Exploring Georgia State’s Defensive Turnaround

Photo: Jordan Crawford, THERSdayNight.com

When you think of what’s made Georgia State great over the past decade, you’re probably going to remember The Shot™ by RJ Hunter to upset the 3-seed Baylor in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. If not that, you’ll reminisce about one of the other 252 three-pointers RJ hit in a Panthers uniform or all the times Ryan Harrow or D’Marcus Simonds made defenders who were trying to stop them on a dribble drive look foolish. Some of Ron Hunter’s best teams in Atlanta had good, even great, defenses – but the offenses were always better. And offense was the calling card for the first two years of the Rob Lanier era as well, with the Panthers scoring 78 and 80 points a game respectively.

Fast-forward to this season and things have been rocky. Despite entering this season with largely the same roster as last year, the shots just are not falling. Far from averaging in the high 70s or 80s, the only time the 2021/22 team has exceeded the 80-point mark against a Division I opponent was when they scored 83 versus Northeastern all the way back on November 12th. The team ranks in the bottom 50 in D1 in three-point percentage and the bottom 10 in two-point field goal percentage. The defensive numbers languished in the middle or bottom of the rankings for much of the first half of the season as well. After five straight losses and an 0-4 start to Sun Belt play, something was gonna have to give or the Panthers were going to fall woefully below expectations.

Cue a defensive reinvention which Coach Lanier himself has admitted is incredibly rare to see halfway through a college season. After the South Alabama win on February 5th, he said, “Rarely do teams make significant improvements in-season. Once you have an identity in that regard, it’s hard to change it.” And yet the team has dreamed the impossible dream. After five wins in six games, they find themselves back above .500 at 11-10 and 5-5 in the conference. This complete flip of a switch culminated in a road sweep of Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State this past weekend that was led all the way by the defense, the first time Georgia State has held consecutive opponents to 50 points or less since two separate stretches during Coach Hunter’s first season in charge. 

Back then, the Panthers held McNeese State to 50, Samford to 47 and Liberty to 50 in three straight games over the span of eight days in November 2011. That streak was broken on the 29th when South Carolina State just edged past a half-century with 54 points, but a new one quickly got underway when they held FIU to 47 points and William & Mary to an absurd 34 in their next two games. But there’s a couple differences at play here. One is that four of those five games 11 years ago were played within the friendly confines of the GSU Sports Arena, while both these present-day games were on the road. Additionally, of those five teams, only McNeese finished with a winning record at the end of the year (at 17-16) and all five finished outside the KenPom top 200.

Flip back to 2022. Coastal Carolina came into last Thursday’s matchup with a pedestrian 12-10 record, but they boasted the Sun Belt’s best offense at just over 74 points per game. It’s a team that dropped 80 on South Carolina in that same building in December, a team that put up 94 in a conference home game against ULM and a team who finished off their weekend with a 79-58 win over Georgia Southern. None of that mattered when Georgia State held them over 24 points below their average and limited them to below 30% shooting from both inside and outside the arc.

Saturday’s opponent App State came in near the bottom of the conference’s offensive statistics, making their name on defense much like the new-look Panthers, but they had only lost twice in the Holmes Convocation Center this season. And we have to take another trip back to 2011 to find a time when the Mountaineers have scored less than 50 in a game in that building, a 65-49 loss to ETSU on December 10th. Plus, all of this is without mentioning that App State was leading the Sun Belt with a 10-3 conference record and came into Saturday’s matinee winners in eight of their last nine games. 

Putting the historical context aside, what’s been happening to spark the team into becoming the best defensive team in Sun Belt play? The easiest answer would be the return of a healthy Eliel Nsoseme, after he had missed the first 11 games of the season due to injury. But the truth of it is that the difference is the rest of the team has jumped to meet his energy rather than relying on it as has been the case in the past. When Eliel left the floor last season or in stretches after his return in 2022, there was a noticeable dip in intensity, even if just from one guy not being as locked in as the other four. In their two wins last week, it was all energy for the full 40 minutes, no matter the five on the floor.

Defense takes a 5-man commitment at all times and Georgia State is getting that from every combination of players it rolls out there. The guards are going out and getting in the grill of the ball-handler on the perimeter. They’re forcing the most turnovers and racking up the most steals in the Sun Belt with this aggressive play, and they’re able to do this because they trust the guys inside. They’re assured that even if their guy is able to blow past them, the size and length of Nsoseme, Jalen Thomas and Ja’Heim Hudson is waiting in the middle to give good contests on shots. And there’s the other times where the perimeter defender – be it Kane Williams, Justin Roberts or Nelson Phillips – don’t get beat and they’re the ones to force their guy to shoot with a hand in their face. It’s working. The numbers bear this out, as the Panthers are now 31st in the nation with a 45.7% percentage allowed on two-point attempts. In conference play, that number is an astounding 41.8%.

The final piece of the puzzle somewhat relates back to the return of Nsoseme, but more in the sense of Coach Lanier having his entire roster back from their various maladies and Covid pauses. The number of available bodies has fluctuated throughout the season, and when less players were active and, consequently, those players were having to play longer stretches, their ability to play with the type of intensity that was required for a full game was hindered. Even though starters like Williams are still playing 30+ minutes most nights, the couple extra minutes’ break they can now manage makes a difference. The other part of it is that reserves like Jamall Clyce, Collin Moore and whichever big man is coming off the bench can come in and match the starters’ energy levels. Resembling something you’d see in the NHL, Coach Lanier’s preferred substitution pattern is to have shorter shifts – ideally, no more than 4-5 minutes, even for the starters – and lots of rotation to keep everyone fresh. He’s finally got the bodies to put that in place again and the team is reaping the rewards.

Georgia State hit one of their lowest points in recent years and have responded by being as good as they’ve been defensively in a decade – and bucking college basketball conventionality in doing so. There’s only four games left in the regular season, so time is running out for a return to the efficient and explosive offensive output we’ve come to expect from a Georgia State team. But they’ve tapped into a defensive identity they’ve been searching for, and that’s something on its own that will continue to keep them in every game. If they can couple it with even subtle improvements at the offensive end, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Sun Belt team who wants any part of the Panthers when they travel down to Pensacola.

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