Can Georgia State Separate From Muddled Sun Belt Pack?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 16th, 2014

Preseason expectations for the Sun Belt ranged anywhere from Western Kentucky winning the league and Georgia State tying Louisiana-Lafayette for fourth to Georgia State grabbing the top spot just ahead of the Ragin’ Cajuns. And while there wasn’t much agreement on the order of finish, almost all pundits and prognosticators acknowledged that several teams had enough talent to make it a hotly contested conference race. It’s played out that way in the early going — six teams are .500 or better and even some in the bottom half of the league have beaten contenders. Only one squad stands undefeated, though, and if its 23-point road thrashing of Western Kentucky last week is any indication, Georgia State might be poised to emerge as the Sun Belt’s clear-cut best.

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers have looked dangerous in the early going. (Photo Courtesy of Michael Wade)

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers look dangerous in the early going. (Photo Courtesy of Michael Wade)

After suffering a couple heart-breaking losses and beginning the season with a disappointing 3-6 record, Ron Hunter’s team has won seven straight games, at times playing stretches of dominant basketball. Along with the one-sided showing against WKU, the Panthers also beat East Carolina on the road and pounded South Alabama on its home floor in recent weeks. The key for Georgia State is (and will continue to be) its offense, which features multiple scoring options who each have the ability to erupt for huge nights. Point guard Devonta White and off-guard Ryan Harrow — a Kentucky Wildcat a year ago, if you remember — are quick, skilled ball-handlers capable of beating defenders off the dribble and penetrating the lane with regularity. Once there, Harrow can finish or draw fouls like few other guards in the Sun Belt, while both he and White are excellent distributors: Each maintains a sparkling 28.2 percent assist rate, good enough to be ranked in the top 125 nationally. A main contributor to that rate is the fact that they often kick the ball out to two of the best wings in the conference, coach’s son R.J. Hunter and former Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins. R.J. — a highly recruited player who received offers from Cincinnati and Iowa, among others — is a dynamic scorer, expert from the outside and able to use his size and fluidity to shoot over smaller guards, while Atkins plays a bit more physically but is equally well-equipped from behind the arc.

Combined with 6’9’’ rebounding big man Curtis Washington down low, the sum of these parts for Georgia State is an offensive attack that hits a lot of shots and is largely unmatched in the conference. Consider the following national rankings for the Panthers: 29th in offensive efficiency, first in turnover percentage (lowest), third in free throw percentage, 16th in steal percentage and 45th in effective field goal percentage. Those are impressive numbers for any team, much less a Sun Belt squad that was considered a disappointment a month ago. So while Ron Hunter’s zone defense — prone to giving up bunches of open threes — may allow opponents to score with relative ease at times, Georgia State will usually overpower teams because its offensive onslaught is almost always that much better.

There will of course be challengers, however, and perhaps the best of the bunch is Louisiana-Lafayette. If Georgia State has the best starting five, then the Ragin’ Cajuns might have the most talented one-two punch. Point Guard Elfrid Payton was a starter on the U.S. U-19 team last summer and is a bona fide NBA prospect, averaging over 20 points and six assists a game with an even better assist rate than White and Harrow. The crazy thing is that he might not even be the best player on his own team this season: teammate Shawn Long, a versatile 6’9’’ power forward, is averaging 21.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and three blocks per contest. Those two players alone, often unstoppable, make UL-Lafayette a threat to challenge Georgia State for the league title. The problem for the Cajuns might be consistency, on the one hand having shown the ability to beat a KenPom top 50 team on the road (Louisiana Tech), and on the other hand losing its first conference game of the season to a subpar Louisiana-Monroe squad, despite Payton’s incredible 34-point, 11-assist, 11-board effort. When they do put it all together, though, Bob Marlin’s crew has a very high ceiling.

Western Kentucky and Arkansas State could also surface as contenders, while South Alabama — led by preseason conference player of the year Augustine Rubit — has been such a disappointment thus far (0-4) that it’s hard to image the Jaguars turning things around. One thing is clear: The Sun Belt is flush with individual talent. Rubit, Payton, Long, Hunter, Harrow — these guys are high-major caliber players capable of posting huge numbers on any given night. But the fact remains that basketball is a team game, and at the moment it looks like Georgia State is the best team the league has to offer. Of course, the conference tournament might be a different story altogether — recently-departed Middle Tennessee State can attest to that, twice in a row losing in the Sun Belt Tournament after winning the regular season crown — but if the Panthers continue to play like they have recently, great things could be on the horizon.

They look to keep the momentum rolling at home tonight against Arkansas State, while UL Lafayette hits the road at South Alabama. The Panthers and Ragin’ Cajuns square off against each other a week from now in Lafayette.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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