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Sun Belt Championship Preview: It’s deja vu in the Big Easy

Georgia State, UT-Arlington meet yet again with a bid on the line.

NCAA Basketball: Texas-Arlington at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve got Deja vu in the Big Easy on Selection Sunday as Georgia State and UT-Arlington will meet in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship for the second year in a row. The Panthers were largely expected to be back in this game, having been the unanimous selection to win the league in the preseason. The Mavericks, however, replaced their top eight scorers from a year ago and were picked to finish 11th.

The Panthers had one of their best defensive performances of the season in the semifinals, holding Texas State to just 21 percent from the floor and forcing 18 turnovers in a 59-46 win. Georgia State build a lead as big as 20 points in the second half before the Bobcats cut into it late. A bigger concern for the Panthers was their own offensive woes. Texas State is a very good defensive team in its own right, but the Panthers are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country and were just 6 of 25 from beyond the arc on Saturday.

UT-Arlington has been surprising the league all season with solid defensively play and efficient offense, but doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. The only offensive statistical categories the Mavericks rank among the top four teams in the league are free throw percentage, rebounding and assists. They don’t force a lot of turnovers or block a lot of shots, but they hold opponents to lowest field goal percentage of anyone in the league. In the semifinal against Georgia Southern, the Mavericks held the Eagles to just 15.8 percent shooting from three and scored the final 10 points of the game to win 67-58.

So who will prevail today and claim the Sun Belt’s spot in the NCAA tournament? Will Sun Belt coach of the year Chris Ogden do what his predecessor, Scott Cross, couldn’t and lead his team to the NCAA tournament in his first season? Or will Ron Hunter and the Panthers make the first back-to-back appearances in the big dance for the first time in school history?

Keys to the game for Georgia State

Continue the defensive intensity: The Panthers were maddening at times on the defensive side of the ball this season. Allowing 3-point barrages and giving up offensive rebounds led to the Panthers dropping several games in league play and made a few of their wins a lot tougher than expected as well. But on Saturday, Georgia State was locked in. Georgia State blocked six shots and collected 10 steals while holding the Bobcats to their lowest shooting percentage of the season. If they can keep up their energy on defense again Sunday, it will be tough for the Mavericks to keep up, even if GSU has another off shooting night.

Get Thomas and Mitchell shooting: The Panthers are the only team in the country that have four players who have made 50 3-pointers or more this season, but there is little doubt their best 3-point shooters are senior wings Jeff Thomas and Devin Mitchell. Senior forward Malik Benlevi can also fill it up from deep, as he did with three 3-pointers on Saturday. But getting their two sharpshooters going will open things up for D’Marcus Simonds in the lane. Simonds, last year’s Sun Belt Player of the Year, faced constant double and triple teams in the lane on Saturday. When the Panthers’ snipers are hitting, teams can’t afford to do that.

Stay in the moment: It’s no secret that the Georgia State team has believed all season long it would be in this position. At times, that was a detriment, as it was apparent that they believed they could just turn it on in March and do what needed to be done. Their immense talent carried them through to a regular season title regardless, but it isn’t unfair to say that the Panthers haven’t quite lived up to their lofty preseason expectations. That all is forgotten with a win on Saturday, but GSU needs to not make the same mistake of looking ahead that it has at times this season. If the Panthers play their game and don’t let the pressure or the emotions get in their head, then they are simply the better basketball team.

Keys to the game for UT-Arlington

Force D’Marcus Simonds into mistakes: The book is out on the Panrthers’ star guard. He doesn’t have elite ball handling, and while his outside shooting has improved ever so slightly, it is still a weakness in his game. Another thing that can be a weakness at times is his own determination. Simonds loves proving his doubters wrong. It’s made him the player he is and it’s woven into his DNA as a player. But it’s been clear through his play that he wants to show he can be a good shooter. This leads to poor shot selection. And when he gets frustrated, he often then compounds the issue by forcing his way into double and triple teams around the basket.

Simonds’ turnovers went up this season while his assists went down, despite being surrounded by three of the best 3-point shooters in school history. The Mavericks know the recipe to getting inside Simonds’ head. It was against UTA in January that he pulled himself from the game early in the second half after missing his first nine shots and scoring just one point.

Find the soft spots in the Panthers’ zone: Georgia State struggles against teams that shoot the 3-pointer well. While the Mavericks aren’t a sharpshooting team by any means, they will have to do hit open looks if they want to win. The Panthers are so active in the lane at blocking shots and swiping the ball away, but can be slow in its rotations at times. Georgia State is 8-6 when it allows 10 or more 3-pointers in a game, and 15-3 when it allows fewer than 10. The Mavericks need to follow the model set by Liberty, Coastal Carolina, Creighton and Texas State among others, and let it fly from beyond the arc.

Get second and third scorers in double figures: Georgia State will surely be targeting guard Brian Warren, the Mavericks leading scorer and third team all-conference selection. But even good defensive teams, including the Panthers, have struggled to slow him down most of the year. However, despite Warren dropping 19 points on the Panthers in Atlanta and the Mavericks holding Simonds to just one point, UTA still fell 77-71. They need a second and third scorer to go off in order to keep up with the Panthers.

Over the last three regular season games Edric Dennis was that guy, scoring 15, 31 and 15 points, respectively. However, he was held to just eight points against Georgia Southern on Saturday. Thanks largely to 12 points from Andres Ibarguen, the Mavericks were able to outlast the Eagles. But relying on the junior forward who averages just over six points per game isn’t a recipe for success. The Mavericks need their wings, and in particularly Dennis and David Azore, to have a big game.