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Potential to be one of the best teams ever

Damon Wilson, guard for Georgia State Men's Basketball team, plays his first game with the Panthers after red shirting for the 2017-2018 season. Photo by Unique Rodriguez | The Signal

Georgia State men’s basketball has a big chip on their shoulders after winning a second Sun Belt Conference championship in four years and having a record-breaking season.

The men’s basketball program is one of the university’s top athletic programs and is now ranked as one of the top basketball teams in the country.

The Panthers were the only program from Georgia in the NCAA Tournament last year. Associated Press polls ranked Georgia State’s program above Georgia Tech, Georgia and Mercer.

The team’s strength comes from three very valuable components — senior players, Simonds and head coach Ron Hunter.

SENIORS

One of the biggest factors for this team will be the leadership from its veterans.

The team’s four talented seniors display a level of chemistry and experience that few teams are able to match.

Malik Benlevi, Jordan Tyson, Jeff Thomas and Devin Mitchell are all in their final season, and together have accumulated almost 3,600 career points.

As the top-ranked team in the state, they will have to prove themselves against one of the toughest schedules they’ve faced so far. They have matchups against as many as six teams from last year’s NCAA Tournament, including road games at Kansas State and Alabama.

“It’s the last year, senior year, last year playing college. I’m excited about every single [game],” Mitchell said.

Last season Mitchell was just two 3-pointers shy of RJ Hunter’s single-season record of 100.

Benlevi is transitioning to the center position after the loss of Jordan Sessions, so fans can expect smaller, more uptempo lineups this year.

After years of playing together, the core group has become a well-oiled machine now that each player knows their role and how to play to each other’s strengths.

“They love each other on the court, they love each other off the court,” assistant coach Travis Williams said. “I think chemistry is the number one priority on a team. These guys are truly brothers in the trenches.

“They trust and believe in each other, trust the coaches, they trust this system and when you have that type of trust in a program, you’re bound to have success,” Williams said. “These guys would run through a wall for each other. And it’s very obvious.”

SIMONDS

One player that certainly demands attention is D’Marcus Simonds. He is 15th on Georgia State’s all-time scoring list after just two seasons.

Simonds, a projected first round 2019 NBA Draft pick, set the single season record for points last year (742) and ranked fourth in the NCAA with 277 field goals. The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year also had an impressive performance in the NCAA Tournament against Cincinnati.

He displays tremendous athleticism and has the ability to get to the basket with ease, creating opportunities for his teammates.

The junior also led the team in assists last year with 153. Mitchell finished second with 65. Simonds can improve his perimeter shooting and limit turnovers to elevate his game to the next level.

The AP All-American selection also posted the first triple-double in school history in last year’s season opener. At the end of the season, Simonds decided to forgo a potential selection in 2018 NBA Draft to compete for another Sun Belt championship and shot at the NCAA Tournament. He will enter the 2019 NBA Draft after the Panthers’ season concludes.

“D’Marcus is going to make a lot of money playing basketball, so we talked about [enjoying] this process right now,” Hunter said. “He loves his teammates. He knows that coming back, we’re going to have a good team this year, and so I think he’s just enjoying college right now.”

Hunter also mentioned that because it’s almost certain that Simonds won’t return for a senior campaign next year, they are planning to make the most of this season with him.

COACH HUNTER

In his eighth season as head coach, Ron Hunter has brought a new energy to the university and the basketball program. Coach Hunter can frequently be seen at campus events, dancing, singing or rapping with students. He also urges his team to be community leaders, and he certainly leads by example.

Each year Hunter coaches an entire game barefoot in order to raise awareness for Samaritan’s Feet, a nonprofit that works to help the nearly 300 million people globally that are without shoes. Coach Hunter has gone 11-0 when coaching barefoot and has taken four international trips with the Panthers for shoe distributions in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and most recently Spain this past summer.

Hunter is on the verge of breaking the Georgia State record with a fifth-straight winning season this year. Next to Hall of Fame head coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell, Hunter is easily one of the most successful coaches to come to the university.

Williams, who also assisted under Driesell, stated that the two coaches are in a league of their own.

“They’re very detail oriented, they’re winners, they truly and genuinely care for the players,” Williams said. “That’s why they’ve been able to have the longevity and success in their careers.

“We have a brand of basketball that everybody is proud of. Not only in the city, in the state, but a national brand, and that’s what coach Hunter has brought to this program,” Williams said.

NEW FACES

The Panthers also have a strong recruiting class coming into the program, led by four-star guard Nelson Phillips.

“Nelson Philips, I’ll say it a million times,” Mitchell said. “He’s going to be a fan favorite, the crowd is going to love him, he’s going to do a lot of exciting things.”

In the exhibition game against Georgia State and College University on Nov. 1, fans were able to get a glimpse of Phillips’ athleticism.

“[Phillips is] one of the most talented freshmen in our program, very talented, very skilled. [He has] an opportunity to really contribute from the start. I think his ceiling is very high.” Williams said.

Transfer from Pittsburgh, Damon Wilson will also touch the floor for the first time with Georgia State this season, and fans may be seeing more of some players from last year like Chris Clerkley and senior Jordan Tyson.

“I think we have the potential of being one of the best teams ever,” Williams said. “The future success of our program is going to great heights and you can see it.”

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