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Flush with buzzer beaters, Texas State is the Sun Belt’s early surprise

Someone had to emerge.

Texas State Athletics

Alex Peacock put himself in the right place on Jan. 6.

Texas State was trailing Troy by one point with 18 seconds left in San Marcos. Coming out of a timeout, sophomore wing Nijal Pearson hoisted a three that was off the mark. But Peacock was there for the offensive rebound, and the junior forward’s put back won the game for the Bobcats.

A week later, Peacock — the son of a former American record-holding high jumper — stepped back just far enough and hoisted a buzzer-beating jumper that gave the Bobcats a 72-70 win over Little Rock. It was his only basket of the game, and it was a big one.

His coach talked about the whirlwind week — which included a less climatic win over Arkansas Sate as well — in a release.

“I feel very fortunate that we got another win at the buzzer. The good Lord must be looking down and shining down upon us,” said head coach Danny Kaspar. “The kids played hard but we made crucial mistakes to let them back in at the end of the game. Alex Peacock hit a huge shot to win the game.”

It’s been that kind of charmed season for Texas State since Sun Belt play began. After losing their league opener at Appalachian State, the Bobcats have reeled off five straight wins and sit tied for second in the conference standings at 5-1.

In some ways, they’ve been the league’s biggest surprise over the past three weeks.

The coaches picked Texas State to finish sixth in their preseason poll, and the middling status was understandable. The Bobcats lost three senior starters from a team that won 18 games in the regular season and knocked off heavy-favorite UT Arlington to advance to the Sun Belt Tournament final.

One of those losses was forward Kavin Gilder-Tilbury and his all-league production (15.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG), as well as starting guards Ojai Black (8.0 PPG, 4.0 APG) and Bobby Conley (8.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG). Those three helped form a nucleus that ground its way to competitiveness in Kaspar’s slow-tempo, ball control, man to man system.

But after a 7-6 non-conference run that included underwhelming losses to UTSA, Houston Baptist and Abilene Christian, Texas State suddenly looks very much like it did a year ago. The Bobcats are yet again excelling at pressuring the ball and forcing turnovers at the second-best rate in the Sun Belt, something that has been a hallmark of Kaspar’s teams going back to his 13 years at Stephen F. Austin.

They’ve also got one of the better front lines in the league. Pearson has been the star, as the sophomore wing has built on his great freshman year (14.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG). He’s arguably the Sun Belt’s best perimeter defender, and can cause match up problems on offense with a versatile arsenal (although his shooting numbers are down this season).

Peacock and senior Immanuel King (10.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG) have also been solid alongside Pearson. And Kaspar’s depth has shined lately, as JuCo guard Tre’Larenz Nottingham has provided some quality minutes with starting point guard Marlin Davis sidelined by an injury the past two games, averaging 15.5 points and 5.5 assists over that span.

Peacock, Nottingham and King have been quality finds at the JuCo level over the past two years, and Pearson was a high school gem that Texas State beat Houston, Lamar and San Diego to get. It took Kaspar until last year — his fourth in San Marcos — to field a winning team, either in conference or overall. But with recruiting rolling, there’s reason for optimism.

He talked about what his recruiting philosophy in an interview with Bobcat Magazine in 2013.

“I’ve told my assistant coaches, ‘Find me high-character, low-maintenance people with reasonably good skill level and reasonably good athletic level with high basketball IQ who are coachable,’” Kaspar said. “I want a well rounded player. I want a player who respects his coaches and respects his parents. If a kid doesn’t respect his parents, he’s not going to respect me.”

Nothing there about running up and down the floor, jump shooting prowess or mad basketball skills. Nothing about making connections at the shoe camps. Everything there about kids who can be taught the game.

“If I was at Kentucky and I got four McDonald’s All-Americans, I might change my philosophy,” Kaspar said.

Five seasons later, could it be that Kaspar’s program is indeed up and running?

He had more immediate success at SFA, as the Lumberjacks posted a 16-4 Southland record in his third season. But it wasn’t until his eighth season that SFA made its first big splash in winning a regular season crown. Under Brad Underwood and now Kyle Keller, they’ve been a league-contending stalwart ever since.

Like it was then, Texas State is playing his brand of “ugly” basketball and producing wins. The Bobcats have built their 5-1 start on a relatively friendly schedule, having yet to play front-running Louisiana (5-0), Georgia Southern (5-1), Georgia State (4-2) or UTA (3-3).

But they’ve emerged from a jumbled middle to be the Sun Belt’s early season surprise. The question now is whether the Bobcats can keep that up not only this season, but going forward under Kaspar.