Written by Chris Whitaker - Americus Times-Recorder
AMERICUS — For the first time since joining the NCAA, Peach Belt foes will be looking up at Georgia Southwestern.
Ranked as high as 14th in the preseason polls and the big preseason favorite to win the conference, the Hurricanes open the year Tuesday night at home against Trinity Baptist.
Tip is 7:30 p.m.
"When you get picked that high, folks in the league and around the country have taken notice," said Mike Leeder, who is entering his sixth season as head coach. "It's a certainly better feeling than it had been the last four years when people thought we weren't very good."
The Hurricanes are defending Western Division champions, and they made their first NCAA Tournament last season after falling in the PBC semis. GSW had a 13-win improvement from the year before, and it boasts one of the top 16 players in the nation — and one of the top five according to Sporting News — in senior forward Phillip Brown.
Brown, the reigning PBC Player of the Year, has received plenty of preseason attention, and Leeder said it's time for him to make more noise after averaging 14.7 points and 10.9 rebounds a game.
He wants to see more games like GSW's trip to North Georgia when Brown had 25 points and 22 rebounds. Brown's goal this season is to lead the nation in rebounding.
"Phillip is the guy that makes it go," said Leeder. "For our level, he's extremely athletic at 6-foot-7. His athleticism allows him to jump over some players, and he has a tremendous passion for the ball after a shot. He goes and chases the ball. He had some nights that was as good as anybody on any level. He can be awful good."
But for once, Leeder is glad to have some added size in the post to help Brown. Returner Matt Shaw, Lipscomb transfer Milos Kleut (6-10, 240) and redshirts Will Kenimer and Ian Andre (6-9, 240) gives GSW a potentially dangerous post.
Shaw is full speed after playing the last month of the season at about 75 percent with an Achilles injury.
"We've got some depth added to a lot of experience," said Leeder. "Matt can play inside and out, and he'll be able to show a little more versatility than he was allowed to show last year. Milos is a true center, and it's nice to have guys we feel comfortable playing with."
And of course, with Leeder's defensive philosophy, that size will help as well. The Hurricanes graduated forward Trayce Macon, but will continue to rally around the defensive end. They were third in scoring defense and second in field goal and 3-point percentage.
GSW led the PBC in 3-pointers made (8.2 a game), but are 7 of 44 in its three exhibitions. Leeder said the Hurricanes will have to rely on the defense even more since they won't be able to stretch the defense as much as last year.
"We've to play to our strengths," he said. "We have to create more opportunities with our defense, and we've got to get the ball inside."
Senior Evan Mobley and Florida Gulf Coast senior transfer Marlon Rivera will carry the point guard duties. Rivera led the Atlantic Sun in assists, and his defense and rebounding are added bonuses.
Colin Slotter, the conference's top freshman and leading scorer (15.0), is another guard who can make plays.
"We've got two really good ball handlers who can play together," said Leeder. "I think we'll be difficult to guard off the dribble. Even with Colin, that's three guys who can really attack the basket. All three guys are unselfish. We're really trying to make the extra pass to pass up a good shot for a great shot."
Most PBC coaches thought GSW has a great shot to win the conference as 10 of 12 coaches tabbed the Hurricanes first. Leeder said they could have caught the conference in a "down cycle."
"I think the league will be a whole lot better," he said. "We've talked about challenges and the mountain we have to climb. If we find a way to finish in the top two on our side, there's a great chance to win another NCAA Tournament bid. We're certainly talented enough to do it or be in the conversation. That was not the case before last season."