Isaiah Williams (left) and Malik Benlevi of the Georgia State Panthers react to a call during Friday's NCAA tournament opener against Cincinnati. Georgia State, the Sun Belt Conference champion and a No. 15 seed in the South Region, was eliminated after its 68-53 loss to the No. 2 seeded Bearcats. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Georgia State’s Malik Benlevi embracing position change for senior season

Sun Belt coaches unanimously vote Panthers as favorite to win conference title.

Georgia State coach Ron Hunter knows most players would balk at the challenge of changing positions during their senior season — Malik Benlevi didn’t.

After playing forward during his time at Savannah’s Jenkins High School and his first three seasons at Georgia State, Benlevi was asked to practice at the traditional center spot this summer and slowly realized that’s where he was going to play during his final collegiate season.

“I kind of knew it was coming,” Benlevi said Thursday at Georgia State basketball’s media day. “They tried to ease it on me, but I knew it was coming.”

Benlevi, 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, averaged more minutes than any other Panther last season (35) and led the team in rebounds (227). One of four Panthers to start all 35 games last season, Benlevi averaged 9.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists as a junior.

Hunter knew Benlevi was up to the challenge of filling the vacancy at the five spot because of Benlevi’s demonstrated basketball intellect and work ethic over the past three seasons.

“Since we recruited him, he’s done nothing but win in this program,” Hunter said. “We’ve had some really good players and he’s a good player, but he’s kind of been the foundation of everything we’ve done. He’s been the best defensive player I’ve coached in 30 years. He knows the system. He’s just a winner. ... 

“Our defense can sometimes be a little complex, and he understands that. He tells the young guys what to do, but what he does is he’s changed the culture of our program by winning and doing things the right way. He kind of exemplifies that.”

Benlevi is one of four starters to return, along with seniors Jeff Thomas, Devin Mitchell and junior D’Marcus Simonds, after the Panthers won the Sun Belt Conference and made it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year. The Panthers lost 6-8 Jordan Session, who started all 35 games and averaged 7.5 points and six rebounds in his final season.

Sun Belt coaches unanimously voted the Panthers as the favorite to win the conference title this season, and Simonds was their choice for player of the year.

Even with Session’s absence, the experience and achievements of the returners allow Benlevi to feel confident in what the Panthers can accomplish when they open their season in one week.

“I think we have a better team than last year. ... We have so many guys that played in the Sun Belt, so I feel like we have the upper hand with a lot of new guys coming in at other schools that have never really played,” Benlevi said.

Mitchell, who has grown close with Benlevi since Mitchell transferred from Alabama before the 2016-17 season, said he knows Benlevi would rather have stayed at forward, but the attitude with which Benlevi has approached the change exemplifies his versatility and talent.

“If you ask him, he would have liked to play something else but he knows he can play it, he knows he can do it,” Mitchell said. “I’ve had fun watching him grow into that role and just stepping out in playing the five for us. He’s just sacrificing right now so I appreciate it.”

As the Panthers begin their eighth season under Hunter, they have much to be optimistic about. 

Returning four starters, three of them seniors, who have conference championship experience and know what it takes to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament allows the Panthers to build on their successes, even though Hunter doesn’t want his team to get lost in their ambition.

“We think we have a team that can win games in the NCAA tournament, but we’re a long way from that,” Hunter said. “We’ve got a lot we have get done (before the tournament). The hard part with having an experienced team is trying to turn it on and turn it off and try to get to the NCAA tournament before you even go through the process. ... We’re talking about enjoying the process and making sure that every step we’re taking care of business.”

Benlevi will made his debut at center Nov. 1 as Georgia State hosts Georgia College in an exhibition game at GSU Sports Arena at 7 p.m.

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