Georgia State Men's Basketball 2020 Season Preview
Basketball season is just around the corner and although the 2020-2021 season presents some unique challenges, there will still be basketball games played at the Georgia State Sports Arena. This will be the second season in the Rob Lanier era, and the team will be tasked with navigating a quirky new Sun Belt conference schedule format that includes back-to-backs and a global pandemic that threatens play at every turn. The non-conference slate is relatively normal, but a new added wrinkle in the schedule includes a season-opening tilt against fellow Atlanta school Georgia Tech. For the players, any season that doesn’t result in a Sun Belt championship is a failure, so they will surely look to improve upon their season from a year ago which saw the Panthers exit the Sun Belt tournament much earlier than they expected to.
For Georgia State, the quest for Sun Belt glory begins on November 25th.
Let the games begin.
2019-2020 Season Recap
Record: 19-13 (12-8 in Sun Belt)
While their overall record was good, the first season under coach Rob Lanier ended with a thud at the hands of in-state rival Georgia Southern. The Panthers finished their seventh consecutive season with a winning record and narrowly extended their 20-win season streak to four consecutive seasons, but the Panthers failed to beat Georgia Southern at home, something that has not happened since 1996. The Eagles bested the Panthers twice at the Sports Arena last season, ending the Panthers’ season in the newly formatted Sun Belt tournament.
The season wasn’t without its bright spots, as a host of new faces propelled the Panthers offense. Newcomers Corey Allen and Justin Roberts endeared themselves well to Georgia State culture and were great replacements for some of the departed Panthers that left following the 2018-2019 season. Paired with the consistently productive Kane Williams, the veteran leadership of Damon Wilson and the emergence of Nelson Phillips, the Panthers had all the pieces to repeat as Sun Belt champions and make the NCAA Tournament for the 3rd straight year. Of course the season didn’t play out that way, but the team’s individual performances were strong up and down the lineup.
Williams was the starting point guard for the second consecutive season, and his strong play was good enough to be rewarded with All-Sun Belt Second Team honors. Williams led the team in points (14.8) and assists (4.4), each of which were career highs for the rising senior. He was tied for the team lead in steals (1.5) and provided his usual level of excellent defense in his first taste with Coach Lanier’s man-to-man defense scheme.
After transferring from DePaul and sitting out the 2018-2019 season, Roberts took to his role as a 3-and-D player well, shooting over 40% from 3-point range and tying Williams in steals per game which led the team. Arguably the best on-ball defender the Panthers had, Roberts caused opposing ball handlers all kinds of problems handling the rock. Roberts was also the third-leading scorer on the Panthers coming in at 13.2 points per game and shot near 90% from the charity stripe. Roberts was voted to the All-Sun Belt Third Team for his work in his first season as a Panther and has two more years of eligibility left.
In his final season as a Panther, senior Damon Wilson saved his best performance for last. The senior guard brought his excellent defense and veteran leadership to the table and helped get the Panthers through some of their rough patches at the end of several games. Whenever the Panthers needed a bucket or key defensive stop, Wilson was there to provide it. Wilson set a career high in points and was a top 10 rebounder in the conference.
Corey Allen began the season in a starter role, but after experiencing some struggles, just past the halfway point, Coach Lanier brought him off the bench to mild success. The sharpshooter battled inconsistencies with his shot, but coming off the bench seemed to be the best way to utilize his talents as it helped keep him fresh down the stretch.
Nelson Phillips had a bit of a coming out party as he was given the first extended playing time in his collegiate career, and the waiting paid off. Phillips set a career high in minutes per game (22.8) and was the Panthers best three-point shooter, hitting from beyond the arc at a 41% clip. Phillips only started 2 games, but he was a consistent feature for the Panthers throughout the season, playing the fifth-most minutes per game on the team.
Finally, the two-headed big man tandem of Joe Jones III and Jalen Thomas performed admirably in their first experience with the Panthers. Neither were prolific scorers, but the pair did their job mostly in securing rebounds and protecting the rim. Thomas led the Panthers with 1.3 blocks per game, good for fourth in the conference.
The biggest loss for the Georgia State Panthers will be the veteran leadership of Wilson, who the Panthers lost to graduation. Wilson transferred from Pittsburgh to the Panthers just before the 2017 season and made his debut a year later after sitting for the entire 2017 season. Wilson was a reliable ball handler for the Panthers, and his veteran leadership will surely be missed.
In Wilson’s first season as a Panther, Georgia State won the Sun Belt tournament and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament as a result. Although Wilson wasn’t able to play at all that season, he was eligible starting in the 2018 season and Georgia State made it back to the NCAA tournament. Wilson made more of an impact on the defensive side of the ball but was still used as a suitable backup for D’Marcus Simonds and Kane Williams. In 2019, Wilson was given a starting role and shined, having career highs in points, assists, and rebounds per game.
The Panthers also lost veteran forward Chris Clerkley by way of the diploma gods. Clerkley spent most of his time at Georgia State as a backup or battling injuries, but he was well-liked by his teammates and coaches – so well-liked that Coach Lanier has brought him on to serve as a graduate assistant on the 2020-2021 staff.
