Phillip Brown, is the center of attention at a Georgia Southwestern practice, and Brown, the reigning Peach Belt Conference player of the Year, returns to lead the Hurricanes this season.
AMERICUS — The 2010-11 Peach Belt Conference championship and 2011 NCAA tournament banners aren’t all that’s hanging in the Storm Dome these days.
Those banners, which were unveiled during a preseason game on Halloween night, hang right alongside pride, desire and determination.
After practice last week, Georgia Southwestern senior Phillip Brown pointed over his shoulder to the banners that represent how far the Hurricane program has come.
“Those are the only banners hanging in here. Nobody thought we could do that, and we want to continue that legacy,” said Brown, who was key to last year’s team that went 20-9 and gave the school its first NCAA Division II men’s basketball national ranking, first PBC division title in any sport and first national tournament appearance in any sport.
“We just have to continue to work hard like we did last year and continue to believe in the system that coach (Mike Leeder) has provided for us.”
The Hurricanes’ much-anticipated 2011-12 season gets underway tonight at home against Trinity Baptist, and Leeder said it’s important for the Hurricanes to not have a sense of entitlement this season but still play with some pride.
“We want to make sure we approach it just like we did last year when we were the team that nobody had heard about and were picked (to finish) ninth in the league,” said Leeder, whose team was predicted to repeat as PBC champs in this year’s preseason poll. “And we want to take a lot of pride in what we accomplished, and work hard every single day to defend the mountain top.”
The Hurricanes don’t just want to defend that mountain top, they want to climb an even higher peak. They have three returning starters — Brown, an All-American and reigning PBC Player of the Year, Evan Mobley and Colin Slotter — and a host of key role players, including 6-9 junior Ian Andre from Albany High.
On top of that, GSW picked up two major recruits in the offseason — 6-10 forward Milos Kleut and guard Marlon Rivera, who led Division I Florida Gulf Coast University last season in minutes played, assists, steals and defensive rebounds.
Expectations are through the roof in Americus, where Leeder is challenging his team to put together at least a 23-win season.
“We went from seven wins to 20 wins last year, and I think it will be harder to go from 20 to 23,” Leeder said. “That next jump will be really, really difficult, and that’s what we are trying to convince the guys now.”
Twenty-three wins would likely put the Hurricanes in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8 of the national tournament, and that’s exactly where Brown thinks they are capable of going.
“That’s the goal,” said the senior, who averaged 14.7 points and a league-best 10.9 rebounds per game last season. “That’s what we fight for. That’s why we come and practice hard every single day.”
Along with the three returning starters, Rivera, Kleut, 6-7 junior forward Matt Shaw and 6-3 junior guard Bobby Glover will likely see some time in the starting lineup.
“We have seven guys who we are comfortable starting,” Leeder said. “I think we are a little deeper than we were last year, especially with Matt being healthy. I really like the makeup of this team.”
Last year, the Hurricanes were a perimeter shooting team, but this year’s squad will go through post players like Brown. The Hurricanes have four players at 6-7 or taller, making this the tallest team Leeder has coached in his six seasons at GSW.
Andre likely won’t start, but the transfer from Daytona State College has earned plenty of playing time with his defense and rebounding.
“Ian is a really, really good low-post defender,” Leeder said. “He is a big, strong guy and is a good communicator defensively. I think he will be another glue guy. He will be a good post player coming off the bench.”
With four seniors and six juniors on the 13-man roster, there will be no shortage of experience at GSW. And most of those upperclassmen also redshirted for a season, including Brown, who has already earned his undergraduate degree and is now in graduate school working on his MBA.
“I definitely think the team looks to us as leaders, and we have to go out there and come out and perform every day,” Brown said of himself, Mobley and Slotter. “However hard we play is how hard the team plays. We put it on our shoulders to come out there and practice hard every day and take it into the game, too.”
Mobley agreed with his senior teammate.
“We have a lot of guys who understand the goal we are trying to reach,” said Mobley, a four-year starter who is on pace to become GSW’s first 1,000 point scorer. “There is leadership all across the board, from our All-American to our 13th man. We expect to be better than last year. We want better than last year.”
And luckily for the Hurricanes, there is plenty of room in the Storm Dome for a few more banners.