Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AMERICUS -- Mike Leeder has started from scratch. He's turned teams around and he's struggled with transition.

At Georgia Southwestern State, he's done a little bit of it all. That's the honest truth, and that's just the way Leeder likes it.

As the head coach for the Hurricanes men's basketball program for the last five years, Leeder's straight-shooter style is clicking and has GSW headed to the Division II NCAA Tournament for the first time since the school transitioned from NAIA to D-II in his first year as head coach during the 2006-07 season.

"He's probably the most truthful coach (I've had)," said junior Phillip Brown, who won Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year in his first season playing for Leeder -- an honor that was another first for GSW. "He's not going to sugarcoat it. He's going to tell you exactly how it is. He's going to tell you exactly how he feels."

Deal with it.

And the players seem to like that straight-forward approach from Leeder, and apparently the rest of the conference has taken notice of the Peach Belt West Division champs. Leeder was also named PBC Coach of the Year.

"I've probably lost friends and relationships because of (my) directness," Leeder said Tuesday after practice as his No. 3-seeded GSW team (20-8) prepared to face No. 6 Montevallo (18-10) on Saturday in the first round. "I think that kids, when they get used to it, they appreciate that. As a coach, I like to be dealt with directly and I try to deal with people directly. Sometimes, that hurts feelings and bruises egos."

Leeder, 43, knows how it feels.

After leading Longwood University in Virginia to its best one-season turnaround in 2000-01 -- going from four wins the previous season to 23 wins and establishing a Top 10 program -- Leeder was fired in the school's first year of transition from Division II to Division I when his fourth athletic director in four years had another coach in mind.

He was 26 then, and put in charge of starting the inaugural basketball program at Thomas University in Thomasville, a situation he compares to that of GSW's transition five years ago.

"This one was almost like starting over again," said Leeder, who took over for legendary Hurricanes head coach Randolph Barksdale, who made GSW into a NAIA power and took the Hurricanes to the national tournament six times. "It was something when I look back on as I get a little bit older and I'll think, 'Boy, we got to the NCAA Tournament a little bit faster than I thought we would.' "

The Hurricanes have only been eligible for the postseason in Division II for three seasons after their exploratory phase was completed in Leeder's first two years. They struggled mightily in the beginning, joining the powerful Peach Belt, and Leeder admits the school wasn't ready to compete at that level.

Even Leeder questioned the move when the hard times persisted, namely going 41-70 between 2006-2010 with just one winning season.

"There were times that I thought it could happen," Leeder said of some day being a postseason tournament team in D-II. "(Then) there were times when I was as skeptical as anybody else."

Then Leeder and assistant coach Stephen Cox had an epiphany: Go get D-I level players that may be looking for a change of scenery. That was the new recruiting plan in Americus and Cox knew a few guys who might be interested.

Trayce Macon, who Cox crossed paths with during his days at Santa Fe Community College in Florida, came over from Troy University to play his senior season. Brown, a junior at Air Force Academy, wanted another environment to work on his grades, and Collin Slotter, who moved on from Murray State, wanted a place to play.

"Coming out of high school, I was just focused on going to a Division I school," Slotter said. "I guess I like it (at GSW) so far."

Problem solved. Brown won the PBC's Player of Year, Slotter was named Newcomer of the Year after sitting out the first half of the season, and Macon was a PBC Second-Team selection.

"I think that's what you have to have to be competitive in our league," Leeder said of bringing in transfers. "They're guys, for whatever reason, it didn't work out for at the Division I level. But you still have to have the Evan Mobleys (Hurricanes junior guard) and Dannie Hunts (Hurricanes senior forward). There has to be a mix. I think we've done a nice job of blending the transfers with the (players who came to our program straight from) high school."

Every player on the GSW roster has redshirted at some point, leaving Leeder with a collection of mature young men on the court. In the end, they all bought into Leeder's pitch, which didn't come with any signing-bonus promises. It was just straight up honesty, the only way Leeder knew how.

"We were 7-20 last year and the ship was sinking," Leeder said of his spiel to the former D-I guys this past offseason. "We didn't try to sugarcoat it when they came on board. I said, 'Hey, we haven't done very well. This is what we want to accomplish and we want you to be a part of it.'"

Macon, Brown and Slotter didn't know much, if anything, about Leeder or Georgia Southwestern before coming to Americus. Now, they've made Leeder's job a little easier -- and he's made them winners.

"The job gets a little bit better every year. And because of that, we've had a chance to get a little bit better," Leeder said. "This year it all came together."