There was one simple, succinct message from Georgia Southern University men’s basketball coach Charlton Young to Effingham County Eagles hoops fans.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you for your love and support," the third-year coach told the Effingham Eagle Club.
Young led the Eagles to a 15-15 record in 2011-12, the team’s best in his tenure as Eagles coach. Under Young, a former star player for the Eagles who led GSU to its last NCAA berth, the Eagles went 10-2 at home and were 8-1 in home games against Southern Conference opponents.
Georgia Southern finished tied for second in the Southern Conference’s South Division. The Eagles won just 14 games combined in Young’s first two seasons at the helm. Young was an assistant at Georgia Tech when his alma mater came calling for him to take over the basketball program.
"CY took over a mess," GSU athletics director Sam Baker said. "We were in trouble. We had NCAA violations. And I’ll be honest, we had some talent problems."
Both Baker and Young are optimistic about what lies ahead for the Eagles on the court. Southern’s only conference home loss came to league champ Davidson, which also beat Kansas on the road. The Eagles also reeled off six straight wins before ending the regular season with losses to Davidson and College of Charleston.
"He’s got desire to take that next step and be one of the top teams in the conference," Baker said of Young. "He’s worked hard recruiting toward that. We’re excited about the basketball team."
Though the Eagles are losing two senior guards, Young points to the rest of a roster still heavy in youth.
"We had the second-biggest turnaround in the history of the Southern Conference," he said. "Think about that — the oldest league in the country, 97 years of basketball, and we had the second-biggest turnaround, with five sophomores, three freshmen and one junior. And they’re all coming back."
Eric Ferguson, a 6-foot-7 forward, will enter his junior season next year having averaged 15.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The explosive Ferguson shot 56.8 percent from the field and also had 34 blocked shots — the rest of the team combined for 35 blocks.
Ferguson also tied a career-high with 26 points in Southern’s 76-70 win over Chattanooga in the Southern Conference tournament’s first round, the Eagles’ first tournament win since 2007. He was named to the all-Southern Conference team by the league coaches and media members.
Jelani Hewitt, who averaged more than 10 points per game, will return for his junior season, as will guard Tré Bussey.
"We are going to be very, very good in the future," Young said. "We were very good this year, especially in the Southern Conference."
And he said the Eagles will need the Effingham fans, and more, to fill Hanner Fieldhouse, which holds 4,358.
"We are about to take a huge step forward, and you guys are a big part of that," he told the Effingham Eagle Club. "You never know how much you guys affect the game. Duke basketball would not be Duke basketball without the Cameron Crazies. It’s very, very intimidating.
"Now that you have helped us to get to the top of the Southern Conference, I want everybody to recruit one more person from Effingham to bring them to Hanner so we can have 5,000 or 6,000 a game. If we can get 5,000 or 6,000 every night in Hanner Fieldhouse, we cannot lose."
Young pointed out that the Eagles had the second-longest home winning streak in the nation during his playing days, and the crowds at Hanner were a factor in GSU’s 10-2 home record this season.
"We want to continue that tradition," he said. "That’s what we’re fighting to get back to."