The two outbound transfers Josh Linder and Kavonte Ivery leave Georgia State after careers that each likely wish went better. For Linder, after battling injuries early in his GSU career the prospect of facing another season with dwindling playing time didn’t appeal to the rising junior. Despite a career high in minutes per game during the 2019-2020 season, Linder was relegated to backup forward duties by season’s end. Linder heads to Tennessee State University where he has one season of eligibility remaining and will have to sit a year.
Ivery’s transfer came as a bit of a surprise during the summer, but given the talent the Panthers have coming in this season, Ivery likely did not want to face another season behind other players. Ivery provided a much needed jolt at times in his limited playing time for the Panthers last season. He announced he is headed to Morehouse to continue his basketball playing career, where he has at least two years of eligibility remaining.
2020-2021 Signing Class
The Panthers have a group of transfers that should fit in nicely with the core group that remain from last year. While it remains to be seen just how much playing time comes from this group, the addition of Ryan Boyce from Memphis, Eliel Nsoseme from Cincinnati and JoJo Toppin from Georgia should give Coach Lanier plenty of options to choose from when constructing his lineup. The minutes vacated by Wilson and Linder should be spread between Boyce and Nsoseme, with Toppin right behind them. That gives Georgia State around 8 starting caliber players, and gives Coach Lanier plenty of flexibility night in and night out. Speaking of Wilson, the loss in veteran leadership certainly hurts the Panthers. It will be important for upperclassmen Williams and Phillips to lead the way, something they should have no problems doing.
Coach Lanier has raved about this year’s freshman class, but no one received more praise than incoming freshman Collin Moore. Lanier sees big things out of Moore, Evan Johnson and Kaleb Scott, but he specifically highlighted how Moore might be forcing his way into the full rotation conversation, likely garnering far more playing time than previously anticipated. Lanier sees Johnson as another sharp shooter for Georgia State, calling him “a tremendous shooter. He went on to say, “Right away, one of the better shooters on our team. We don’t have anyone that shoots it better than him.” That’s fairly high praise for a player who shares a team with Justin Roberts and Corey Allen.
The out-of-conference schedule for Georgia State isn’t as sexy as it once was, but with a season opener against ACC opponent Georgia Tech, the Panthers found creative ways to up the difficulty in their non-conference slate. After Georgia Tech, the OOC schedule lightens up a bit with the home opener against Toccoa Falls, a home-and-home against Mercer and a trip to Charlotte. Sprinkled in is a match against Carver Bible College, and to end out of conference play, the Panthers will host the College of Charleston in December. Covid-19 might have taken some of the exciting mid-season opportunities Georgia State was scheduled for, but playing regional schools is a worthy trade off to protect the team and ensure player safety.
In October, the Sun Belt announced that teams will be playing a regional “double home and home” schedule. Games will be played on Friday and Saturday back-to-backs in one team’s city. Teams will then return to the other city for the second two-game weekend series. Teams will also play only regional opponents split into two divisions, east and west. The Panthers will play in the East division and their East opponents include Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, South Alabama and Troy. The Panthers will play each of those four teams in two two-game series. The rivalry series with Georgia Southern will still be played, but the two teams will only host one game this year as opposed to following the double home-and-home format. This conference schedule is a stark departure from the normal conference schedule, but it shouldn’t have too much impact on Georgia State. This is a deep team, and Coach Lanier’s rotations might include every player on the team. The conference slate begins on New Year’s Day as the Panthers will head to Coastal to get things started.
It is impossible to predict a record for this season, but Georgia State should be around the conference leaders when all is said and done. On paper, the only team with more talent and experience is the Little Rock Trojans who the Panthers can not face until the Sun Belt Tournament in March. The Panthers were voted by all Sun Belt coaches to finish at the top of the Sun Belt East this year, and with their experience and talent they should have no troubles doing so. The Sun Belt schedule certainly adds an unexpected wrinkle, but the Panthers’ depth should help them weather the storm of playing on Fridays and Saturdays. With the mix of depth and experience this team has, they’re surely one of the favorites to hang another Sun Belt banner in the Sports Arena.
Georgia State is in a prime position to play basketball late into March, and that comes on the strength of the program head coach Rob Lanier is trying to build in Atlanta. “What happens when you come in and build a program, you’re trying to create a collective vision. You come in with a vision that belongs solely to you, and you try to get your staff to internalize it so that it will trickle down to your players and they internalize it,” Lanier said in his preseason remarks.
Lanier’s vision is starting to come into shape at GSU and he’s ready to steer the Panthers in the direction they need to be headed in.
The core group of guys will be the same, but the new faces will be asked to make an impact on a team that is hungry to finish this season stronger than they finished the last. 2020 will be a unique basketball season in so many ways, but just like always, there will be dunks, threes and a whole lot of crowd-pleasing moments taking place on the Third Floor.
The 2020 season gets underway at McCamish Pavilion Wednesday night as the Panthers take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Fox Sports South. Tipoff is at 9pm EST.
Quotes from Coach Lanier courtesy of GSU Panther Insider Podcast and his November 23rd preseason press conference.