By Chris Whitaker, Americus Times-Recorder
Rick Russell said the Georgia Southwestern Hurricanes have a particular way they end practice.
Right before they break, they chant the win number they're going for - like now it's one as they prepare to play Puerto Rico-Cayey on Saturday in Valdosta to open the season.
"We're trying to shock the Peach Belt this year," said Russell. "Last year everybody was pretty much beating up on us. They still think it will be like that this year, and they'll be in for a rude awakening."
For starters, the Peach Belt has two teams in the top five nationally to open the year - USC-Aiken at No. 1 and Augusta State at No. 5.
Georgia Southwestern, which finished next-to-last a season ago, was picked to finish seventh in the Peach Belt Conference. And being declared a full member of Division II, the Hurricanes can now play in the conference tournament, as long as they finish in the top 10 (11 teams in the conference).
They only have two starters back from last year's team - Russell and All-Conference performer Anthony Sargent - but coach Mike Leeder said that adds up to be a much-improved team awaiting Peach Belt opponents.
"I think we've closed the gap," said Leeder. "I thought we were pretty far away last year. If we play well and do the things we emphasize, I certainly think we can work our way a click or two higher than seventh place."
The Hurricanes have almost completely turned over the roster this season. Aaron Wyatt and Travis Owsley were released from their scholarships and are now at Campbellsville and Kentucky Wesleyan, and Fred Jackson was dismissed from the team during last season.
The additions of Marcus Scott, Damayrius Adside and Chris Rawls among others will give Sargent some help scoring-wise.
"Last year if it was not Aaron or Anthony, we wouldn't score," said Leeder. "We have more options. We're much deeper, we have some very good ball handlers and guys who can get to the basket. We've also upgraded around the basket."
Scott scored 28 points in the team's 69-68 exhibition loss against The Citadel. Damayrius Adside chipped in with 15 and Evan Mobley scored 13. Leeder expects both Scott and Adside to be strong guards who can penetrate, rebound and knock down the open shot. Mobley, who redshirted last year, is expected to be a valuable player at the point guard position.
Sargent struggled at times with toe injury, but he finished atop the conference in scoring (22.0) and was second in steals (1.88). Leeder said Sargent's conditioning compared with last year is like night and day.
"He took possessions off defensively because we had to have his energy on offense," he said. "He's a really good passer, and last year he had nobody to pass it to. He's done a good job in practice and he's back to dunking the ball. I don't think he'll get 22 points a game, but he will be a much better basketball player."
GSW had three different skids of four, five and eight games last season. It lost five games by seven points or less, including two against Augusta State, which played in the national championship game.
Leeder said a lot of it was from bad defense. The Hurricanes were last in the conference in field-goal and 3-point percentage defense.
"Without question it was the most disappointed I've ever been in coaching a team defensively," he said. "We were never able to get the point across to that group. But I think we'll be better this year. They've done a good job grasping what we want to do and buying into the way we've always been successful."
GSW still doesn't have a lot of size in the post, garnering two players at 6-foot-7 and one at 6-6. But Leeder said athleticism will make up for the lack of size. Rawls led the Florida Community College Activities Association in rebounding two years ago before taking a two-year absence from basketball.
Rick Russell said the athleticism and depth will lead to quicker double teams and force opponents to give up the ball more try to score more from the perimeter.
"We'll make up for it with our length and defensive tenacity," he said. "We're approaching it more that defense wins games, and we have to come out with that mindset every time. We know we can score. With any unit we have in, we should be able to keep clicking and not lose a beat."
Only three of their first eight games are at home, and the Hurricanes will play one conference game before January - at Lander on Dec. 15.
Russell said the Hurricanes' biggest concern starting the season will be communication.
"We need to stay together as a team," he said. "It will lead to better defensive assignments and we wouldn't have to stay man-to-man so much. Everbody's jelled greatly together, and there's no attitudes on this team. It's like a family."