Georgia State navigates through bizarre season

Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier argues after his team was called for a technical foul during the third overtime against Georgia Tech that ended in a 110-110 tie during Tech’s home opener in a NCAA college basketball game that extended into the early morning hour of Thursday, Nov 26, 2020, in Atlanta. Georgia State went on to beat Georgia Tech 123-120 in the fourth overtime period.
Georgia State head coach Rob Lanier argues after his team was called for a technical foul during the third overtime against Georgia Tech that ended in a 110-110 tie during Tech’s home opener in a NCAA college basketball game that extended into the early morning hour of Thursday, Nov 26, 2020, in Atlanta. Georgia State went on to beat Georgia Tech 123-120 in the fourth overtime period.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The bus carrying the Georgia State men’s basketball team was on its way to Statesboro, probably 35-40 miles down the highway, when they got the message. Turn around and head back to campus. The Saturday game against Georgia Southern had been cancelled. Coronavirus. Again.

One of the Georgia Southern players had tested positive for COVID-19 and Georgia State had to cancel its eighth game. It was the latest chapter in a bizarre season, one that began with such promise and lurches forward in uncertainty for the Panthers.

This is one subject that Rob Lanier never took at Coach School.

“There’s no blueprint,” Lanier said. “It’s quite a load. We’ve dealt with every aspect of it in a very short period of time.”

Georgia State sailed through the non-conference portion of the season with no COVID issues. There were injuries. Nelson Phillips hurt his knee and was out for the year. Joe Jones has been sidelined all season. Jalen Thomas was limited early because of a knee issue. However, the Panthers started the season 6-1, including a four-overtime win against Georgia Tech, and were ranked No. 3 among mid-major programs by College Insiders. While other schools were cancelling games, Georgia State was unscathed.

“But you knew it was possible, Lanier said. “Every time you look at the scores, there’s a list of scores and a list of games that have been postponed. We were cruising right along and you can sometimes slip into thinking that maybe you won’t be affected by it. Reality ultimately caught up with us.”

And it caught up with them in a big way.

It started when two GSU players were flagged and could not make the trip to Coastal Carolina. Then other positive tests emerged and the ensuing two-game trip to Troy was cancelled. The following week’s series with Coastal Carolina was shortened to one game, just to give the Panthers a day to get back on the court and practice.

The team was shorthanded again when it played at Appalachian State and lost twice, then had series cancelled for the next two weekends against South Alabama and App State. In the most recent interruption, the virus cut through the coaches and support staff. Lanier himself was down for several days with the virus, as well as a sinus infection.

“Practice, preparing and competing is the routine of a college season,” Lanier said. “We haven’t had that. It’s disrupted us to the point where we’ve gone weeks without playing a game.”

Lanier and the other coaches were able to return to practice on Monday and the Panthers had one day of preparation before a loss to South Alabama. Still shorthanded, Georgia State scored a nice win over rival Georgia Southern on Thursday and stands 9-5 overall and 3-4 in the Sun Belt Conference.

After the win over Georgia Southern, Lanier pointed out that his players had not won a game since Jan. 16. Not because they had been on a long losing streak, but because they simply had not been on the court. The lack of activity has temporarily hampered the team’s opportunity to reach its potential.

“This whole thing is about team-building during the course of the season,” Lanier said. “It’s about building habits so you have consistency in what you’re trying to instill. That creates routines and expectations and standards. Without the routine, it’s hard to have consistency and without that consistency it’s hard to build habits.”

That may have started to change last week. Lanier said there were times during in the Georgia Southern win that “I felt like I was getting my team back.” The rotation was still short-handed, but the team was trending in the right direction and starting to regain its confidence.

“There was a connection inside the team where I felt they still had some strength, a level of determination at times where there had been some self-doubt,” Lanier said. “It was reminiscent of the team we came into the year with. That was good to see.”

Georgia State is now close to being back at full strength for the first time since the Georgia Tech game. They have three games for each of the next two weeks – at least there are six games scheduled – before the conference tournament is scheduled for March 5-8 in Pensacola, Fla. But Lanier isn’t looking that far ahead.

“I don’t think these times will allow me to think like that,” he said. “How far ahead can you really think? In light of the fact this (Georgia Southern) game was cancelled. What effect will that have on us that we were on the court with a player who tested positive on the other team? What does that mean for our schedule going forward. It’s hard to make sense of everything.”

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