As usual, Georgia State is state’s best bet for men’s NCAA Tournament

Georgia State coach Rob Lanier's basketball team is on the brink of another appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

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Georgia State coach Rob Lanier's basketball team is on the brink of another appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

We’ve come to expect a lot in March from Georgia State men’s basketball. The Panthers were the state’s best bet to be part of the NCAA Tournament for years with Rob Lanier’s predecessor, Ron Hunter. They missed the tourney the past two years. They struggled to even play games this season because of COVID-19 outbreaks and didn’t win much when they did take the court.

Then the Panthers turned their season around. They’ve won seven consecutive games and nine of 10. GSU begins play in the Sun Belt Tournament on Saturday in Pensacola, Fla., as the No. 3 seed. Win it and the Panthers will be back in the NCAA Tournament.

“The message to our team is that a lot of what we are doing now is what we expected back in November and December,” Lanier said. “So we are playing catch-up, trying to reach the level that this group has the potential to reach.”

Lanier did good work in the transition year after Hunter left for Tulane, but GSU fizzled at the end. The Panthers won six games in a row before last season’s conference tourney but lost to Appalachian State in the championship game. Now the Panthers again are serious threats to win the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

As of Thursday afternoon, they were getting the second-shortest odds to win the tourney (3½-1), behind top-seeded Texas State (2½-1). Texas State, winner of nine consecutive, is the only team in the bracket rolling like GSU. The Panthers can win the tourney if they find more scoring.

GSU fell from the Sun Belt’s best offensive team last season to one of its worst despite relying on mostly the same players. That was a problem when GSU struggled to stop anyone from November through January. The Panthers took off when COVID-19 stopped disrupting their schedule and they found more defensive grit.

The result: GSU is set to finish as Lanier’s best defensive team in his three seasons.

“It’s rare that in-season you go from poor defensive team to good defensive team,” he said. “It’s a credit to our staff, particularly my assistants, and our players (for) recognizing that we were going to have to commit to a measure or urgency to have some success. And we did that.

“We have a lot of the same players, so we know have the same (offensive) capabilities. There’s no reason why we can’t be more of a complete team.”

Another NCAA bid would cement GSU’s status as the best NCAA Division I men’s program of six in the state.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, their first in the Sun Belt, the Panthers own the most victories (184) among that group. GSU earned three NCAA Tournament bids and one victory during that time. That’s better than Georgia and Georgia Tech, which each have one NCAA bid and zero wins over those years. Kennesaw State and Georgia Southern had no bids.

Mercer owns the biggest NCAA victory of them all, the upset of No. 2-seed Duke in 2014. The Bears haven’t been back to the Big Dance. Everyone remembers GSU’s most recent tournament victory. Hunter’s team, led by son R.J., came back from 12 points down in the final three minutes to beat fourth-seeded Baylor in 2015. GSU went back to the NCAA Tournament in ‘18 and ‘19 with Hunter and star guard D’Marcus Simonds.

Lanier took over a program with recent success but a lot of new faces. When his first team started strong, Lanier warned his players they had to “stand on your own” because the group hadn’t proved anything yet. This Sun Belt Tournament is another good chance for the Panthers to show they’ll keep winning with Lanier like they did with Hunter.

They were slipping with a month left in this regular season. GSU was 0-4 in the Sun Belt. Four other league games had been canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. The Panthers hardly had any practice time. Lanier had fewer opportunities to figure out his lineup combinations.

Lanier said a group of players decided not to get vaccinated to start the season. The Panthers collectively decided they would accept whatever disruptions came from that while making no excuses.

“We took that as part of our journey as a team,” he said. “We went through what we went through, and we are where we are right now.”

The Panthers developed mental toughness along the way. They came back to win at Louisiana-Lafayette by holding the hosts without a field goal over the final six-plus minutes. GSU won its next game, at Louisiana-Monroe, after not allowing a basket over seven-plus minutes. The Panthers pulled off a similar feat at Georgia Southern for the fifth of their seven consecutive victories.

The Panthers are peaking at the perfect time.

“I do like the fact that we are playing better,” Lanier said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best.”

GSU’s program has momentum. There are four seniors in the starting lineup, but Lanier has done well with recruiting high school prospects and attracting transfers looking to play closer to home. Those efforts will get a boost next season. The Panthers are moving from the charming-but-stuffy GSU Sports Arena to the new, 7,300-seat convocation center at the corner of Fulton Street and Capitol Avenue.

The Panthers can go into the new digs off their third NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons. The state’s other D-I men’s programs don’t have the same optimism.

Georgia is finishing what likely will be its worst-ever season. Georgia Tech is back in its traditional Tuesday slot for the ACC Tournament’s worst teams. Mercer, Kennesaw State and Georgia Southern are big underdogs in their respective league tourneys.

The Panthers again are the state’s best hope to be part of men’s March Madness. Here’s hoping they pull it off and get in on the fun.