Georgia State meets Georgia Southern with first place on line

Georgia State’s visit to Georgia Southern on Thursday should be fun for a lot of reasons, the least of which is the burgeoning rivalry between the two schools:

  • No. 1: The Eagles (15-4, 8-2), picked to finish tied for ninth in the Sun Belt Conference’s preseason poll, lead the league by one-half game ahead of the Panthers (15-7, 8-3), the defending champs.
  • No. 2: The game will feature what Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said are four of the five best players in the conference — Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter for the Panthers; Jelani Hewitt and Trent Wiedeman for the Eagles.
  • No. 3: The styles of play should make for tactical fun. The Eagles thrive with 3-pointers and defense. The Panthers can score all over the floor and have, at least recently, have become much better at defending the 3-point arc.

 

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“It’s great that the two best teams in the league are in the state of Georgia,” Ron Hunter said.

Both Hunter and Georgia Southern’s Mark Byington are trying to minimize the game’s importance. It is but one of 20 conference games each team will play. The top two teams from the regular season receive byes into the semifinals of the conference tournament in New Orleans.

“This game is as valuable as the next game,” Byington said.

But Byington said he would like his team to continue to win at Hanner Fieldhouse, where they Eagles are 9-0 this season.

The Eagles are defying the Sun Belt preseason poll (voted on by coaches) with a combination of aggressive defense that can efficiently switch between man and zone (depending upon opponent) and the senior leadership of Hewitt and Wiedeman.

In the past four games, Georgia Southern is limiting opponents to 33.3 percent shooting and 50.6 points per game. For the season, opponents are shooting 37.7 percent and averaging 59.4 points.

“In the last four games, we have really guarded well,” Byington said.

Hewitt and Wiedeman are the sparks on offense, combining to average 31.6 points per game. Hewitt is hitting 39 percent of his 3-pointers — the team is averaging 33.8 percent — and Wiedeman can score near the basket or step out to hit the mid-range jumper. Hunter said they are both all-conference performers that have helped a young team in its first year in the conference.

“With those two, they have excelled in the leadership role,” Byington said.

Perhaps the only duo that has outshone Hewitt and Wiedeman are Hunter and Harrow, who are averaging a combined 40.6 points per game.

“If those two guys have a good night, you are probably going to lose,” Byington said.

Byington said the difficulty in stopping them is they can both score from anywhere. Harrow’s jump shot is improved from last year and Hunter is finding other ways to score when his 3-pointers aren’t falling. Byington described them as an ACC-caliber backcourt.

But as the Eagles have done most of the season, the Panthers are using an improving defense to spark a four-game winning streak. During that span, Georgia State is limiting opponents to 32.4 percent shooting and 58.8 points per game.

Put all of the ingredients together and this game should have more drama than the first football game played between the schools as Sun Belt members. The Eagles ran away with that one last season by 38 points.

“It’s going to be an exciting game,” Byington said.

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