Losing is a feeling Jeff Price isn’t used to as Georgia Southern men’s basketball coach. He doesn’t want to get used to it, either.
The Eagles went 15-16 this season, including a loss at Duke in the second game, plus losses to Clemson (who lost in the NIT finals) and Illinois.
“I think our program is to the point now where when you win 15 games, like we did this year, I feel like we let everybody down,” he told the Effingham Eagle Club.
Against the Blue Devils, in their season opener at fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Eagles led in the waning seconds of the first half before DeMarcus Nelson’s long 3-pointer put Duke in front for good in a 72-48 win that Price said was closer than the score showed.
“I was really proud of our guys,” he said.
The 15-16 record was the first losing mark for Price as a head coach, including his stint at Division II Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
“They’re not easy,” Price said. “It’s not just tough on me, it’s tough on our players. It was a rough year for everybody.”
It was supposed to be a banner year for the Eagles, who won the school’s first outright SoCon regular season championship the year before and went to the NIT.
“We were all really excited about that,” he said.
But injuries quickly derailed the Eagles, one of the preseason favorites in the Southern Conference’s South Division. They lost Matt Fields for nearly six weeks and point guard Dwayne Foreman also missed several games with an injury.
“When a key player like Matt Fields goes down for five or six weeks, it completely changed our basketball team,” Price said. “Our starting point guard misses three or four games, and it just magnifies. It was one those of kinds of years.”
The season was not without its highlights, especially a win against College of Charleston on ESPN in the regular-season finale, part of a streak of four straight wins. It was also a season of near misses, as the Eagles dropped seven games in the final 30 seconds.
“We lost so many close games,” Price said, “and to our players’ credit, everybody knows how to act when you win but not everybody knows how to act when you lose, and they did a tremendous job. They had every opportunity to lay down and quit on me, and they didn’t do it.”
The Eagles are losing shooting guard Donte Gennie and forward Diogo Salazar. However, they return 12 players, including Fields, Foreman and Louis Graham, who is already the school’s all-time leading shot blocker.
“We’ll have a good nucleus back,” Price said.
Price signed four players in the early signing period, but the road back to the top of the SoCon will be difficult. Defending league champ Davidson returns its entire starting five, including freshman of the year Stephen Curry, son of former NBA star Dell Curry.
“Nobody expected Davidson to be that good,” Price said. “Charleston was the unanimous pick to win the conference. Our side of the league is awfully good.”
Southern’s schedule this season, including giving Duke all it could handle and a 12-point loss at Clemson, may pale in comparison for what it faces in 2007-08. The Eagles are on tap to play Florida State and two-time defending national champion Florida.
“Our schedule this year was brutal,” he said. “Our schedule will be good, and the conference will be good.”
Price, 273-141 for his career, first came to Georgia Southern as an assistant coach, twice serving under Frank Kerns, and he returned following the 1998-99 season to replace Gregg Polinsky. In seven years as GSU’s head coach, he is 79-56, with three regular season SoCon crowns.
“I’ve spent exactly half of my adult life as a Georgia Southern coach,” he said.
He also said he doesn’t thank the fans enough for their support, and noted how many Eagle basketball supporters are from Effingham at each home game. He also vowed that the Eagles won’ repeat the failures of the past season.
“I really appreciate our fans here in Effingham and how good you all have been to us,” he said. “You can bet that myself and my players will do everything we can to get back to where we were at.
“We’re going to do everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”