Georgia Southern Eagles (14-5, 5-1) @ Georgia State Panthers (13-6, 4-2)
Where: GSU Sports Arena, The A
Radio: 1340AM, 103.7FM
TV: ESPN3, WSAV (In Savannah market)
Line: TBD, GS 8-2 ATS in the last 10 games, GSU 2-8 ATS in the last 10 games
All-Time Series: Georgia Southern leads 35–18
Saturday is the latest edition of arguably the best basketball rivalry in the Sun Belt. Both schools from the Peach State are relatively new to the Sun Belt conference, but this series goes back to 1972. These schools were conference mates from 1985 to 1992 in the old Trans-Atlantic Athletic Conference (now Atlantic Sun) and had played annually for much of the past 46 years.
Southern went 16-3 over State during that stint from ’85-92; it was Georgia Southern Basketball’s last Golden Age. 1992 was the last time Georgia Southern made it to the NCAA tournament, 26 years ago is a long time. The Eagles have had a lot of good teams over the past 26 years, this year’s edition might be the best of them all. Mark Byington has done a masterful job of building an annual Sun Belt contender.
This season is no different. The Eagles and the Panthers are back at the top of the Sun Belt. This is the first of their two regular season matchups. Georgia Southern is 10-11 at GSU Sports Arena since 1992. The winner of this game gets the upperhand in what has turned into a four way race between State, Southern, Texas State and conference leading Louisiana-Lafayette for a top-two seed in the conference tournament. The top-two seeds in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament gets a bye into the semifinals. It’s kind of a big deal.
These teams are similar in that they both play tough defense, look at the data:
7th in OPP 2P made
11th in OPP 2P%
25th in OPP FG%
26th in Turnovers forced
30th in OPP PPG
34th in OPP FGs
35th in DRtg
37th in Steals
5th in OPP 3P%
10th in Steals
34th in DRtg
36th in OPP FG%
56th in OPP PPG
This could be a low scoring slugfest despite the array of talent on the floor exhibited by both teams. Georgia State is led by guard D’Marcus Simonds who is averaging 20.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 4.5 APG, he leads the conference in points. Georgia State does not have a ton of size in its rotation, but they make up for it with talent at guard and on the wing. Devin Mitchell, Jeff Thomas, Malik Benlevi, and Isaiah Williams. Jordan Session being the only “big” in the starting five at 6’7 205, he would qualify as a wing at the next level.
Modern-day basketball is very much oriented around the Three-point shot. Useful size has always been hard to come by at the mid-major level. For as long as I have followed Georgia Southern Eagles basketball (Hanner Hooligan circa 2005), I can count on one hand the amount of 7 footers that have donned the blue and white. A decade ago, that mattered, today it doesn’t. Unless you’re seven-footer is the next Joel Embiid, they tend to slow you down.
Despite not having anyone over 6’7 in the starting lineup, Georgia State has managed to become one of the toughest interior defenses in the country. You simply cannot score inside on them. Ron Hunter’s arsenal of long and fast guards and wings do a masterful job getting into passing lanes and causing turnovers.
They will have to cause havoc because Georgia Southern is rolling. They have won four in a row and the game Saturday concludes a stretch of games where the Eagles played 9 of 11 games on the road. 7 of the next 11 games will be in Hanner Fieldhouse. This is an honest measuring stick for both schools before the stretch run to March.
Georgia Southern is led of course by Tookie Brown, Ike Smith, Mike Hughes, Jake Allsmiller, and Montae Glenn, the same starting lineup for the past two years. Tookie Brown is averaging a career-best 18.6 PPG and 4.2 APG. However, the difference between this season and last season is the development of Montae Glenn. Glenn is 5th in the country in offensive rebounds and gives this team a legitimate interior offensive threat. Jordan Session and that Panther Zone will have its hands full keeping him off the glass.
Another fascinating tidbit popped out to me when I was combing through Sports-Reference.com, The Eagles get to the line. 34th in FTA and yet only 316th in FT%. Which means they love for Tookie, Ike, Mike, and Quan Jackson to drive to the penetrate and get to the rack. It will be an intriguing test for Georgia State’s suffocating interior defense.
That is where this game will be won. On the inside. Georgia Southern wins if State can’t keep Glenn off the offensive glass. State wins if they can force turnovers and shut down the paint.
This series is usually a regular season split. I think it is a relatively low scoring, hard fought game. Lots of emotion. Hundreds of Georgia Southern fans will be in the building. I think the Eagles keep rolling on their winning streak and catch some momentum going into a comfy last month-and-a-half of the regular season.
Georgia Southern 66-64 over Georgia State