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NCAA Tournament Profile: Get to know the Georgia State Panthers

Ron Hunter is back, and we all should be grateful.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Nashville Practice Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia State entered the season with very lofty expectations. After losing only one starter from last year’s NCAA tournament team and returning the 2018 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in D’Marcus Simonds, going back to the big dance seemed like a given to many Panther fans. The bigger question was could this be a team that matched the 2001 and 2015 squads as the most successful teams in school history by winning a game in the NCAA tournament.

The season started off on script. A close early season loss to a good Montana team on the road was understandable. Getting beat by 25 by Creighton in the Cayman Islands Classic was too, even if the score was a little more lopsided than Panther fans might have hoped. But the early season also featured wins over St. Bonaventure and a 24-point drubbing of in-state flagship school Georgia. That win cemented the Panthers’ claim as the best basketball program in the state, which they had made known earlier in the fall with a billboard ad across the interstate from Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.

As the non-conference slate wore on GSU played tough in Manhattan against Kansas State but then laid another egg on the road at Liberty in a 26-point loss. They entered conference play with some momentum, proceeding to win their first five Sun Belt Conference games. However, an upset loss on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer at Troy sent the Panthers into a tailspin, and they lost four out of six games as the calendar turned from January to February. One last head-scratcher remained when Georgia State trailed Coastal Carolina by 30 before losing by 13, but the Panthers saved their best basketball for March. They beat rival Georgia Southern in Statesboro on the final day of the regular season to clinch a number one seed in the conference tournament. Then they cruised to two wins in New Orleans for the first back-to-back NCAA appearances in school history.

Where is Georgia State?

GSU is in the southern portion of downtown Atlanta, with an urban campus woven into the fabric of the city. The east and west ends of the campus are primarily flanked by Peachtree Street and Piedmont Avenue, two of the most iconic roads in the city. GSU was founded as the Georgia Evening School of Commerce in 1913, later becoming Georgia State College and eventually Georgia State University in 1969. The Panthers began playing basketball in 1963 and are making their fifth NCAA tournament appearance. The first came in 1991, while GSU’s first NCAA tournament win came in 2001 when the 11th seeded Panthers upset 6th seed Wisconsin before falling to Maryland in the second round. Georgia State returned to the NCAA tournament in 2015, when as a 14th seed the Panthers upset third seed Baylor on R.J. Hunter’s 3-pointer in the final seconds. GSU also made the NCAA tournament in 2018.

Who is their coach?

Does anyone actually not know this? The loveable Ron Hunter is in his eighth season leading the Panthers. Most likely remember him for his unfortunate celebration following the 2015 Sun Belt Tournament Championship, during which he tore his achilles tendon. That meant Hunter coached the upset over Baylor from a rolling stool, which he then hilariously fell off of when his son, R.J., made the game-winning shot, instantly creating some of the internet’s greatest NCAA tournament memes. Hunter is the winningest coach in GSU history and has produced six of the nine most successful seasons in the program’s 50-plus years. He is also one of the best quotes in the country and will undoubtedly steal our hearts once again this week.

Is there a player I should know?

Junior guard D’Marcus Simonds turned heads in last year’s NCAA tournament when he scored the teams’ first 16 points against Cincinnati. His 27-point performance helped GSU take a 45-44 lead with just over 10 minutes to play, but the Panthers faltered down the stretch and eventually lost 68-53. Simonds hasn’t been as dominant this season as last year, when he set a school record for most points scored in a single season and was the conference player of the year. But he still averages 18.7 points per game and was the Panthers’ only all-conference selection.

The rest of the roster

Georgia State’s entire starting five averages in double figures as Simonds is supported by a trio of seniors who are among the winningest players in school history. Forward Malik Benlevi was the Sun Belt Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player this year after collecting consecutive double-doubles. Guards Jeff Thomas and and Devin Mitchell are two of the most prolific 3-point shooters in school history, with Mitchell ranking among the top 40 players in the country with 3.15 3PM per game. Sophomore guard Kane Williams has made a major leap forward into the starting lineup this season and averages 11.4 points per game. Junior guard and Pitt transfer Damon Wilson has entered the starting lineup at times late in the year and has come on strong, particularly as the point of the Panthers’ zone defense. Senior Jordan Tyson rotates in at center and freshman guard Nelson Phillips provides depth at guard.

Required reading

Georgia State’s big league mid-major coach

Georgia State has busted brackets before and could do it again

Four years later, Jacksonville moment shines bright for Georgia State’s Ron Hunter – and his stool

Can they win?

Georgia State got a tough draw with a very good Houston team. Had the Panthers not had the inexplicable lapses to teams like Liberty, Coastal Carolina and Troy during the regular season, maybe a 28-29 win team with wins over Alabama, Georgia and St. Bonaventure could have gotten a higher seed. As it is, the Panthers will face one of the best teams in the country.

However, they enter the tournament playing their best defense of the season. They are also a good three-point shooting team as the Panthers are the only team in the country with four players who have made 50 or more three pointers. One thing the Panthers may have going for them is their length. Houston’s top three scorers are 6-1, 6-3 and 6-1, respectively. No player on Georgia State’s roster is under 6-3 and the Panthers will hope that gives them the edge on defense to combine with their excellent shooting.