stands haven’t been as crowded at any GS venues in recent seasons and balancing the budget is becoming a tougher task with each season.

It’s time for Georgia Southern to think outside the box.

The school and its athletic programs are too big and too notable to not transform into something bigger than they currently are.

Maybe that needs the touch of a business-savvy director, who can bring more donors and partnerships into the fold? Maybe it will take an aggressive and visible athletic director that will challenge the bubble immediately outside of Statesboro that is full of potential fans that don’t always fall on the Eagles’ side of the fence.

Kleinlein’s efforts were much-needed and he was the right guy at the right time for what had to be accomplished half a decade ago.

Now it’s time for Georgia Southern to find the right person once again. And if the athletic program wants to be more of a national presence, then it would do well to make sure it covers every corner of the map to find that person.

Flying To Mountain Top?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

For most of the last four seasons, the book on Georgia Southern men’s basketball has been the same.

The Eagles are an athletic team with plenty of talent and – injury permitting – a lot of depth.

They’ve consistently out-performed preseason predictions and have been a mainstay near the top of the Sun Belt standings and have earned one of the top four seeds in the conference tournament in four of the last five seasons.

But for all that success, the Eagles have never quite been able to reach the top of the mountain.

Shooting woes and a difficulty in winning road games have popped up at the worst times and the Eagles have seemed to be on the wrong end of most ‘must-win’ games.

The result is still a solid Georgia Southern squad – but one that is now closing in on 30 years without an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

So, while this season’s team has all the looks of a possible contender, it will be battling nearly three decades of demons along with the rest of the Sun Belt.

To be fair, the deck is stacked against the Eagles, as well as most other programs not fortunate enough to play in one of the power conferences.

Despite the Sun Belt quickly improving its overall statistics as a league and pulling off a pair of first round NCAA victories in recent history, the postseason continues to take more and more power conference teams with at-large bids.

So, while the Sun Belt has a handful of viable league title contenders this season and the ability to make some noise on the national stage, it’s already written in stone that only the league’s tournament champion will get an invitation, regardless of the resumes of the others.

In a way, that makes things a bit easier for Georgia Southern. To paraphrase the all-time classic movie ‘Major League’, “There’s only one thing left to do… Win the whole thing.”

That’s much easier said than done, but it’s an attainable goal for this season’s Eagles and one they’d do well to set their minds on right now.

Of course, coach speak rules the day in any sport. No amount of success or struggle will get GS coach Mark Byington to talk about a conference title in December – or in January or February, for that matter.

But the truth of the matter is that if the Eagles want to make the big dance in March, they need to start putting themselves in position for it right now.

The team has taken the first steps with a pair of wins in its’ first two Sun Belt games. A good conference tournament seed will likely net a more favorable run of opponents during the must-win games.

As the season goes on, the team also needs to consider rest for players, as everyone will have to be prepared for what could be three or four straight days of single elimination play.

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