By Chris Whitaker
The Americus Times-Recorder
Georgia Southwestern didn't have a full roster when it played The Citadel in its exhibition, but coach Mike Leeder believes the Hurricanes have a chance to shake up the Peach Belt this season.
"We're further along this year than we were last year as far as terms of what we're trying to do," he said. "Hopefully it will pay off Monday night. This is the best team we've ever opened with."
The Hurricanes tip off the season at 7:30 p.m. Monday at home against West Alabama.
They were 10-18 last season and lost in the first round of the conference tournament. They lost all-conference performer Anthony Sargent from a team that was in the bottom half of the conference in offense and defense and last in rebounding.
"When you lose a guy like Anthony who's capable of scoring 20 points on any given night, who can shoot the ball and stretch the defense, we don't have one guy like that," said Leeder. "But we have more guys who can contribute this year. We're playing a lot harder defense than we have the last two years. We have guys back that have experience, but we might lack an individual who can score the ball. We'll play harder as a collection."
GSW returns a core group of players including All-Preseason pick Chris Rawls and PBC Freshman of the Year Evan Mobley.
Rawls was 10th in scoring (13.8), fourth in rebounding (7.5) and field goal percentage (58 percent) while leading the league in minutes played. He's also put on about 25 pounds and stands at 6-foot-7, 192 pounds.
"He's going to have to play a lot of minutes; last year he wore down," said Leeder. "Hopefully he'll be a little bit stronger and more of a fighter in the post. He'll be able to take those bumps and pushes and be stronger down the stretch in games."
Marcus Scott (10.0) and Mobley (9.9) were 29th and 30th in the conference in scoring, and Ric Roderick is the team's best 3-point shooter. Leeder said they plan to use Scott and Damayrius Adside - who's out for Monday's opener with a foot injury - will be used more in the post this year.
Walk-on junior Derek Smith will start in Adside's place on Monday.
Newcomers Will Kenimer and Derrick Edwards should be strong post presences as both have the ability to score outside the paint.
"Both of those guys are very skilled," said Leeder. "They can shoot the face-up jump shot. Derrick's a good ball-handler for his size and can make the 15-footer. Will is making a transition to a face-up four man. Those guys bring a lot of perimeter skills to the table and can stretch the defense."
With a lot of guards - up to seven - Leeder said penetration will be a big factor in running the offense.
"We don't have anyone who can catch and shoot other than Ric, so our strength will be dribble-driving the ball," he said. "We've got to be a team that gets to the foul line a bunch. Chris led the league in attempts last year. We have to play to our strengths in Marcus, Damayrius and Evan. All are strong, physical guards who are looking for contact. A jump Evan has to make, he has to separate himself from the best freshman to one of the better players in the league."
But with Leeder, defense is always the key. The Hurricanes were 10th in field-goal percentage defense last season.
"I pride myself as a defensive coach, and we're nowhere we need to be," he said. "We have to get guys to really understand the importance of guarding and rebounding. We're not just going to outscore people. The commitment has been better than the past two years. That's what our success will be."
Leeder said Sedale McGee-Jones should be a big contributor on both ends. He had the game-winning shot to win at Clayton State last season. He's also battling a foot problem, but is probable for Monday.
"He's a guy that can play inside and out," said Leeder. "He's really understanding what we're trying to do. He's solid in all the areas and has a bigger body. He's willing to block out, guard the post and is very versatile."
With the conference splitting into two divisions, the top four teams from each side will make the postseason tournament. GSW plays five of its first six conference games on the road before finishing out with eight of its last 11 at home.
"I'm not real crazy with the league schedule," said Leeder. "It's tough to win on the road in any league. We've got to keep our head above water through that stretch. If we make some way on the road. that will set us up on the end for home games.
"We have to play with a little margin for error. The nights we don't play well, we'll really pay the price. I think we're improved, but good enough to be in the upper half, I don't know."