Sure Georgia State was trying to make it back to the NCAA tournament without R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow, but things seemed promising without last year’s two leading scorers.
Stepping into their roles were Jeremy Hollowell, predicted by coach Ron Hunter to be a boxscore filler-upper from Indiana, and Isaiah Williams, formerly the freshman of the year in the Southern Conference.
But things didn’t turn out well.
There was no third consecutive Sun Belt regular season title.
There was no second consecutive Sun Belt tournament title.
There wasn’t yet another magical moment in the NCAA tournament.
Instead, the Panthers barely made it to New Orleans. Once there, they were dumped by Texas State 63-61 in the first round in front of a sparse (to be kind) Lakefront Arena crowd.
“This game was the story of our season,” coach Ron Hunter, something he repeated again later in his post-Texas State press conference.
What went wrong? Let’s break it down in five parts.
Starting with …
The players, particularly the seniors, referenced several times during the season how young and or different the Panthers were with a roster that included several freshmen, including Austin Donaldson, Jeff Thomas and Malik Benlevi, or experienced players new to the lineup, notably transfers Jeremy Hollowell and Isaiah Williams.
Though the team did include those new faces/players, it still featured as many as three seniors in its starting lineup in Markus Crider, T.J. Shipes and Kevin Ware. It also included players such as Jordan Session and Isaiah Dennis who contributed to last year’s NCAA tournament win.
Even with the seniors and the familiar faces the team couldn’t gel.
Though the team went 7-2 in its non-conference season, alarm bells began to ring in an overtime win over IUPUI during which the Panthers had a difficult time executing their offense and defense against what should have been an overmatched opponent. The alarms started blaring in a 15-point loss at Texas-Arlington in the team’s first Sun Belt game. The Panthers shot 40.3 percent, a harbinger of things to come, were outrebounded by 16 and gave up 11 3-pointers on defense. Three consecutive wins were followed by four losses in five, which became part of eight losses in 10 games.
It didn’t matter what line-up combinations Hunter tried, the offense couldn’t click and the defense, though statistically very good, often had trouble rebounding and stopping 3-pointers in key moments. That’s something that happened again in the season-ending loss to Texas State when a miscommunication between Ware and Williams gave Bobby Conley enough space to hit the game-winning 3-pointer.
Earlier in the week, I asked Shipes and Ware if not making it back to at least the conference championship game would diminish last year’s accomplishment of making it to the NCAA tournament and beating Baylor.
Shipes’ answer was introspective. He said it wouldn’t because of the memories that he made and the people he got to make them with.
Ware’s answer was different: he said not making it back would wake some people up.
After the loss to Texas State, Hunter said he was impressed by the play of his freshmen: Thomas had 16 points and Donaldson played well until suffering a hand injury that may require X-rays.
Hunter said he needs to recruit some pieces to go around them.