Lanier reflects on suddenly-halted first year at Georgia State

Georgia State basketball coach Rob Lanier talks to his team after practice Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at the Georgia State Sports Arena in Atlanta.
Georgia State basketball coach Rob Lanier talks to his team after practice Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at the Georgia State Sports Arena in Atlanta.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia State’s men’s basketball season came to a crushing end on March 11, as the Panthers fell to rival Georgia Southern in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament. No one knew then that the game would be one of the last NCAA contest played this season.

The following day, college basketball came to a screeching halt as conference tournaments were called off and the NCAA tournament canceled due to rising concerns of the spread of COVID-19. Panthers head coach Rob Lanier had planned for his team to start exit meetings last Monday, but the Sun Belt conference canceled all organized team activities, leaving Georgia State basketball in limbo.

Lanier spent the last week with his family, walking his dog and enjoying some precious downtime. Even still, he’s elected to watch more film and more basketball, constantly trying to absorb knowledge.

“I’m just enjoying watching some more games and still learning at the same time,” Lanier said. “I haven’t really gotten into watching us yet. I’ve just been watching other teams and other coaches and see certain things objectively. I’ve got a clear mind and a clear calendar.”

In Lanier’s first year at the helm, Georgia State stitched together a 19-13 record, finishing fourth in the Sun Belt with 12 conference wins. The Panthers would have missed the NCAA tournament this year had the selection committee announced the bracket of 68 teams despite making the field in each of the last two seasons under now-Tulane coach Ron Hunter.

But throughout the year, Lanier saw growth. Georgia State returned only one starter this season, leaving much of the team untested. The inexperience led Lanier to focus on building the program for long-term excellence rather than getting bogged down in the exact number of wins and losses this season.

“You’re always expecting to win, you’re always driving to win. But, I don’t think coaches look at expectations based on a year to year (record). You’re trying to build a program and you want to build a program that represents excellence,” Lanier said. “What that means in 2021 versus 2022 can vary from year to year in terms of personnel and makeup of your team. But you want your program to be at a certain level of excellence. That’s what you’re trying to build and then you want the winning to take care of itself.”

When he was hired last April, Lanier landed at Georgia State after serving as the associate head coach at Tennessee. He previously was the head coach at Siena from 2001-05 before stints as an assistant at Virginia, Florida and Texas.

Georgia State replaced the rest of its staff as well, welcoming assistants Cliff Warren, Chris Kreider, and Jarvis Hayes for their first year with the Panthers. With the complete overhaul, Lanier knew it would take time for the coaching group to mesh before real progress could be made with the players.

“As a first-time coach, meaning working with this staff for the first time, one of the things that happens is that the message that you’re trying to put forward largely belongs to you. It’s your message. It’s your vision. It’s your voice,” Lanier said. “As you come together, and the staff gets more familiar with you, it goes from being your vision and your message to our (team’s) message. Eventually, the style of play and everything you’re doing starts to transfer onto the kids. It becomes our program. I feel like as a staff we reached that point at a certain point during the year where everything we were doing was ours. Now we’re going into the offseason with that disposition and that mindset.”

A trio of strong guards led the Panthers this season. Junior Kane Williams, the lone returning starter, took a step forward, averaging 14.8 points per game and earning a spot on the All-Sun Belt Second Team.

Williams led the team in points per game and assists and was second in steals and rebounds. He impressed Lanier, not only from a skill standpoint but with his understanding of the team’s composition.

“I think (Kane) learned a lot about being a leader. He wants to lead,” Lanier said. “I don’t think he can develop that without going through the year we had. In a lot of ways, even in the valleys, it’s a successful year if you grow from it.”

Redshirt-junior Corey Allen and redshirt-sophomore point guard Justin Roberts joined Williams in the backcourt. Both players averaged over 13 points per game in their first years of playing eligibility with the Panthers. Allen, a transfer from Detroit, developed into a versatile wing-scorer while Roberts, a DePaul transfer, continued to grow as the team’s primary facilitator.

Lanier recognized that both transfers hadn’t fully experienced what it was like to win, making any on-court experience this year a valuable learning experience.

“I think for those guys it’s about what’s the next step for them. They learned a lot, hands-on, about what goes into winning and they were finally a part of it,” Lanier said. “They also have some experience in seeing what loses. So, we need to see how to address those things that happened in those losses.”

Both the immediate future and next season are up in the air for Lanier and the Panthers. It’s unclear when Georgia State will be able to return to the court and when they do, the coaching staff still needs to have conversations with individual players about their future plans.

For now, Lanier is pleased at the progress the team has made and is already looking to build on the groundwork he’s laid in his first year.

“In a lot of ways, I feel like we had a level of success in terms of putting a foot forward program-wise in terms of the level of excellence we’re trying to achieve. We’re moving in the right direction…” Lanier said. “Now, I think we’ve got a foundation to improve upon.”