Senior class already one of the best in Georgia State history

Georgia State University Men's basketball vs Tulane at the Sports Arena Saturday in Atlanta, Ga., November 26, 2017. Photo by / Jason Getz

The four seniors on the men’s basketball team, Malik Benlevi, Devin Mitchell, Jeff Thomas and Jordan Tyson, think they will be the best class to ever wear Georgia State uniforms. They’ve already made the NCAA Tournament, which is something that 50 out 54 other Georgia State classes haven’t done.

If these four can lead the Panthers to the tournament this upcoming season, they will be the first to do it twice.

Thomas entered the Georgia State program in 2014, Mitchell and Benlevi entered the program in 2015 and Tyson transferred into it in 2016. How do the seniors want to end their career finale?

“I want to win regular season and the Sun Belt [Tournament] Championship,” Thomas said. “But I also hope to make it past the Sweet 16 because I feel like this team can and we’re a really good team. Honestly, I think when this senior group leaves, we’re going to the best Georgia State team to ever come out.”

But every Georgia State team that has made the NCAA Tournament has never improved upon its win total in the following year. The .667 winning-percentage in the 2017-2018 season is tied for fifth best in program history.

This team has some of the best players in Panther history. Mitchell made 98 3-pointers last season, and that gave him the second-most 3-pointers made in the Georgia State single-season record book. Benlevi shoots .397 on 3-pointers for his career, the fifth-highest mark. Thomas is eighth in both career 3-pointers (141) and 3-point percentage (.387).

“I always had that mentality to just shoot,” Thomas said. “I was kind of a ball hog when I was growing up. But [the quick trigger mentality grew] especially when I got to Georgia State. Coach Hunter just taught me to shoot the ball. [As a player, you] always have the green light here if you can shoot.”

So when did the 2019 class realize it had the potential to be this special? It was early on in their careers.

“[I knew] mainly when we were all on the scout team together … We were all on the second team, and we sometimes beat the first string,” Mitchell said. “All of us together we played well together. So I knew once it was our time and we were the starters, we would probably be able to do something special.”

This class wouldn’t have reached the milestones they’ve passed if they were only sharpshooters. Nate Summers, director of basketball operations, said the seniors always do the right thing for the younger players on the team. The habits they are building in the younger players should leave the program in a better place than it was when the seniors arrived.

“You see guys in there in the gym [still practicing 10 minutes after practice ended] … they’re kinda teaching the younger guy, ‘Hey, man. This is the work ethic we gotta have to be successful,’” Summers said.

Sophomore Kane Williams said the four seniors take practice seriously so that the team can never settle for anything less than their best effort.

“They just lead by example,” Williams said. “We piggyback off their energy, so if they bring high energy, we bring high energy. And they pride themselves on not having low energy in practice or anything they do, so we follow that. That’s why we’re so successful as we are now.”

Familiarity is certainly another reason the Panthers are one of the best teams in the Sun Belt Conference. Benlevi says the seniors are lowkey and usually hang out with each other in their free time after spending hours together at the GSU Sports Arena.

“They truly epitomize what it means to be a true brotherhood,” newly hired assistant coach and former Georgia State basketball player Travis Williams said. “I think these relationships they have in the locker room are the relationships that they’ll have forever. I always give the illustration, ‘If I turn my back to you and I look at this wall, and you turn your back to me and look at that wall, I know you’ll fight for me.

“And that’s the mentality these guys have,” Williams said. “They’re not hesitating and worrying about what goes on the other side because they know you’ll fight for them and vice versa.”

Mitchell told The Signal that when the end of the season nears, Benlevi will definitely be the first to become emotional about it even though he tries to act tough.

“These my boys,” Benlevi said. “They’re my real brothers. If they ever need anything, they can hit me. They know I got them.”

The Panthers lost as the No. 2 seed in the 2017 Sun Belt Conference Tournament Semifinals, but they felt like they should’ve won the championship. It was a long summer, but they either had to view the disappointment as a death sentence for future success or as a chance to get better. They got better, but the journey to the 2018 NCAA Tournament still wasn’t pretty when they went 2-4 in their final regular season and ended the momentum they built up all year.

“The past three years have been very interesting, very up-and-down, but always in a good way,” Tyson said. “Even during the ups-and-downs I always felt like we were working towards something special, and I feel like this year is gonna be the sum total of all those times just being the best team we can possibly be.”

Although the seniors are fiery and always confident, that competitiveness isn’t to be confused with being on an emotional rollercoaster. They treat every obstacle with the same calm and collected approach.

“It’s important [having a senior group that’s tight-knit and level-headed] and it’s really good because they already know the little things that you’ll learn later on in the year,” Panthers guard Damon Wilson said. “They already know that so they can teach you early so you’re not in trouble when your name gets called.”

The Panthers aren’t going to coast through the upcoming season. These seniors are new to the leadership, and it will take time for the entire team to settle into their roles.

“[We have the] same mindset,” Mitchell said. “We got a lot of new pieces so [we’re] trying to implement those guys and getting them [to] think the same way we think. I think once they catch on, which they are doing a good job at that, we’re gonna try to do the same thing again, get down to New Orleans and win a championship.”