A Panther’s perspective

McClain Baxley

With a basketball game as important as Georgia Southern-Georgia State, we wanted to get a GSU perspective from The Signal’s sports editor Jerell Rushin once again.

What has been the biggest challenge after losing a lot of key players last year?

Depth is the biggest challenge for the 2017-2018 Panthers and looks to be the case moving forward. It hasn’t bothered them much thus far as they have enjoyed success, but a team that lacks great depth can be in trouble when things get physically draining.

Coach Ron Hunter is playing a team who now in their conference schedule, doesn’t go past nine-deep and often gets shallower. Three players average more than 30 minutes per game. In comparison, just one player did last season and only three played over 25 minutes.

What has been the highlight for the team thus far?

The Panthers’ 40-point season opening win was a moment, as reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year D’Marcus Simonds logged the first triple-double in Panther history. But without question, the recent four-game winning streak is the highlight of the season.

Playing all-around basketball, the Panthers’ average margin of victory during this stretch is 10, all coming against Sun Belt opponents. Georgia State is the Sun Belt’s second-best three-point shooting team by percentage and three pointers made. They made 10 or more three pointers in three of their last four games and knocked down 14 in their last game, a 72-58 win over Coastal Carolina.

The Panthers started the season 0-2 in Sun Belt play before winning 4 in a row. What sparked the turnaround?

The team now features a more compact line-up of extremely versatile players. Hunter seemingly shaved the lineup to feature players who bring similar skill-sets: willingness to sacrifice, run the court, shoot the ball well and be active on defense. When those things are done, it seems teams just perform better and find a groove in other areas.

Georgia State looks to be more confident and collected in key moments of the game. The defense has ratcheted up a bit as well, holding opponents to a sub-40 percent shooting percentage and forcing an average of 14.8 turnovers/g.

A little over halfway through the season, who has been the MVP for this Panthers team?

It’s an expected answer, but D’Marcus Simonds has easily been the Panthers’ most valuable player and arguably the entire Sun Belt Conference. He just knows how to get a basket when the team needs one and can make any shot on the floor.

Simonds has a knack for contact and finishing through the contact with his determination and aggression when he looks to score. He has also upped his playmaking this year, leading the team in assists by a large margin.

As the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, Malik Benlevi is not far behind. Benlevi is also second in three-point percentage, assists, steals and minutes played per game.

What do you expect the environment to be like Saturday afternoon for this rival game?

Rowdy. December 4th was the last time a game was played at GSU Sports Arena with most students in town. But that was finals week and basketball was not on most students’ minds.

With the amount of days the school has closed due to inclement weather (including the original first day of the Spring Semester), this will be the official “Welcome Back” for Georgia State. It’s fitting that the game is being marketed as a White Out for fans considering the layer of snow that just blanketed Atlanta.

Saturday’s game between the Eagles and the Panthers will be the 54th matchup in basketball and GS leads the series 35-18. The game will tip-off at 2:15 p.m. For more information and insight to the contest read here.