Tournament time is the time for Georgia State to make its bones

Georgia State Panthers basketball clipboard.
Georgia State Panthers basketball clipboard.

Credit: Georgia State Athletics

Credit: Georgia State Athletics

Hope and happiness abound on one city playground, where Georgia Tech has overcome its two “bad losses” to Georgia State and Mercer at the start of this fractured season and gained some serious NCAA basketball tournament buzz.

There’s all this talk about Tech’s sputtering start as it tried to navigate COVID-19 practice restrictions – making it sound as if the Yellow Jackets had lost to a couple of YMCA pick-up squads. How do you suppose that makes them feel just down the street?

“We still get credit for the win, right?” said Georgia State coach Rob Lanier, not sounding bothered in the least.

The Panthers don’t plan to treat the four-overtime victory over Tech in November – their first win over an ACC opponent in 27 attempts – as the summit of their season. Although Lanier admits it did momentarily go to young heads. “We didn’t turn the page quickly enough,” he said this week before leaving for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the East’s No. 1 seed. There in Pensacola, the bigger prize awaits.

Try not to get turned around by the casting of Georgia State as a “bad loss” playing in a “one-bid conference.” If other programs perform beneath Klieg lights while the Panthers get a nightlight, Lanier doesn’t want to waste a lot of time being insulted. Still, he does have his pride.

Looking back on a regular season in which Georgia State had three stoppages and nine games canceled because of COVID concerns, Lanier said, “I’d like to see what our team looked like if we didn’t have all the stoppages. I think we can beat a lot of people when at our best.”

And if you happen to be a Tech fan, you may also want to be a Panthers backer at least this weekend. A conference tournament title for Georgia State would put a nice dollop of rouge and mascara on that particular “bad loss.”

As always, the 14-5 Panthers, winners of their past six, will require a conference tournament championship to make the NCAA tourney field. That’s three more wins and they’re in, beginning Saturday against the winner of the Arkansas State-Georgia Southern first-round game.

Under Ron Hunter, the Panthers became the only semi-dependable watch in Georgia in March, making the NCAAs three times in the five seasons before last season’s COVID washout. Over that same period, Georgia’s had one appearance and Georgia Tech none. Mercer’s epic upset of Duke in the NCAA is now six years old. We’re not exactly traveling Tobacco Road here, people.

The popular and charismatic Hunter moved on to Tulane last season and in came Lanier from his second-chair coach position at Tennessee. He did not bring small goals with him. When Lanier said, “I want these guys to think big; we want to take a big swing,” he was talking about more than a season-opening victory over that high-major program in town.

Given the reality-warping circumstances of this season, it’s difficult to place any firm expectation on the Panthers. This conference tournament is one of those they-could-win-it-all-handily-or-lose-in-the-opening-game scenarios. No extreme is out of play. Form and reason have taken a vacation in 2020-21.

The hunch is that these Panthers could be pretty good. This is a team with a wire-walker’s balance, all five starters averaging double figures in scoring (overall, the Panthers lead the Sun Belt in scoring at 81 points a game). They have size that must be accounted for in 6-10 Jalen Thomas (third in the league in blocks) and 6-9 Eliel Nsosema (third in rebounding). And the kind of wily guard play that is indispensable in March – senior Corey Allen leads the team in scoring (14.9) and junior Justin Roberts leads in assists (a modest five a game).

Most important, they’ve been able to coalesce in the past two weeks behind a little win streak and gain some sense of the possibilities here. They are feeling as good about themselves as they have at any point of the past four months.

That includes their coach. Lanier was laid low by the virus about a month ago, and as a result had one competitive objective stolen from him. He doesn’t want another taken.

“I had a streak going of 250 straight days of working out, and breaking that routine was hard for me to do psychologically,” he said. “I couldn’t get back into it and that was really rough, even when I wasn’t sick anymore, I couldn’t get myself back into the routine.

“I was going for 365 (consecutive days of exercise). The fact that it got pulled was really hard for me. I had this goal, you’re competitive and I wanted to win that, and I had to take an L. That was tough.”

Georgia State’s Chuck Norris knockoff reports that his new streak is now at 11 and counting.

And Lanier remains confident he’ll be able to find somewhere to work out in Indiana – where every NCAA tournament game will be played this year – should he and the Panthers be called away there in a couple of weeks.

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