Georgia State enters tournament with head of steam

Georgia State forward Eliel Nsoseme shoots free throws against Georgia Tech on Thursday, Nov 26, 2020, in Atlanta.  “Curtis Compton /”
Georgia State forward Eliel Nsoseme shoots free throws against Georgia Tech on Thursday, Nov 26, 2020, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Georgia State basketball team is heading into the Sun Belt Conference tournament with plenty of momentum. The Panthers have won six consecutive games and claimed the East Division title for the fourth time since joining the league seven years ago.

But coach Rob Lanier is quick to warn his players and the team’s fan base that it may be premature to order those NCAA playoff tickets just yet. Perhaps in no other season does the “one game at a time” cliché hold more legitimate meaning than now, especially for a program that had nine games postponed or canceled because of COVID-19.

“Sometimes you can get caught up in feeling good about yourself this time of year, and one game can get you tripped up because you get ahead of yourself because you’re thinking you’re a finished product and you’re not quite there yet,” Georgia State coach Rob Lanier said.

With that precautionary salvo. Georgia State (14-5) enters the tournament Saturday in Pensacola, Fla. The Panthers play the winner of Friday’s first-round game between arch-rival Georgia Southern (13-12) and Arkansas State (10-12). Georgia State won its only regular-season contest against Georgia Southern, in Atlanta, but has not faced Arkansas State or any of the six teams in the West Division. Georgia Southern beat Georgia State in the conference tournament in 2020.

“It still happens to feel like March, and that’s pretty cool,” Lanier said. “The season has offered a lot of challenges, ebbs and flows for us. We’re in a space where we’re getting better and starting to play some of our best basketball. We haven’t played our best, but we’ve played our best so far. We’ve got some improvements to make, so this week has been a critical time to make sure they’re aware of areas we need to improve on.”

The result of the midseason coronavirus crisis was lack of preparation time and minimized opportunities to build team chemistry. Those issues have started to clear, and the progress was evident last weekend when the Panthers swept two road games against South Alabama, at that time the hottest team in the league, to win the division. Both nights they built big leads and withstood late flurries. They also won with different formulas – freshman Evan Scott scored 28 points one night, and all five starters scored in double figures the next night.

Georgia State’s three team leaders have been seniors Kane Williams and Corey Allen and junior Eliel Nsoseme. Williams (13.3 points) has been the consistent force with his work ethic, even when he was struggling on offense. Allen (14.9 points) continues to be the team’s primary 3-point scoring threat and has emerged as a leader, “not only vocally, but saying the right things,” Lanier said. Nsoseme, a junior transfer from Cincinnati who averages 11.1 points and 9.9 rebounds, is an inside warrior with a non-stop motor who has influenced gifted 6-foot-10 power forward Jalen Thomas to be more assertive and play hard all the time.

Thomas has blossomed late in the season as a threat to score close to the rim or step away and use his soft touch to knock down a jumper. He was named conference player of the week after averaging 17.3 points on 61 percent shooting, nine rebounds three blocks over the final three games.

Combined with Justin Roberts (13.4 points, 4.8 assists), a lockdown defensive player with a good shooting range, and a bench that has grown deeper as players start to get healthy again, and the Panthers have the makings of a team that could make some noise.

“We’re starting to realize what we envisioned prior to Christmas,” Lanier said.

The tournament promises to be wide open. Texas State (18-6) won the West Division and rides a seven-game winning streak. The Bobcats are ranked 15th in the mid-major rankings, three spots ahead of Georgia State. Louisiana-Lafayette (16-8) was the division leader before stumbling on the final weekend.

The championship game will be played Monday night, with the winner earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.

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