LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 20: D'Marcus Simonds #15 of the Georgia State Panthers drives against Jack Perry #11 of the Eastern Washington Eagles during day one of the Main Event basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on November 20, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by )
Photo: Sam Wasson/Getty Images
Photo: Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Georgia State considers itself favorite in Sun Belt tournament

Georgia State is the No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, but it boasts the No. 1 player in the conference. And that’s largely why it considers itself the conference’s best.

D’Marcus Simonds ranks among the more prolific scorers in the country. He’s helped the Panthers to a 21-10 record while averaging 21.5 points per game. That’s the 19th highest scoring average in the country.

Georgia State will begin play in the tournament at 6 p.m. ET Friday in New Orleans against the winner of Troy-South Alabama game being played Wednesday night.

“The last time we had the best player in the tournament, we won it,” coach Ron Hunter said. “I remind D’Marcus of that.”

Hunter was referencing his son, R.J., who guided the Panthers to their most recent Sun Belt championship, in 2015. The team has won one tournament game since, and despite possessing the No. 2 seed a season ago, it was upset in the semifinals by Troy.

But this team is different, more complete, largely because of Simonds, but Hunter loves that his group can win however the game turns. They prefer to outgun opponents with a 3-point barrage, but if a defensive struggle is needed, they’ll oblige.

The data backs it up: Georgia State has won six games scoring 71 or fewer. It’s had four wins with 90 or more points. And plenty of numbers in-between.

That, Hunter believes, makes the Panthers the favorites in what he called arguably his favorite season as a coach.

“We are (the best team in the conference),” Hunter said. “And we want to go out and prove it.”

The Panthers didn’t exactly flex their muscles over the past month. After upending Louisiana-Lafayette, the conference’s No. 1 seed, GSU sagged off as it knew it had secured a bye.

They lost four of their final six, including a rivalry game at Georgia Southern and an ugly upset against Louisiana-Monroe. The Panthers closed the regular season with a 90-75 win over South Alabama, mitigating some concerns.

“We got complacent, starting thinking about tournament,” Hunter said. “But I like where we are. I love the versatility.”

Hunter isn’t worried about the slow finish. Always candid about his group’s strengths and weaknesses, Hunter said his team’s biggest flaw was playing down to competition. But it’d play up in the bigger games, which encourages Hunter with the team entering win-or-go-home territory.

The Panthers await the winner of Troy-South Alabama, two teams who both defeated GSU at one point this season. They find that more motivating. Even splitting the season series, it’s easier to gear up for a team who’s already taken you down.

Aside from the top seed, Louisiana-Lafayette has an advantage with the tournament in New Orleans. But Georgia State holds a mental edge: It’s defeated Louisiana-Lafayette four consecutive times, including a blowout victory this season, and has topped them four of the past five times on the road. Louisiana-Lafayette hasn’t beaten Georgia State since 2016.

Hunter wouldn’t look too far ahead, given that both parties would play twice before facing each other. But he’s confident in overcoming the road disadvantage if it happens. 

“It’s an advantage,” Hunter said of the tournament being held in New Orleans. “It’s a true road game. Their fans are there. But we’ve also fared well there. … It doesn’t matter (the opponent). We believe we can win.”