In March, R.J. Hunter pulled up and nailed a jumper that rocked Georgia State along with the sports nation. The 2014-2015 Panthers’ basketball team upset third seeded Baylor Bears in the NCAA Tournament.The Panthers redeemed the 2013-2014 season and took care of their unfinished business by winning the Sun Belt Conference.
But where does that leave the 2015-2016 Panthers’? The team, despite losing the team’s top two scorers, will return quite a bit of experience and add some really talented players to the fold this season.
“Although I thought we had some really nice depth last year, I think our depth is going to be really strong this year. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that our younger players have continued to develop and our newcomers are hungry to get on the court,” head coach Ron Hunter said via email. “As important as it is to have strong starters, it is equally important to have strong depth as it is a long season and you need a lot of great players to be successful.”
The Panthers are returning senior guard Kevin Ware, senior forward Markus Crider, senior forward T.J. Shipes, junior Isaiah Dennis and sophomore forward Jordan Session, who all played key minutes last season.
Ware is healthy and fresh off a very strong at the end of last season as he won Sun Belt Tournament MVP after the Panthers win in the championship game against Georgia Southern.
Ware feels he is as healthy as ever and ready to help guide the Panthers even farther this season.
“I’m feeling really good right now. This is my last year. Kind of feel like I’ve been through all the ups and downs leading up to this point,” Ware said. “I’m probably the healthiest I’ve been and the quickest and the fastest and feeling like myself again.”
Ware will have an opportunity to be a bigger part of the offense after averaging 7.6 points per game last season while playing the shooting guard spot and moving to point guard in some instances after Ryan Harrow went down.
Ware will will take on more of the scoring load and be looked at to be more vocal on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
Crider averaged 9.7 points per game last season and 6.4 rebounds per game, proving to be a rebounding machine. He averaged 11 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
Crider has been a key player for the past three seasons and has grown into a cornerstone for the program that has multiple transfers and few four year players.
He will continue to be the big hearted, intense competitor in the paint that Panthers have grown accustomed to him being.
“I believe I’ll still have a big role in the rotation no matter what year. From freshman on I’ve had a big role this year I look forward to the depth because we do have more bodies and we can count on more people to do better plays down the stretch.” Crider said.
The junior point guard earned some key playing time in some important spots last season with Harrow injured. Dennis, who is known as an explosive athlete, is continuing to add to his game to become a more well-rounded point guard.
Dennis averaged 2.1 points per game for the whole season. These numbers do not tell the story of what Dennis meant down the stretch for the Panthers last season nor, will it tell of how important he could be moving forward.
Dennis was able to hold his own in important parts of last season while Harrow was out with injury.
Dennis put up 10 points in only 10 minutes of playing time in the Sun Belt semifinal and then had eight points with three steals in back-to-back games against Baylor and in the season ending loss to Xavier.
Dennis will be fighting for the playing time at the point guard spot with Isaiah Williams but will definitely be playing a key role for the Panthers this season.
Other key returners to watch are seniors Jalen Brown and T.J. Shipes.
Brown, a transfer from South Suburban, will be looked upon to provide some shooting and rebounding for the Panthers off the bench.
Shipes was a starter during some points last season. He has a solid rim presence that can change and block shots. Shipes also adds a toughness element to the Panthers.
He is important because he knows his role as the rebounding defender and enforcer for the Panthers, just showing the unselfishness that makes teams like the Panthers great championship contenders.
“I know my role, I know what I got to do. I don’t try any more than and I don’t try any less. I just play as hard as I can. I want what’s best for the team obviously, it’s like family so, we all have the same goal in mind,” Shipes said.
The Panthers have some intriguing newcomers that aren’t really newcomers. The team will be relying on two new transfers in Jeremy Hollowell and Isaiah Williams who had to sit out last season due to NCAA rules and a player returning from being academically ineligible. Freshman Malik Benlevi will be a player to watch as well.
Isaiah Williams is a transfer from Samford where he started at point guard as a freshman and averaged 11.9 points per game and 3.4 assists per game and was named 2014 Southern Conference freshman of the year.
Williams will be fighting for the starting point guard spot with Dennis and at worst will be a key part to a deep Panthers’ rotation.
Williams experience and basketball IQ to make an impact for the Panthers. He showed at Samford the ability to score as a freshman.
Jeremy Hollowell is a 6-foot-8 inch forward that has come to Georgia State after two seasons at the University of Indiana. Hollowell averaged 2.8 points per game in his freshman season at Indiana and averaged 5.7 points per game after making 15 starts in his sophomore season.
Hollowell gives the Panthers another big body to take over in the paint after the graduation of Curtis Washington.
The Panthers will also have redshirt freshman Jeff Thomas available for the first time after he was ruled academically ineligible last season.
Thomas averaged 18 points per game and 9 rebounds per game in his senior season at Norwalk high school.
The Panthers will be counting on Thomas to be that shooting threat that was vacated when Hunter drafted into the NBA this year. Depth
The Panthers do not have the two stars that will bail them out of tough situations this season. However, Georgia State remains very capable of having similar results from last year.
The Panthers have been fortunate to get young players and develop them over a three or four year span. With high profile transfers to supplement that talent and have them mesh together,the results are being seen as they will be competitive without two of the program’s best players.
The Panthers have the luxury of playing multiple lineups based off what type of team they are facing, this is a luxury a coach like Hunter will gladly take and use to his advantage.
“I love the fact that we will be able to do a lot of different things with our lineup this year. Having options over the course of the season will do a lot for us. We are still experimenting and looking at different things now during the preseason to see how they work. I think it will be a work in progress, but by the time the season gets here, we will have a pretty good idea. It is a great problem to have,” coach Hunter said.
Players will remain fresher because they won’t be taxed by playing an excessive amount of minutes and will appreciate being able to count on their teammates to take up some of the slack and this may even benefit the Panthers late in the season when other teams are piling up bumps and bruises.
The Panthers will also have time for players to refine their roles. Come February and March, the rotation will be refined and players will have the experience playing with one another in different situations and in different roles. They will also look to peak right around the time where the trophies get handed out at the end of the season.
“It will definitely keep us fresher over the course of the season. As we have tried to do the last few years, we want to peak in late January and early February. With the depth, we will be able to stay fresh and hopefully be playing our best ball then,” coach Hunter said.
All-in-all the expectations are high for the Panthers, as they should with 10 letter winners returning from a team that advanced into the third round of the NCAA Tournament last season.
The Panthers just have to gain their bearings on what the roles will be and with the tutelage of Hunter, who is quickly gaining recognition as being one of the great coaches in college basketball, the sky still is the limit for this quickly growing giant of a program that resides in the center of the city Atlanta, Georgia.