The Valdosta State men’s basketball team is amid a program renaissance. The Blazers, who haven’t won more than 20 games since the 2010-2011 season, currently sit atop the Gulf South Conference with a 19-4 overall record and just five games left on the schedule.
The turnaround is in large part due to a very veteran roster. Five Blazers’ — Beau Justice, Saadiq Muhammed, Damian Young, Josh Lemons and Jeremiah Hill — average more than 10 points a game. Four of those scoring leaders are seniors. They combine for a GSC best 87.9 points a game, ranking them amongst the top 25 in Division II.
These seniors haven't experienced much in post-season play or big-win seasons. They have won 16, 10 and 17 games respectively in each of the past three seasons. Valdosta State is finally a healthy, experienced team. More importantly, they are a united front with a common goal.
“The past couple of years, we’ve had some catalysts,” senior guard Jeremiah Hill said. “Our first year, we had some bad rocks. This past year, we had a bunch of injuries. This year, finally, we’re able to keep the team together the whole time.”
Hill is leading the charge, most recently earning GSC Player of the Week honors.
Heading into Thursday night's matchup, Hill was tops on the team in points, assists and steals amid a breakout season. His 19.1 points a game are both a career high and third in the GSC, a conference that boasts the nation’s leading scorer in Shorter’s Phil Taylor.
Hill credits his teammates for his big season.
“My teammates trust and confidence in me has allowed my confidence to go through the roof,” Hill said. “Last year, I relied on [senior guard Blake Justice] a lot, he being our senior in kind of the same role as me. So this year, I turned around, and said, ‘well if I looked at him like that, I can only imagine what my teammates are looking at me like.’ It gives you this unknown confidence to perform night in and night out.”
This season, the Blazers have enjoyed a few memorable experiences. One of those occurred on Jan. 20 in a 79-62 victory over the very tough Delta State. It was twelfth-year head coach Mike Helfer’s 400th career victory.
“To be a part of any coaches milestone is always a good feat,” Hill said. “It’s something you get excited for. He didn’t celebrate it much. He didn’t ask us to celebrate it for him. We kept it under wraps and stayed excited on the inside.”
The national rankings and NCAA tournament are something that has eluded the Blazers in recent seasons. That changed this year when VSU entered the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ Poll on Jan. 31 for the first time in six years.
“It shows finally that all of our hard work in the weight room and in practice and competing every day, it paid off,” Hill said. “Being in first place means a lot to us. It shows us we have some thing special here. We have to keep working and keep pushing for bigger and better things.”
The Blazers dropped a tough road match to Delta State last weekend and dropped out of the rankings. They still received votes in the most recent NABC Poll, keeping them amongst the best 30 teams in DII.
VSU would bounce back in dramatic fashion Thursday evening. Trailing by 12 at the half, they came storming back. Fueled by a 47-point second half, the Blazers forced overtime and went on to win by 14 on the road against Union. Hill, once again, led the way with a team high 30 points, four assists and two steals.
MBB: BLAZERS WTH THE HUGE OVERTIME WIN!!They defeat Union 89-75 and improve to 19-4 on the season. What a game boys!!! pic.twitter.com/6A7mozwHq4— VSU Athletics (@BlazerAthletics) February 10, 2017
“You live for moments that are bigger than you,” Hill said. “That’s what this is. This is a moment in time where we have all been put together to be part of something bigger than us. It’s no longer an individual ‘how are you doing?’ It’s all about how are we doing. With anything in life, that’s what you want to be a part of, something bigger and better.”
It has been quite the impressive turnaround for the Blazers. Hill and his fellow seniors have never won more than 17 games in their tenure with VSU. They already have 19 wins, clinching them a spot in the GSC Tournament. That will return Valdosta State to the GSC postseason, but they now have their sights on the end goal -- bringing this Blazers program back to the NCAA DII basketball championship tournament for the first time since 2010.
“It’s everybody’s dream here to be in the national tournament,” Hill said. “Just to even have a chance. The fact that we are headed in the right path and playing on the level that we could be invited to the tournament is awesome beyond belief.”