Georgia State’s toughness will be tested in Sun Belt opener

The Georgia State basketball team is starting to show the sort of toughness that first-year coach Jonas Hayes promised, just in time to begin defense of its Sun Belt Conference title.

“We’ve just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep providing opportunities for us to get better,” Hayes said.

Other than a 20-point loss to Northeastern on Dec. 4 in Boston, the Panthers (7-5) have found a way to successfully mesh a handful of holdovers from last season’s team with four prized recruits whom Hayes brought in.

Aside from the three blowout wins against teams from lower divisions, Georgia State – picked by Sun Belt coaches to finish fifth – has shown it can hang with anyone.

Eight Panthers games have been decided by nine or fewer points. That includes an overtime win over Mercer, a two-point loss to Belmont and last-second losses to Georgia Tech and Eastern Kentucky.

The team seemed to come together after the loss at Northeastern. The next game out, they led No. 20 Auburn by six points in the second half and were in the game until the Tigers got hot at the end and won 72-64.

“We really just worked on getting everything back to how it was, very competitive,” guard Dwon Odom said after the Auburn game. “Being physical, being very tough as a team, and that’s the difference. … We’ve got a lot of tough dudes, guys who can guard, guys who are very physical. We wanted to get back to that.”

Toughness will count a lot now that conference play has arrived. The Sun Belt’s four new teams – Marshall, Southern Mississippi, James Madison and Old Dominion – are a combined 39-12. Their presence has made a good basketball league even better.

Georgia State opens conference play this week with two games at the GSU Convocation Center – against James Madison at 7 p.m. Thursday and against South Alabama at 2 p.m. Saturday. Both games may be seen on ESPN-Plus or heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5 or on the GSU Sports app.

Georgia State is led by Odom, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who averages 15.3 points – which ranks eighth in the conference – 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Odom, who transferred from Xavier when Hayes was hired from there, distributes the ball, sets the tempo and creates opportunities for himself and others when he drives to the basket.

The Panthers have three others who average double figures – holdovers Ja’Heim Hudson (10.4 points, 8.2 rebounds) and Evan Johnson (10.7 ppg) and College of Charleston transfer Brenden Tucker (10.9 ppg). Jamaine Mann, a Vanderbilt transfer, averages 9.8 points.

“We’re getting more comfortable on the court with each other and with each other’s tendencies and things of that nature,” said sophomore forward Kaleb Scott, a holdover from last season’s conference championship team. “I’m definitely pleased with the progress, and I can’t want for conference (play) to start.”

Georgia State prides itself on good defense, and those skills will be tested by James Madison (9-4), which leads the NCAA with 93.2 points per game. The Dukes don’t rely on one big scorer, but have nine players who average 7.7 or more points. Vado Morse leads the team, with 13.2 points per game.

James Madison is ranked 23rd in the College Insider Mid-Major poll. James Madison and Georgia State are former members of the Colonial Athletic Association. GSU leads the series 9-5 and has won four consecutive against the Dukes.

South Alabama (6-6) was picked to finish third by Sun Belt coaches, despite losing all-conference forward Ja’von Franklin, who transferred to Georgia Tech. The Jaguars, who play at Georgia Southern on Thursday, are on a three-game win streak.

South Alabama features forward Kevin Samuel, the NCAA’s active career rebounds leader with 1,160. He needs 12 rebounds to catch Louisiana Tech’s Paul Millsap and Mississippi State’s Lawrence Roberts and move into a tie for 50th on the all-time list.

Georgia State leads the overall series 20-17.