Georgia State rode the 3-ball to a conference championship and berth in the NCAA tournament. It’s banking on it again to pull a major upset against No. 2-seed Cincinnati on Friday in Nashville.
The Panthers are heavy underdogs as a 15-seed, and they’re hoping to find the same magic that propelled them past third-seeded Baylor as a 14-seed in 2015.
GSU coach Ron Hunter sees parallels between his two teams, but believes the most recent version is even better than the one who stunned the Bears.
“This team is better,” Hunter said. “There are parallels. Having my son (R.J.) was an awesome deal, and it was special with that group. But it’s hard to (make the tournament twice in four years). We’re confident. We’re playing our best basketball by far.”
Hunter stressed that mid-major schools need an NBA talent to truly compete with the big boys. The Panthers have that in D’Marcus Simonds, whom Hunter assures will be a first-round selection whenever he enters the NBA draft.
Simonds has spoken with R.J., who made the game-winner against Baylor before the Celtics selected him 28th overall in the NBA draft that June. Hunter currently is on a two-way contract with the Rockets.
The team also is leaning on Jordan Session, who was part of the 2015 squad but logged only 11 minutes in the tournament and didn’t play in the first-round win.
Cincinnati might be more formidable than that Baylor team. The Bearcats have lost only four games, each of which came against a team that earned a top-six seed.
But there’s some buzz for a GSU upset. Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated picked the Panthers, singling out Simonds as the difference. USA Today’s Dan Wolken warned of a Panthers upset.
Hunter sees a path beyond the arc. The Panthers have relied on long-range scoring all season, and if they can out-gun Cincinnati, there’s a map to the second round.
“They’re great defensively,” Hunter said. “We weakness we have found is that they shoot 27 percent from 3. If we can get them to shoot 25 or 30 3’s, we have a chance.”
The Panthers will need a break or two; every upset requires such. But Hunter’s mindset is sound. It’s a numbers game: Outshoot them on 3-point shots and you’ll have a chance. It helps that one of the Bearcats’ biggest weaknesses aligns with the Panthers’ greatest strength.
That, along with their recent play, has the Panthers feeling good. Georgia State headed to Nashville on Wednesday. And they traveled with a confidence that they aren’t just another 15-seed.
After losing four of six to close the regular season, the Panthers rediscovered form in the Sun Belt tournament.
“I’m shocked at how much better we’ve gotten,” Hunter said, recapping the season. “We were playing good basketball, had won 10 in a row, then we got complacent. They were waiting for tournament.”
That time’s arrived. As Hunter predicted, his group stepped up when it mattered. And they’ll need to take it up another notch if they’re going to pull another historic upset this weekend.
“We’ve been just outstanding defensively,” Hunter said. “We didn’t trail in the conference tournament, which is unheard of at that point of the season. We’ve peaked at the right time and these guys have a chip on their shoulder.”