Sitting at 8-9, Georgia State’s in unfamiliar territory

Georgia State Men’s basketball program has been lucky enough to have Kane Williams suit up for them each night. Photo by GSU Athletics

When Georgia State entered this season as heavy favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference, it turned few heads. They collected eight first-place votes out of the 12 Sun Belt Conference head coaches who voted.

Why would it have been a surprise?

Super seniors Corey Allen and Kane Williams returned to capture their first March Madness appearance as team leaders.

Eliel Nsoseme’s second season in a Panthers uniform gave the team a 6-foot-8, 240-pound menace inside and a third preseason All-Sun Belt Conference player.

Head coach Rob Lanier brought the team to the Conference Championship game in his second season. He followed that up with the Panthers’ highest-ranked recruiting class in the program’s history during the 2021-22 season.

Georgia State got close to winning last year–they lost to Appalachian State by seven in the conference championship game.

It would’ve been their third in four years and first under Lanier, a former assistant coach who found success with several Power 5 schools before becoming the Panthers’ head coach.

He’s coached multiple future NBA players, learning to be successful across coaching with all talent levels. Everything lined up for them to have a successful season.

After a 4-1 start to the season, Georgia State watched as their season unfolded in a way that came as a surprise, especially to those who voted for the coaches they thought would win the conference.

Thursday’s 68-64 win over the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns marked the team’s first win over a month, dating back to a 92-44 blowout at home over Toccoa Falls. On Saturday, they won their second straight with an impressive 73-62 outing at Lousiana-Monroe.

Five losses and four canceled games later, Georgia State may have found their groove again with a pair of solid wins, on the road nonetheless.

The back-to-back wins wouldn’t mean as much if the team wasn’t struggling the way they are. The program has built a solid reputation as winners, with more victories than any other division-1 basketball team in the state. Consistent activity in the loss column is an allergy to a team that hadn’t been three games under .500 since December 2012.

Winning the regular-season conference is out of the question for Lanier’s guys, but there’s always the tournament, which begins on March 3. Georgia State sits at the very bottom of the standings with a lamentable 2-4 record, the lone win coming Thursday.

There’s never a single person or group of people on a team to blame, especially when it comes to success. Georgia State needed that win on Thursday. They needed it badly.

With nine games left on the schedule, the team has an opportunity to win out and clinch their ninth straight winning season, all since joining the Sun Belt.

The record doesn’t show the strides the team’s making, but it’s also unfair criticism, considering the games they’ve had to cancel. That said, some of the fixes are minor and do not involve anyone changing their playstyle.

Allen, Williams and Nsoseme will have to continue to improve their decision-making for the team to succeed. Contested shots have haunted the team all season: Williams and Allen, the two primary scorers, are shooting less than 40% from the field and below 35% on threes (Williams at 21%).

However, the recent games have displayed optimistic signs for the pair of guards. Entering Thursday, Williams was struggling at the line. During the Louisiana road trip, he didn’t miss on ten attempts from the line. He’s up to 78% on the year entering Monday, which would be a career-best if the season ended yesterday.

Allen, on the other hand, continues to be the primary scorer for the Panthers. It’s no secret that he’s an exceptional shot maker in the Sun Belt, but some games haven’t been kind to him. Yet, maybe he’s found a way to flip the curve. His 18 points on Saturday marked his highest-scoring game since he scored 23 against Toccoa Fall a month ago, which were also his two most efficient games this year.

Both could be high-volume-shot-creators that provide the team with guards confident enough to convert complicated looks at the basket. Lanier will need them down the stretch, especially in close games.

Justin Roberts and Jalen Thomas have become more aggressive as scorers and playmakers.

Roberts also reminds opponents of the scrappy defender that he is––a meteoric sub-6-footer who will pester his matchups with exceptional hands-on defense. On offense, the preseason All-Conference guard brings outstanding perimeter shooting and a secondary ballhandler behind Williams.

Thomas hasn’t been able to find his footing yet this season, shooting 40% from the field down from nearly 60% last year. However, the junior should find his way back to his old self.

The numbers may be down, but it also comes with a lack of reps. The Detroit native was a lead player in the team’s eight-game win streak last season, scoring in double-figures in seven of those games.

When he plays well, the Panthers always have a chance. The team has plenty of bright spots to continue thriving on as they await their shot at the conference title come March.

Winning teams don’t shoot below 70% from the line, and Georgia State’s making just 68% of their freebies. But, they get the job done other ways.

They entered Monday as the Sun Belt’s most efficient teams on offense and defense, shooting 47% from the field (best in the conference) and holding opponents to 41%, first and third-best in the Sun Belt, respectively. All this, and they’re the only team in the Sun Belt scoring 80 points a night.

Pretty impressive stuff for a team that’s yet to play its best basketball.

Again, it just comes down to the team getting back to their old ways. Lanier’s been able to change the program for the better as well. They’re taking care of the ball more this year than the previous two seasons and creating turnovers more frequently than almost any other Sun Belt team.

It’s clear that Georgia State has a ways to go record-wise, but they’ve also got plenty of time and, barring any more games getting canceled, will use the month to progress in their play. Will they make a run to March Madness? Maybe.

After one of the worst starts in program history and an inconsistent schedule, it would sure be a pleasant surprise for a team now seen as an underdog.