We’re past the point where we wonder if Georgia State can crash the Big Dance. The Panthers have done it three times in five years. They’re happy to be here, but they’re not nearly satisfied. They know they can compete with most anybody. The question, then: Can they beat Houston, a No. 3 seed, in the first round of the Midwest Regional here Friday night?
Here was Georgia State coach Ron Hunter at Thursday’s media session, lying through his teeth: “We have no shot, buddy. I don't know why we're coming. Our kids are good players; Houston definitely has a much better coach. Their coach (Kelvin Sampson) is so much better. I'm outmatched.”
Then: “Kelvin, he's like my idol. I think when I was 10, he was 60 at that time. I really look up to Grandpa. I will ask Grandpa if I should call a timeout. I'll ask him who I should start. If it's four minutes to go and we are winning, I will ask Grandpa if it's OK to finish the game and we can win. I don’t even know why we’re here.”
Fact check: Sampson is 63, Hunter 54. No matter. Hunter was on another of his March rolls, and eventually he got around to telling the truth.
“I will be extremely, extremely disappointed if we don't win this game. That's no disrespect to Houston at all. I've got a really good basketball team. We got beat by Cincinnati (in last year’s Round 1). Our whole goal was to come back here and win. We had to go through the process. When you're a mid-major, it's not automatic you're going to get there. We beat Georgia, we beat Alabama, we beat some good teams on the way. The problem that we had, we got to about January and they wanted to get from January to March. Now the kids are here.”
Then: “We could (be playing) the Boston Celtics. Our guys are on a mission. We want to win this game.”
Houston is 31-3. It’s favored by 12 points. Ken Pomeroy’s rankings give the Cougars an 85 percent chance of winning. The NCAA’s NET ratings have Houston fourth behind Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke; Georgia State is 121st, just ahead of 21-loss Georgia and 18-loss Georgia Tech. That said:
Georgia State believes it has a better chance against Houston than it did Cincinnati. (Which, FYI, just beat the Cougars in the American Athletic Conference final.) The Panthers wound up losing to second-seeded Cincy 68-53 last spring, but the Panthers led with 9:05 remaining. Only at the under-8:00 media timeout did Hunter get worried. He looked at his men and saw fatigue, which would become apparent. His team made only three more baskets. That can happen to a double-digit seed in the waning moments of a pressurized game.
But, as Hunter said Thursday: “We’re a little bit more relaxed than we were a year ago. … We’re a better team than we were a year ago.”
Fact is, Georgia State is a team not unlike Houston. Per KenPom, 43.7 of the Panthers’ field-goal tries are 3-pointers; 42.9 percent of the Cougars’ are. Both teams start three guards and two forwards. GSU’s biggest rotational player is 6-foot-6; Houston’s tallest is 6-8. The Cougars lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense, but Georgia State’s matchup zone can make it difficult on any opponent, especially one seeing it for the first time.
Said Panthers guard D’Marcus Simonds: “They really like to play in transition and work hard defensively. They’re really similar to how we play.”
With this difference. Simonds again: “They really crash the glass.”
Georgia State ranks 334th of 351 Division I teams in rebounding margin. Houston is No. 8. Hunter insists that rebounding “is one of the most misleading stats out there” – to be fair, it can be hard to rebound when playing a zone – but that would appear to be the one place the Panthers don’t measure up. Still, the NCCA tournament isn’t a best-of-7; it’s one game, and if the Panthers start making 3-pointers, Houston might have to go smaller than it wants.
This we know: The Panthers aren’t awed. As nice as two early victories over SEC opponents were, it was a December game at Kansas State – an Elite Eight team last year, the Big 12 regular-season co-champ this time – that made them believe. They lost 71-59, but they led with 9:04 remaining.
Said sixth man Devin Mitchell: “Being in the game with those guys, a defensive team at a tough place to play in Manhattan – we all looked at each other: ‘Hey, man, we're pretty good. We can definitely make some noise if we stay locked in.’ We feel like that was the game we should have won.”
We haven’t mentioned the legendary Baylor upset of 2015, when No. 14 GSU scored the final 13 points to unseat both the fourth-seeded Bears and Hunter, who was coaching from a rolling chair after tearing his Achilles in celebration of the Sun Belt title four days earlier. We haven’t mentioned it because none of those players are still on the roster. Those who are have seen a lot. According to KenPom, this is the nation’s 29th-most-seasoned team. Come the Madness, that’s no small thing.
Said Hunter of that epochal upset: “It put a trademark on our program. If that situation doesn’t happen, I don’t know if we’re back here. It changed the dynamic of Georgia State. It changed my life. I still get asked about my hip, and it wasn’t even my hip.”
And yet: The famous rolling chair didn’t make the trip. (It was present in Nashville last March.) Hunter again: “We were taking the band and everybody (on the plane). It was either the chair or my AD. We left the chair behind.”
With Hunter and GSU, there’s no such thing as a dull Big Dance. This spring’s highlight involved the Panthers’ bus, en route from New Orleans after the Sun Belt tournament, stopping at the Red Zone sports bar in Diamondhead, Miss., to watch the selection show. Said forward Malik Benlevi: “We were like, ‘What are we doing?’ We walked in and saw a lot of old people, and (they said), ‘Who are y’all?’ We said, ‘We’re the Georgia State basketball team.’ ”
They are indeed, and they have a real chance to introduce themselves to the entire nation Friday night.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.