Despite the departure of star guard Jeremiah Hill, the Blazers are better equipped to make a tourney run this time around.
At 26-3, the Valdosta State Blazers are currently ranked No. 14 in the NABC Coaches Poll and find themselves ranked No. 3 in the South region. The ranking, as well as the national perception of the team, seems to be more based on past seasons rather than the team of the present.
It’s time to get out of the past and get up to date. Here are three reasons why this year’s Gulf South Conference champion has a better chance than in years past to making a run in D2’s national tournament:
Beau Got Even Better
One of the most prolific scorers in VSU history got even better this season. A fan favorite in large part due to his shooting behind the arc, junior Beau Justice shot an impressive 40.3 percent from 3-point range last season, 46.1 percent from the field in general and shot just under 85 percent from the charity stripe.
Those numbers are impressive, but Justice has actually improved in all three of those categories in the 2017-18 season. Justice has made 48.1 percent of his attempts from the field, going over 90 percent from the line and draining threes 42.7 percent of the time.
The leading scorer for the Blazers, Justice has averaged 20.72 ppg, a number that’s not only six points above his sophomore season average, but also a number that eclipses the great Jeremiah Hill’s 19.56 ppg average from last season.
More Jimmy, More Buckets
During a commercial break, a young boy from the crowd told VSU media personality Z. Anderson that his favorite Blazer basketball player is “Jimmy Buckets.” One of the more versatile players on the squad, senior Jimmy “Buckets” Kodet has played a more significant role in this year’s offense with 229 attempts from the field versus only 141 in his junior season.
We saw his ability on display in 2016: the dunks, the 3-point jumpers and his unique skill to provide humor both on and off the court, but his even larger role in the 2017 season has done more than the box scores indicate.
His passion and competitive fire ignites a flame for the Blazers, and his presence makes his teammates around him better as a result of his threat to beat you both inside and on the perimeter.
Kodet’s 25 point-performance against North Alabama showed just how he can impact a game. With him leading the way, the Blazers put up 98 points on a team that had only given up 78.8 on average prior to that contest, earning him Gulf South Conference Player of the Week honors.
The New Additions
Beau and Buckets are familiar faces to Blazer basketball fans, but the unit has improved with the additions of K.J. James, Winston Morgan, Clay Guillozet and Greg Zuppas, among others.
In addition to these players playing a significant role on the team, Justin McBride, a former University of Central Florida Knight, has been a big part of the Blazers’ success, both in terms of his contribution and his 6-foot, 11”-inch, 350-pound size. McBride, while his point totals don’t jump out at you, gives the offense that huge post presence and eliminates his part of the court on the defensive end.
He doesn’t have a lot of blocks on the season, but the Starke, Florida, native is like a lockdown corner on the football field who doesn’t have many interceptions because opposing quarterbacks simply don’t throw it his way.
James, the team’s second leading scorer, averages 14.8 ppg and has been dynamite from deep, with a .483 3-point field goal percentage, but perhaps more impressive is the fact that he shoots over 60 percent from the field.
The unit, with these new additions, is averaging 94.4 ppg, 5.8 more than the output of last year’s squad.
VSU, a team that lost in the opening (regional) round of last year’s tournament to Rollins, appears to have the tools necessary to go deeper in the tournament this time around. I like the Blazers’ chances of winning the South region for the first time since 2010 and showing people everywhere that VSU can compete on a national level.
Written by Bryant Roche, Contributor. Photo courtesy of VSU Athletics.
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