Jeff Price admitted he’d said it before. But he still believes what he’s saying.
The Georgia Southern men’s basketball coach is continuing to encourage Eagles supporters that the program is still on the rise.
The Eagles, who lost in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament for the second time in three years, haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1992. They’ve made one postseason tournament — the NIT in 2006 — since then.
“It will happen. It’s going to happen,” Price told the Effingham Eagle Club. “There is no one who wants to get to the tournament more than me.”
Under Price, who has been head coach at GSU for nine seasons, the Eagles have posted 20-win seasons in three of the last five campaigns. They have finished either first or second in the Southern Conference’s South Division seven times.
“I feel like we accomplished some great things,” Price said.
Georgia Southern finished 20-12 but lost its final four games of the 2007-08 season — a “Bracket Buster Challenge” game on ESPN at eventual Ohio Valley Conference champ Austin Peay, a loss on the road at the College of Charleston, a home loss to SoCon champion and Elite Eight team Davidson and the SoCon tourney opener loss to the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C.
“I think we were wore out somewhat,” Price said.
He’s also eager for the conference tournament to leave Charleston, where the Eagles are 1-3 in the tournament. The tournament is going back to Chattanooga after three years in Charleston, home to College of Charleston and fellow SoCon foe The Citadel.
“I think we need a change of venue,” Price said. “I can’t wait for the tournament to get out of Charleston. I hate being on someone’s home floor but the last three Southern Conference tournament games, we’ve played the home team. I jokingly said next year we’ll probably draw Chattanooga the first game.”
The Eagles opened the 07-08 season with a 92-67 loss to Florida State and lost 52-49 to defending national champion Florida, losing a late lead, to snap a seven-game winning streak.
“We had every opportunity and should have beaten the Florida Gators,” Price said. “We missed 12 free throws and lost by three points. Any time you miss free throws like that, it’s tough to swallow. But it gave us great confidence.”
Before their four-game skid to end the season, the Eagles reeled off six straight wins and won eight of nine games. That, plus the players he has coming back and the ones he has coming in, have Price enthused about 2008-09.
“I’m excited about next year,” he said. “I feel we have a nice nucleus back.”
Guard Willie Powers, the team’s second-leading scorer, will be back, as will guards Anthony Marshall and Antoine Johnson. In his freshman season, Powers averaged 11.5 points per game and hit 40.5 percent of his 3-point shots. Price said the Gainesville, Fla., product could put up numbers similar to those of Julius Jenkins, Elton Nesbitt, Donte Gennie and Terry Williams when he’s through.
“Willie Powers is going to be a special player,” Price said. “Willie’s awfully good.”
But there are concerns in the paint for the Eagles. Louis Graham, the school’s all-time leading shotblocker, has finished has eligibility as has Matt Fields, the team’s third-leading scorer. Point guard Dwayne Foreman, the school’s all-time assists leader, also is finished.
The pressure could be on 6-foot-11 center Krzysztof Janiszewski, who has played sparingly in his first two seasons, 6-8 junior college transfer Trumaine Pearson and 6-6 Kenith Ward to fill the void left by Graham and Fields.
“Anytime you lose guys like that, you have concerns,” Price said. “But we have a chance to be at the top.”
Davidson, which has gone 37-1 in the conference over the last two seasons, put the league on a new level with its showing in the NCAA tournament. What the Wildcats have done over the last couple of years — including regular season losses to North Carolina and Duke by a combined 10 points — only helps the rest of the SoCon teams, according to Price.
The Wildcats lost 59-57 to eventual national champion Kansas in the Midwest Regional final.
“It did our conference so much good,” Price said. “That certainly helped our conference — a lot.”
The SoCon is a one-bid league, the Eagles coach said, meaning it would take a remarkable occurrence for two SoCon teams to make the NCAAs. Davidson has won the last three conference tournaments, taking the league’s automatic bid each time.
“If someone had beaten Davidson in the tournament, I think we would have gotten two in,” Price said. “Last year, we were really close. I think our league gets better and better.”
The Eagles played a demanding out-of-conference schedule last season — taking on Alabama-Birmingham and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in addition to FSU and Florida — and Price expects more of the same in the coming campaign.
Austin Peay will be coming to Hanner Fieldhouse and the Eagles will host a Bracket Busters game in February, though that opponent won’t be determined until the beginning of that month. The Eagles averaged 2,473 fans a game at Hanner last year and have gone from 10th to third in the league in attendance in Price’s tenure.
Georgia Southern also will be playing in a tournament hosted by Drake and take part in what Price called “a good early season tournament.”
The 2008-09 schedule isn’t finished yet, but the coach likes the way it’s shaping up.
“Our home schedule is by far the best we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said. “Our schedule will be extremely difficult and hopefully prepare us to get better.”