March Sadness: Minor Setback for a Major Comeback

Kevin Ware makes a jump shot during a game against Texas State at the Sun Belt Conference, March 10, 2016. Photo Submitted by Sun Belt Conference
Kevin Ware makes a jump shot during a game against Texas State at the Sun Belt Conference, March 10, 2016. Photo Submitted by Sun Belt Conference
Kevin Ware makes a jump shot during a game against Texas State at the Sun Belt Conference, March 10, 2016.
Photo Submitted by Sun Belt Conference

March Madness has officially begun, and one of the biggest stories of last season’s tournament will not be participating. Georgia State’s season ended in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament against the Texas State Bobcats, denying them further postseason participation.

Last season Georgia State capped off arguably their best season to date with their NCAA tournament run. The Panthers would repeat as conference champions earning them the number one seed in the Sun Belt tournament. They would go on to beat their rivals, Georgia Southern, in the final giving Georgia State their first March Madness bid since 2001. Selection Sunday would give them the No. 14 seed and pit them against third seeded Baylor, and the rest would go down in history. RJ Hunter would score nine straight points for Georgia State and hit the game winning three with 2.6 seconds left to complete the upset and knock the already crippled Coach Hunter out of his chair.

Georgia State’s upset of Baylor and Coach Hunter’s antics would lend to Georgia State becoming the darlings of the NCAA tournament. RJ’s shot would end up going down as one of the biggest moments of the whole tournament and definitely the biggest shot of it. Georgia State found themselves as media favorites; Coach Hunter would go viral with the clip of him falling out his stool. They even received an invitation to the ESPYs as they were nominated for Best Upset. The media loved the father-son dynamic that Coach Hunter and RJ Hunter provided; both of them would be all over TV the rest of the tournament whether it was for interviews or guest analyst spots. The Panthers would go on to fall in the next round of March Madness to the Xavier Bulldogs 75-67, but their Cinderella story was already cemented.

This season, the Panther were tasked with following up such a terrific season, and from the beginning it was going to be a difficult job. The Panthers had to replace key rotation players in Curtis Washington and Ryann Green, and their top two scorers in Ryan Harrow and RJ Hunter. All of this change obviously ended up hurting the team as the never really caught a steady groove like the season prior. Along with integrating new players and new roles, the lack of offensive firepower and experience hurt the team all season.

Losing the two best players will affect any team, but when those two players both averaged over 20 points per game and provided over half the team’s scoring nightly, the offense will struggle, and that was the nightmare Georgia State found itself in this past season. Jeremy Hollowell would lead the team in scoring this season with 14 points per game and Kevin ware would follow behind with 11, but no other player averaged over double digits. This lack of offense caused the Panthers to lose a lot of winnable games versus beatable opponents and it showed in their record as they finished 16-14, a far cry from their 25-win season a year ago. Despite all the struggles, Georgia State was still able to put together a decent season and qualify for the Sun Belt Tournament.

The Panthers played in a lot of memorable and exciting games this season. They would start the season winning 12 of their first 16 games, the second best 16 game start in program history. One of the most memorable games of the season was against rival Georgia Southern at the Sports Arena. The game would eventually head to OT after Isaiah Dennis’ 30 foot buzzer beater was waived off. Behind T.J. Shipes huge double-double of 14 points and 13 rebounds, they would pull out the win 69-66.

Next season the Panthers are primed for a comeback to the big dance. Even though they graduated four seniors, which included Kevin Ware, the team’s second leading scorer, Markus Crider, and TJ Shipes, there are a lot of key players returning. The team’s leading scorer, Jeremy Hollowell will be returning for his senior season and so will Isaiah Williams. Freshmen Austin Donaldson and Malik Benlevi, both who provided minutes off the bench will be back for their sophomore campaigns. Jeff Thomas who showed the ability to shoot the ball extremely well will be back for his second year too. Georgia State’s transfers will also be able to play next season. Devin Mitchell, who transferred from the University Of Alabama, will figure to play big minutes along with UNC- Charlotte transfer Willie Clayton. They will also be bringing in one of their best recruits yet next season in four star guard D’Marcus Simonds from Buford High School. The talent will definitely be there next season, and hopefully they will be able to pull it all together and get themselves back to the Big Dance.