Women’s Basketball Season Preview: The last two Sun Belt Freshmen of the Year are able to minimize void left by Holston

Madison Newby practice in preparation for the upcoming 2017-2018 basketball season. Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

Georgia State women’s basketball team returns to action on Nov. 11. Head Coach Sharon Baldwin kicked off fall practice last Monday after completing a strong offseason.

“We’ve worked really hard this fall and I think we’re in better shape this year than we’ve been in the past couple of years,” Baldwin said.

Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, guard Jada Lewis, has the potential to elevate her game after a phenomenal first year. Lewis season averages of 11.6 points, 1.9 assists, and 1.1 steals earned her a Third Team All-Sun Belt selection.

2015-2016 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, redshirt-sophomore Madison Newby, returns to full strength this full season, after her sophomore campaign ended prematurely due to a foot injury.

Both Lewis and Newby are exciting with the ball in their hands, and could give Panthers’ fans plenty to cheer about this season.

Newby’s and her playmaking abilities won her Sun Belt assist title honors in 2016. It will be a sight to see when conference play begins on Dec. 29 with South Alabama.

Head Coach Sharon Baldwin is managing a team that consists of a large amount of turnover. Lewis is the only returner to log more than 20 minutes per games last season.

Newby and Lewis each played 30 or more minutes per contest during last year and the year before respectively. Makeba Ponder, who averaged 2.1 threes per contest, did not return to Georgia State. This is a slight concern, considering opponents made 2.4 more threes per game last year.

Lewis, the second-best marksmen, knocked down 1.1 three pointers per game of the 4.4 team average.
One of the strangest characteristics that you’ll ever find about a competitive team in collegiate sports lies on the Georgia State women’s basketball webpage.

There is not one returning senior on Head Coach Sharon Baldwin’s 2017-2018 roster. For comparison’s sake, the men’s basketball team returns two seniors.

“I’m really excited. We’ve got a lot of new players. We’ve got a lot of stuff to cover, a lot of things to put in. So we’ve got to make the most of every day,” stressed Baldwin.

Every junior from last year’s team transferred or ended their athletic career. The Panthers will collectively try to fill the void in the rebounding department left by graduate Tiffany Holston.

Holston was fourth in the Sun Belt Conference in rebounding with 8.8 per game. Holston was not the team leader on the boards in just seven of the 29 games she appeared in.

“I do think we’re a little bit behind at the center position [due to] losing Tiff’ and then losing Hailey as well. Both of them brought a lot to our program. That’s our biggest question mark right now,” Baldwin said.

Six-foot-three sophomore Shaquanda Miller-McCray is an early candidate to start at center. JUCO transfers Shay Fluker, Kiersten Hunter, Juliet James, Victoria Middlebrooks and Janessa Murphy excelled at their previous stops.

Holston’s rebounding requires a collective effort to replace, but her activeness and passion wore off onto returners.

“Oh! Tiffany was a go-getter. We learned how to stick together and how to fight through adversity,” said Newby. “She was a fifth-year [senior], so she knew a lot of things about the game that some of the younger athletes didn’t know. She was a leader, a teacher, a good friend, and a good teammate.”

However, a remnant of the team will be hard-nosed defense, a priority of Coach Baldwin during her time at Georgia State.

Georgia State opens the season with three road games against Power 5 conference opponents. The Panther’s will begin with Florida and Mississippi State from the SEC, before riding up I-75/85 to face Georgia Tech at the McCamish Pavilion.

Mississippi State broke UConn’s 111-game record winning streak in the Final Four, but fell to South Carolina in the Championship Game. Mississippi State was ranked ninth in ESPN’s “Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2017-18” rankings.

The out-of-conference schedule does not ease up much after they return home. In the 2017 NCAA Tournament selection, Western Kentucky and VCU are considerably tougher competition at the GSU Classic, in comparison to Akron and Elon.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for us. I think our first three weeks of our season is going to be really tough. We’ve got to be able to compete and be ready to go,” an enthusiastic Baldwin said.

The early tests are a great way for Coach Baldwin to evaluate who will log major minutes in Sun Belt action. South Alabama, who eliminated the Panthers in the postseason, will be the first conference matchup of the season.

The Panthers will stay in the state of Alabama and take on Troy two days later on New Year’s Eve. The two split the series last season, as both stole a game on road won.

Madison Newby will face Sun Belt action for the first time in two seasons, when she fully recovers from injury. Newby led the conference in assists (102, 5.1) and started every game as a freshman. Improving her freshman assist to turnover ratio of 1.04 is the key to another strong season, according to Newby.

With the past two Sun Belt Freshmen of the Year on the court simultaneously, a faster start in the Sun Belt could be inevitable. The loss of the bodies down low could be a weakness of the team, but a consecutive 1-7 start in conference would be surprising, considering the command the two have over the offense.

“I think it makes a difference, especially with our inside players because we lost a lot of 4s and 5. But we’ve got the core of our guards that we’ve had the last couple of years back,” Baldwin said. “I think that makes a difference. They’re able to lead the team and show by example.”

Newby will not be cleared to play in the regular season until November, but recently began competing in live-practices. Only time will tell if Newby will be a go for opening night against Florida. The Panthers tied in sixth-place in the Sun Belt last season, but has the potential to soar up the standings in 2018.

“I’m ready to get back out on the court, and try to win a championship because I know that the team that we have this year is capable,” said. “I have a lot of faith in my team.”

Those Sun Belt championship aspirations are in reach, if the returning mainstays and talented incomers find a playing style that gels. The first home game is against VCU Nov. 24.