Curtis Washington’s play in the past six games is one of the reasons that Georgia State has a chance to repeat as Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball champ.
Since being re-inserted into the starting lineup six games ago — a stretch during which Georgia State went 5-1 — Washington, a 6-foot-10 center, is averaging seven points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. His season averages are 4.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.
“Curt has been huge,” coach Ron Hunter said.
Georgia State (20-9, 13-5) will play at Louisiana-Monroe (19-10, 13-5) on Thursday and will host Georgia Southern (20-7, 13-5) on Saturday. All three teams are tied atop the Sun Belt. Should Washington and the Panthers win one of the two games, they will clinch a spot in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament. Should they win both, they will defend their conference title and earn the tournament’s top seed.
Washington’s recent play has been a reason why. It is what was expected from Washington, who has been a bit of an enigma since transferring from USC to Georgia State.
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After sitting out a season per the NCAA’s transfer rules, which allowed him to recover from a shoulder injury, he averaged 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game last season. Those are solid numbers on offense for a team that really needed him only for defense because he was usually surrounded by four scorers in R.J. Hunter, Ryan Harrow, Manny Atkins and Devonta White.
“When I got here, I was able to show people a little bit what I could do in the system,” he said. “On our team, you have to adjust to your role and adjust according to other players. We have two elite scorers. Last year we had that two, plus Manny (Atkins). The ball doesn’t come into the post as much. If it were different, you’d see the post moves.”
With Atkins and White using up their eligibility, Washington seemed ready to contribute more on offense this year until doctors found he had three hernias during the offseason. They were discovered after Washington began to experience discomfort following a dunk during a workout.
While still getting his timing back, Washington’s quiet play continued through the first seven games this season, with averages of 5.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. The averages were helped with games of 13 points in the opener against Tennessee Temple and 11 against Chicago State. He didn’t score more than four points in any of the remaining five games, games in which the team was trying to find a third scorer. He never had more than two blocks and never grabbed more than five rebounds after opening the season with seven.
Hunter eventually decided to replace Washington with T.J. Shipes, who began to play the best basketball of his career. Washington’s minutes steadily began to decline, cratering when he played two minutes in a home game against Arkansas-Little Rock in early January.
“It’s been an up-and-down year,” Washington said.
But after playing more in one season than he played in his previous two, Shipes’ production began to decrease. That’s when Hunter turned again to Washington.
“Everyone knows Curt wasn’t himself after the injury,” guard Ryann Green said. “It took him a while to get back into the swing of things. The past few games he has been playing well, getting back to the same curt. As a fellow senior, I don’t expect anything else.”
Georgia State will need Washington to continue to produce, and for Shipes to find his groove, if it hopes to win at Louisiana-Monroe and set up a potential winner-take-all against Georgia Southern on Saturday at the GSU Sports Arena.
Washington should be helped in the next two games because neither the Warhawks nor the Eagles play with a true center, and both likely will go with a smaller lineup to try to stretch Georgia State’s zone defense. While that could work for their offenses, it may also be a liability for their defenses that Washington, Shipes and forward Marcus Crider can take advantage of.
“It’s so important that we get out there and finish and send a message to the conference that we are the best team,” Washington said. “We aren’t going to let anyone come in and beat us. It’s so important for us to not look past Thursday to Saturday. We can’t skip this game even though we beat them the first time. Teams play different now. They are hungry. I think we are in a good place.”