I went to Georgia State men’s basketball practice Thursday ready for first-year coach Rob Lanier to agree with my premise that the program hasn’t slipped despite major attrition.
Ron Hunter, coach for the best era of the program’s modest history, left for Tulane. D’Marcus Simonds, one of the best to play there, left for pro ball. And yet the Panthers (13-7, 6-3 Sun Belt) are in position for a third consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
But Lanier rejected my proposition. For one thing, Georgia State has 11 conference games remaining. More to the point, Lanier said this Panthers team hasn’t earned the right to be compared with those championship teams.
“You know the phrase, ‘guilty by association?’ I think a lot of times guys get credit by association,” Lanier said. “Our guys have to understand, we haven’t done anything yet. Yes, the program won back-to-back Sun Belt titles. But this team hasn’t done anything. You’ve still got to stand on your own.”
Some of that may be the typical talk of a coach trying to prevent his team from getting complacent. Quipped senior forward Damon Wilson regarding Lanier: “He’s never happy. But last weekend the Panthers showed that their coach has a point.
They were tied for the league lead when they went to Troy, which is near the bottom of the league standings. The Panthers left with a 75-65 loss. Lanier said that’s the latest game in which the Panthers faced some unexpected adversity and didn’t handle it well.
“Even going into it, I thought (players) felt like that game was going to go according to a script,” Lanier said. “Troy didn’t comply.”
The loss was a setback for the Panthers. They still are tied for second place in the Sun belt with rival Georgia Southern. Win in Statesboro on Saturday, and Georgia State will be alone in second place with half its league schedule complete.
I didn’t expect the Panthers to contend for the conference title after so much attrition. Neither did the league’s coaches, who picked Georgia State to finish sixth in a preseason poll. Junior guard Kane Williams was the only Georgia State player voted to one of the three all-conference teams.
I first suspected the Panthers might be better than that after watching their second game of the season. Duke, favored by 28-1/2 points, won by 11 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Panthers got hammered on the boards and at the free-throw line but held Duke to what’s still its worst shooting game of the season.
If the Panthers could do that so early in the season, what might they do once they start to figure one another out? They provided some clues during a seven-game winning streak that spanned November and December. Georgia State opened 3-0 in the league, lost consecutive road games by one possession, then won three in a row again.
The loss to Troy ended that streak. The Panthers have a chance to quickly move past it with a victory at Georgia Southern. A finish in the Sun Belt’s top two means a bye to the league tournament semifinal in New Orleans. For those teams, two victories earns the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Hunter’s teams set that standard. The Panthers memorably upset No. 3-seed Baylor in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament with Hunter’s son, R.J., leading the way. They won the past two Sun Belt tournaments with Simonds as their star before going one-and-done in the dance.
The Panthers mostly started over this season. Williams, Wilson and sophomore Nelson Phillips are the only major contributors from last season still around. First-year transfers Justin Roberts (DePaul) and Corey Allen (Detroit) are the top two scorers. The new coach, new players and holdovers with larger roles have managed to quickly form a good team.
The Panthers don’t have much size. Their top five players in minutes played stand no taller than 6-foot-5. That helps to explain why GSU is among the worst defensive rebounding teams in Division I, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. That statistic features prominently in Lanier’s message and practice plan this week.
But Panthers do have a lot of speed and athletic ability. Lanier maximizes those attributes with pressure defense and a quick pace. Georgia State’s offensive tempo is among the fastest in D1 and its steals rate is among the highest.
Outside shooting is what the Panthers do best. Entering Thursday, only six D1 teams made a higher percentage of 3-point shots (39.4 percent). Five Panthers are shooting 37 percent or better on 3’s with each of them attempting at least 48.
Put those elements together and you can see how Georgia State, given the right matchup, could score an NCAA tourney upset. Bother the opponent with defensive pressure. Offset offensive boards allowed with steals collected. Spread the defense out and make a lot of 3-pointers.
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. To make the NCAA tournament, the Panthers must win the Sun Belt tournament. As Lanier reminded, they still haven’t proved anything yet. I think the Panthers already have shown something by being in good position to win the league again.
“I knew what this team was capable of (doing), but a lot of other people didn’t know because it’s a new team, a lot of people left,” Wilson said. “But I knew what was going to happen. We are still not satisfied. We’ve got high expectations.”
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.