The Georgia State Panthers men’s basketball team is back on the prowl as head coach Ron Hunter aims at another 20-win season. This year, Hunter will look to continue his impressive three-year streak of winning 20 or more games and advancing to the postseason with many new faces. He will also have a plethora of returning players that contributed significantly to the team’s success last year.
Nonetheless, the Panthers recently battled against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the ‘A-Town Showdown For Hurricane Relief,’ on Oct. 28 and secured a 65-58 victory to begin exhibition play — it was the first time since 2008 that the two teams met on the hardwood. Coach Hunter eluded to the fact that although beating Tech “was almost like a bucket list thing”, he wants his team to move forward and continue to perform high-level for the remainder of the season.
“I don’t really worry about expectations about what the media says or what we’re ranked. At the end of the day, I’ve always told these guys that it’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish,” Hunter said.
Hunter is optimistic that his team will indeed start the season on the right foot. However, picking up where the Panthers left off last season will be somewhat challenging given the fact that they lost players Jeremy Hollowell, Isaiah Dennis and Willie Clayton.
Once a Panther, always a Panther
Hollowell, a transfer from Indiana University, made a name for himself right away at Georgia State, especially during his senior year. Although Hollowell was a streaky shooter, he proved that he could score buckets from anywhere on the court. Last year, Hollowell averaged 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He also surpassed 1,000 career points. As a Panther, he finished 23rd on the all-time scoring list.
Dennis was considerably the Panthers’ spark plug — igniting the crowd with explosive, mind-boggling dunks. Aside from occasionally converting on freakishly, athletic plays at the rim, Dennis provided leadership in the backcourt for the Panthers, being that he was part of 86 wins during his four-year career.
Clayton was undoubtedly the Panthers’ bruiser on the low block. Clayton played just one year for the Panthers, but made his presence felt by contributing 6.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
Welcome to the Panther family
The Panthers were active during the offseason and added five new players to this year’s team (Damon Wilson, Denis Alibegovic, Matt Chism, Kane Williams and Josh Linder). Wilson is a redshirt junior who transferred to Georgia State from Pittsburgh, and due to NCAA transfer rules, he will have to wait until next year to suit up for the Panthers.
As for the freshmen, Coach Hunter is content with what he has seen from his guys, and mentioned that they wouldn’t be pressured to learn his system as promptly as D’Marcus Simonds had to last year.
“I really like our freshmen. The difference of our freshmen this year is that they don’t have to be great for us to win,” Hunter said. “Last year, D’Marcus had to be great for us to make sure we had a chance to win a championship. We’re gonna bring them along slowly — they’re gonna be integral parts of what we do this year — they’re very talented.”
As far Kane Williams, the 6-foot-three-inch 185-pound combo guard from Douglasville, Georgia, Coach Hunter said he’s “going to be a really good guard in this program”. Williams definitely feels as if he can contribute instantly given he has the support of the coaching staff.
“Just making sure I slow the game down and not rush into things and turn the ball over and just adjusting to the game and reading the defense being patient on offense and using all my time,” Williams said regarding the many things the coaching staff has helped him thus far.
Linder, the 6-foot-9-inch, 215-pound forward said he has big plans for himself this year and is looking to add accolades to his freshman resume.
“We [are trying] to bring that freshman of the year back to Georgia State,” Linder said as to what his personal goal is for himself this year.
Hunter announced that he would keep both freshmen in the eight or nine-man rotation so Linder will have an opportunity to prove why he deserves to be the Sun Belt freshman of the year.
They’re back and hungry for more
The Panthers are riding high after a dominating performance against the Yellow Jackets, and it all started with their most coveted player, Simonds. While Simonds is undoubtedly talented, the reigning Sun Belt Conference Freshman of The Year has more convincing to do as he is tabbed to the All-Sun Belt Preseason Second Team. He is determined to prove that he is the best player in the conference.
“I’m [going to] win [Sun Belt’s] player of the year [award], no doubt,” Simonds said. “I’m the best player in the conference. They got me on the second team in the preseason polls, but that doesn’t really mean nothing, so I’m definitely gonna take home that player of the year award.”
Last year, Simonds averaged 13.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Simonds scored 30 points against Georgia Tech during the exhibition game, and last year, during the Cancun Challenge Tournament, he was named the MVP after leading Georgia State to the title. He scored 39 points on 17-of-24 shooting in the Mexico event.
Presumably, the secret weapon for this Panthers team is Malik Benlevi. Benlevi averaged 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds last year and proved to be a reliable defender the Panthers.
“I gotta take it up another notch– in the preseason ranking I’m still not on anyone’s All-Sun Belt team, but I’m not even worried about myself right now — I’m focused on winning this championship.”
The Panthers will need Benlevi’s production this year, to reach their pinnacle.
The Panthers’ first regular season game is Nov. 10 at 7 P.M. at the Georgia State Sports Arena, when they match up against Carver Bible College.
Pull-out quote: “I’m [going to] win [Sun Belt] player of the year, no doubt,” D’Marcus Simonds
- The Panthers, under head coach Ron Hunter, have won 20 or more games in three consecutive seasons.
- D’Marcus Simonds is the reigning Sun Belt Freshman of The Year and was named All-Sun Belt Preseason Second Team this year
- Malik Benlevi will play an integral part in Georgia State’s success, as he averaged 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last year.
- Key games on the Panthers’ schedule this year: Dayton, UT Arlington, Georgia Southern and UMASS