It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Following the lopsided Georgia Southern-Georgia State football game last fall (you know, the one where the Eagles put up 69 points and trotted out all three letters when it was over), Panther fans had an easy comeback, "wait until basketball season."
Granted, the old Kentucky line made a lot of sense at the time. GSU, I mean, Georgia Southern, was picked to finish ninth in an 11-team league in preseason, and hadn't had a 20-win basketball season in years. State, on the other hand, won 25 games just last year.
But a funny thing happened on the way to March Madness. State took a long ride down I-75 and I-16 last month, promptly lost again to Southern, and took an even longer ride back up to Atlanta with chants of "just like football!" ringing in their heads.
All of which brings us to Saturday. The two GSUs are set to meet again, for the third and final time in the revenue sports, with the Sun Belt newcomer threatening to make it a clean sweep of head-to-head victories and bragging rights.
Even if you don't care which is the real GSU, there's plenty on the line in this matchup. Both teams played their penultimate regular-season games Thursday night, with Georgia State winning 58-50 against Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia Southern beating UT-Arlington 76-64. That means Saturday is a battle for the regular season title.
The Sun Belt is one of the smart conferences that doesn't just throw all the teams into a blender and call it a conference tournament. No, the Sun Belt values its one guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament, and makes sure its best teams get the best shot at the Big Dance.
The top two seeds in the Belt, which will be the GSUs, get a bye all the way to the semi finals. That's right, just two wins and you're in. Also, the regular season champ gets into the NIT even if they stumble in the conference tourney.
Start Time: 2 p.m. Saturday
Location: GSU Sports Arena, Atlanta
Streaming: Try this
Records: GSU (21-7, 14-5 Sun Belt), GSU (21-9, 14-5) (figure it out)
Live Stats: Mmmmmhmmmmm
Betting Line: Georgia State -10. Over/Under of 131.5
Aside from all of that rivalry and tournament context, this figures to be a great game. It will be just the third sellout in the history of State's basketball arena and, according to Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, features four of the five best players in the conference.
State is led by RJ Hunter and Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, who together form a terrifying backcourt. Both average more than 35 minutes per game, and each hovers around 20 points and four assists. Hunter (the coach) says Harrow is one of the 10 best point guards in the country. Southern coach Mark Byington said of these two, "they would be a very good backcourt if they were in the ACC."
Not without its own weapons, Southern is led by redshirt seniors Jelani Hewitt and Trent Wiedeman. Hewitt, a guard, averages just shy of 35 minutes a game, contributing 18.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.6 steals. He also sports the Eagles' highest free throw percentage at 83.6 percent. State's coach called him a "flat-out scorer."
Wiedeman, a 6-8 forward, averages 28 minutes, 11.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1 assist per game. Like his head coach, Wiedeman previously represented College of Charleston.
As in football, the Eagles have taken the Sun Belt by storm in spite of mediocre predictions. The whole conference will swell with hatred if the basketball Eagles join their gridiron counterparts and win the Belt in year one.
The Eagles have cooled just a tad down the stretch. When Georgia Southern beat Georgia State in front of its own sellout crowd in Statesboro, it reached 9-2 in conference, since then, the team has gone 5-3. State actually has played better after the loss, going 6-1 since.
Chances are pretty good you'll be watching one of these teams try and pull off a 14-3 type upset in a couple weeks. Unfortunately, unless you've got a ticket or are willing to $hell out for a streaming service, your best bet is listening on the radio or utilizing the Twitter-verse to follow the action this weekend.
Either way, enjoy the glorious hate One More Time. Unless of course the two teams meet yet again in the conference tournament final, which would be rivalry overload and would eternally melt all the roads and bridges leading between the two schools. Or, at least until football starts again.