Georgia State prepared for big run in Sun Belt Tournament

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Georgia State prepared for big run in Sun Belt Tournament

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Georgia State coach Ron Hunter sits down with his team during a timeout to point out how to survive the final minutes of the game in a Sun Belt Conference college basketball game between Georgia State University and Appalachian State University in Atlanta, Georgia, on Monday, January 23, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Georgia State made it to the Sun Belt Championship game in two of the past three years and are prepared to make it three out of the past four.

The No. 2-seed Panthers’ first matchup in the tournament, which began Wednesday in New Orleans, will come against No. 7-seed Louisiana-Lafayette at 6 p.m. Friday. The Panthers were 2-0 against the Ragin’ Cajuns during the regular season.

The Panthers didn’t learn who their opponent would be until late Wednesday night. However, the identity of the opponent didsn’t make much of a difference in the Panthers’ preparations for the game.

“We work on our stuff even during the regular season. It’s more about what we do,” coach Ron Hunter said. “If we do our stuff defensively and our matchup, and our slides, then there’s only so much you are going to do against our defense. It’s mostly getting our timing back and those things.”

The Panthers are a young team without much Sun Belt tournament experience after getting knocked out in the first round last year. On the other hand, Hunter thinks the few players who do have experience will provide leadership moving forward.

“Isaiah Dennis and Jordan Session have won games in the NCAA tournament,” Hunter said. “They can talk to them about what it’s like. They’ve been in that championship game before. I think having the experienced guys can help them and calm them down a bit.”

The Sun Belt championship is anyone’s to take this season. In fact, No. 12-seed Louisiana-Monroe (2-16 conference record) pulled off an upset over No. 5-seed Arkansas State (11-7) in the first round. Hunter knows the challenges moving forward for the Panthers.

“Anybody can beat anyone, and you have to come ready to play,” Hunter said of his team’s biggest challenge. “Our biggest deal is we can’t let Georgia State beat Georgia State. We can’t turn the ball over. I’ve talked to guys ever since Saturday (20 turnovers), we’ve got to take care of the basketball. If we want to go home early it’ll be because we turned the ball.”

“Turnovers, that’s Georgia State’s kryptonite, we have to keep that contained. We gotta have 12 or less turnovers during the conference tournament.”

Not only do the Panthers need to limit their turnovers, Hunter said they will need one of their players to be “an X-factor,” especially on the offense.

“D’Marcus Simonds, I think he’s hard to cover,” Hunter said about who he thinks the X-factor will be. “When you look all year, when D’Marcus has played well we have not lost all year. He’s our key guy.”

Simonds is the second leading scorer on the team, averaging 13 points per game, and earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors. He is shooting 56 percent from the floor this season and scored 21 points in a win against rival Georgia Southern to clinch the second seed in the tournament.

“It was kind of expected for me, one of the goals I set coming into college,” Simonds said about winning freshman of the year. “Just glad I could accomplish it, but there’s many more things to come throughout my career.”

With high expectations, the Panthers are confident that they can win the Sun Belt championship.

“They’re excited. I think the confidence we got is good,” Hunter said of his team’s mind-set heading into the tournament. “We know the only team that can beat Georgia State in this tournament is Georgia State. We’ve talked about that and let’s not beat ourselves.”

“If we play good ball, play the way were supposed to, there isn’t anyone who can beat us,” Simonds said.

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