Does Georgia State have a shot at No. 2 Cincinnati? Why, yes

Sometimes a No. 15 seed is beaten before it starts. Had Georgia State been matched against Duke or North Carolina, the Panthers would have had no chance – the manpower difference would have been too vast. Because they were drawn against Cincinnati, they have a chance.

The Bearcats are No. 4 overall in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Georgia State is 95th. That's a gulf. This isn't: Cincinnati is second national in Effective Field Goal Percentage defense; the Panthers are 21st. Odds are, the Panthers won't score much Friday – and neither will Cincy. This is why KenPom gives GSU a 13 percent chance of winning, which is more than double the chance the analytic site assigns any of the other three No. 15s.

Cincinnati is great on defense. Like other teams that are great on defense – Virginia, say – the Bearcats’ games are slogs. Theyrank 323rd among 351 Division I teams in adjusted tempo. A pedestrian pace can become a liability if you’re the heavy favorite on a neutral floor and you’re unable to build a working lead. The longer the underdog stays close, the more the pressure descends on the team that’s supposed to win.

Georgia State has the edge in one essential index: It ranks 55th in Effective Field Goal Percentage; Cincinnati is 147th. The Bearcats have a hard time scoring. They’re not apt to win by 25 points. They don’t shoot well enough or play fast enough for that to happen. Cincinnati is 30-4, but the three best teams it beat outside the American Athletic Conference – the nation’s seventh-best league – were Buffalo, which won the Mid-American; UCLA, which barely made the NCAA field and is gone already, and Mississippi State, which is playing in the NIT.

As effusive as coach Ron Hunter and his Panthers can be in conversation, this isn’t a team that simply runs around and chucks a bunch of treys. “Sitting there watching, it looks really free,” guard D’Marcus Simonds said Thursday, “but it’s a system.”

Guard Devin Mitchell: “I’m pretty sure they’re going to try to run us off the (3-point) line. But I’m sure we’ll be able to get our shots off.”

There’s no reason to believe the Panthers will make 50 percent of their shots Friday. Only Wichita State and Cleveland State – the latter is coached by Dennis Felton, formerly of Georgia – did that this season. But Cincinnati isn’t apt to shoot well, either. The Bearcats won three games in the American tournament despite making only 42.1, 40.7 and 43.5 percent of their shots. But these were the shooting percentages of Georgia State’s opponents in the Sun Belt tournament – 31.1, 39.6 and 29.8. The Panthers didn’t trail in that event.

If there’s a knock on Georgia State, it’s that it has played only one team that made the NCAA field. The Panthers beat Montana 71-68 on Dec. 9. It played only one Power 5 opponent, losing to Ole Miss, which finished as the SEC’s worst team, in November. (The Panthers did beat Georgia Tech in an exhibition.) There’s no way to know if a mid-major can stand in against one of the big boys until it actually happens, but we have to ask: Exactly how big is Cincinnati?

This is the Bearcats’ eighth consecutive NCAA tournament. They’ve failed to advance beyond the first weekend in six of the previous seven. Even though they’re a No. 2 seed, they’re not expected to go far this time. ESPN polled 27 of its analysts: None had Cincinnati reaching the Final Four. (This program, which won championships in 1961 and 1962 and was denied by Loyola in overtime in 1963, has reached one Final Four since – under Bob Huggins in 1992.)

If you’re a No. 15, Cincinnati is the Round 1 opponent you’re hoping to get. It’s not to overwhelm you with talent. It’s not going to shoot the lights out. It has to beat you up to beat you, and these Panthers aren’t shrinking violets themselves. Don’t misunderstand: This would be a massive upset – only eight No. 2 seeds have ever been one-and-done – if it happens. But these Panthers do have a shot.