What’s Eating Georgia State?

Coach Rob Lanier reacts to a play during a 2020 home contest against Georgia Southern.

A season which started out with big aspirations for Georgia State basketball has turned sour and is earning comparisons with all the wrong teams of recent years. The loss to Appalachian State last Thursday gave the Panthers their first four-game losing streak since the 2015-16 season, the last (and only) time the team finished under .500 in Sun Belt play. Losing to Coastal Carolina in overtime on Saturday made it five defeats in a row. The last time that happened was in the 2012-13 season, the last time Georgia State finished the regular season with a losing record. As things stand, they’re staring at a 6-9 record after four straight losses to open their conference slate. It feels like a Herculean effort is required to even get to the level of respectability we’ve been accustomed to from Georgia State, before even thinking of preseason goals such as winning the conference or making the NCAA Tournament. So how did we get here and how can the Panthers claw their way back into the fold in the Sun Belt?

The efficiency and team numbers – courtesy of KenPom.com – do not make for easy reading right now:

Data courtesy KenPom.com

Data courtesy KenPom.com

Effective FG% is a KenPom metric that calculates a team’s shooting percentage, giving 50% extra weight to three-point percentage. That cuts both ways for Georgia State, as they sit with a pedestrian 32.5% 3P percentage on offense while also allowing teams to make a second-worst in the nation 41.7% of their threes. Thus, there’s a near 10% gap between their offensive Effective FG% and what they’ve allowed from opposing teams. Not a recipe for success.

However ghastly as some of the season numbers look, though, it’s not an entirely fair picture of the team as it’s currently constructed. Forward Eliel Nsoseme appeared in his first game in the conference opener against UTA and made his first start the following week at South Alabama, so the core of this Georgia State team – including all five intended starters – have only played together a total of 4 games now. And looking at the conference-only splits, the defense has taken a huge step forward from some of the lowlights of non-conference play. 

The team’s defensive efficiency is top 3 in the conference. In the four conference games they’ve played, the Panthers are allowing a league-best 44% shooting percentage inside the arc, brought on in large part by the return of Nsoseme and a growing partnership between him and freshman Ja’Heim Hudson down low. They’re also fouling a lot less and forcing a high number of turnovers at the same time. It’s a small sample size, but the eye test matches the numbers and suggests that they’ve tapped into something at that end of the floor.

During this five-game losing streak dating back to the Georgia Tech loss on December 21, the Panthers have allowed teams to shoot 42% from the floor. Even though the 40% allowed on three-pointers in that stretch is a black mark, it’s been their work at the defensive end that has kept Georgia State in every one of those games and allowed them the ability to win it late. Indeed, the team held leads in the second half in all five of the losses, fueling the frustration at the current state of affairs.

The issue lies when Georgia State has possession. You’ve made it this far into the article, but if you were looking for brevity, this is the rare case where you can distill the problems for the Panthers into five words or less – Georgia State isn’t making shots. As stated above, the defense hasn’t been the issue in the current skid:

OpponentGeorgia State FG %Georgia State 3P%
Georgia Tech20-71 (28.2%)7-22 (31.8%)
UTA27-68 (39.7%)6-24 (25%)
South Alabama23-60 (38.3%)6-19 (31.6%)
Appalachian State25-66 (37.9%)6-25 (24%)
Coastal Carolina26-82 (31.7%)3-28 (10.7%)
Total121-347 (34.9%)28-118 (23.7%)
OpponentOpponent FG %Opponent 3P%
Georgia Tech22-56 (39.3%)9-22 (40.9%)
UTA26-67 (38.8%)7-18 (38.9%)
South Alabama26-54 (48.1%)8-22 (36.4%)
Appalachian State22-50 (44%)8-21 (38.1%)
Coastal Carolina25-62 (40.3%)10-22 (45.5%)
Total121-289 (42%)42-105 (40%)

Improbably, Georgia State and their opponents made exactly the same number of shots during this stretch of games, 121. The problem is that the Panthers needed 58 more attempts to get to that number. The gulf in three-point shooting is apparent from the raw numbers alone, but to spell it out even further, Georgia State attempted 13 more shots from beyond the arc and made 14 less. To put it another way, making 40% of your field goals or 30% of your three-point attempts is a low, low bar to clear and would rate among one of the worst team shooting percentages in the country. And yet if the Panthers had managed to average even that as a team in this set of games, they’d probably be looking back at 4 or 5 wins.

In both good and bad news, we know what the general issue is here – confidence. No one wearing a Georgia State uniform has had it and someone in the other team’s huddle did. Whether it was Georgia Tech’s Jordan Usher setting a career high with 30 points, Adrian Delph dropping a game-high 29 for Appalachian State or Vince Cole leading Coastal to victory with his 23 points and 5-7 shooting from downtown, each of the Panthers’ opponents had a standout performer on offense. By contrast, Georgia State have struggled to lean on any one player when they absolutely need a bucket. They’ve not had a single player score 20 or more points against D1 competition since Justin Roberts scored 25 in their last D1 win at High Point on November 21. 

This is leading to late-game situations not going to plan – be it the corner three attempted by Ja’Heim Hudson, probably the fourth or fifth scoring option on the court in an ideal scenario, at the end of regulation against Coastal or the poor possession that ended in a Kane Williams turnover in the ensuing overtime period. At these points of the game, coaches want to just leave it in the hands of their best offensive player to create a good look. Right now, no one has been asserting themselves as that guy. And the one time that’s happened, when Justin Roberts scored a go-ahead basket with 14 seconds left against App State, Justin Forrest hit a buzzer-beater at the other end to steal the win and zap the momentum away from the Panthers.

The positive here is that there’s three senior guards – namely, Williams, Roberts and Corey Allen – who you can point to as the obvious candidates to turn back into that reliable playmaker. The problem is that they’ve not done it over the course of the season to date, and at times you’ve seen each of them pressing and forcing shots as they’ve tried to unlock their shooting woes. But whoever it is or however they get over the yips, someone’s going to have to step up and find their form again. 

The worst part about this bad run of form isn’t that Georgia State has fundamentally been overmatched by a host of superior teams. On the contrary, the average margin of defeat in this losing streak is 6.2. The high watermark was the 10-point loss to Georgia Tech that started this rut off. That would be easy enough to explain away and accept – if it’s not your year, it’s not your year. Instead, they’ve been just mediocre enough to cost themselves wins, and that’s a lot harder to swallow than just getting beat. 

The glass-half-full side of things, though, tells you that this means it’s still within their power to get things right. If it’s going to happen is anyone’s guess, but there’s ten games left and no one remaining on the schedule for the Panthers is ranked in the top 100 via the NET rankings or in KenPom’s team ratings. There’s no unwinnable games and there’s still every opportunity to make something of this season. Failing to do so could make for a long and ponderous offseason.

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