Last week when ESPN listed their top 10 surprises in college basketball this year, they somehow managed to leave out the nation's most unexpected success: Georgia State. No team, not even Indiana, has played better relative to preseason expectations than the 9-3 Panthers. They were picked to finish in 11th place in the CAA by a poll of conference coaches, media relations directors, and members of the press. Similarly, we at Prospectus had them finishing second to last in the CAA in our College Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, and Ken Pomeroy's system had them starting at No. 184 in his preseason rankings. Based on the results of the past few years and what the Panthers returned, these were not unrealistic expectations.
Yet last week, Georgia State won its ninth consecutive game, easily defeating rival Georgia Southern, 72-52. Nine wins in a row may not be newsworthy for major-conference schools, but for Georgia State it's unprecedented. The Panthers had never won nine consecutive games in the 39 years they've competed at the Division I level. Sure, they had several seven-game win streaks in the early 2000s. But since the Panthers moved to the CAA from the Atlantic Sun at the start of the 2005-06 season, they've had only three win streaks longer than two games: a four-game streak at the end of the 2009 campaign, and two three-game streaks in each of the past two seasons. Now ranked No. 76 by Pomeroy, Georgia State rides into conference play off one of the most startling stretches in school history.
For some more context, let's look at the history books. Georgia State started D-I basketball as an independent in 1973 and had two winning seasons in their first 24 seasons. In their 25th year, the 1997-98 season, and the first under the illustrious Lefty Driesell, the Panthers won a regular season Trans America Atlantic Conference (TAAC) championship. Under Driesell, they would go onto win three of the next four regular season TAAC championships. In 2001, at the height of their TAAC (known now as the Atlantic Sun) success, the Panthers finished 29-5, captured a tournament berth, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament after defeating a Wisconsin team that was a season removed from a Final Four. Two years later, early in the 2002-03 season, Driesell retired and Georgia State finished with a winning record one more time during their A-Sun membership. In 2005-06, the CAA expanded to 12 teams and welcomed the Panthers into the fold. In the six years since joining the CAA, they've never finished better than 12-19, going 32-76 in conference play.
This year under new head coach Ron Hunter, it appeared it might be more of the same. Georgia State lost its first three games before reeling off their historic win streak. It's true the Panthers have played the country's No. 327 non-conference schedule. The average expected winning percentage (Pyth) of the opposing teams during the streak is a ghastly .2256, equivalent to the strength of the No. 284 team in the nation. Nevertheless, the Panthers are absolutely drilling these teams. During the meat of the streak, they beat South Carolina State by 31, Florida International by 26, ransacked conference foe William and Mary 66-34, and pummeled a traditionally respectable, albeit down, Rhode Island squad, 96-64.
Over the nine-game stretch, the Panthers are averaging an adjusted offensive efficiency of 108.1 while posting a phenomenal 76.4 defensive efficiency. Using Pomeroy's Game Plan feature we can look at how good this defense has been. Six of the nine teams the Panthers have defeated have had their least efficient offensive games against the Panthers. McNeese State had a worse offensive game against Georgia State than against Cal, Auburn, or New Mexico State. Samford had a more efficient game against Kentucky. Liberty had higher offensive efficiencies against Texas A&M and Lehigh. Florida International posted stronger outputs against Virginia Tech and Dayton. William & Mary was more efficient against Missouri, Iona, and Richmond, and Georgia Southern fared better against Wake Forest and South Florida.
Granted, some of these teams aren't powerhouses on defense, but all of the above are either from power conferences or are tournament worthy, and Missouri is considered a championship contender. Yes, the Panthers are beating up bad teams -- but their defensive prowess (currently No. 24 in the country) is not exaggerated when compared to other teams around the nation.
Impact of the new coach
As Corey Schmidt touched on last Tuesday, Hunter is in his first year as head coach of the Panthers after 17 seasons at IUPUI. The oft-animated Hunter was responsible for guiding the Jaguars through the Division I transitional process, which they completed in 2000-01. Two years after IUPUI gained full-fledged D-I status, he led them to an NCAA tournament and thereafter kept the team near the top of the Summit League throughout their brief D-I history.
Hunter left IUPUI, however, largely because of the attractiveness of the CAA. After a decade of top-four regular season finishes in the Mid-Continent/Summit League and only one NCAA tournament berth to show for it, he expressed frustration with coaching in a one-bid league. Seeing teams like VCU and George Mason make it to the Final Four made the opportunity too good to resist.
Interestingly, the situation he inherited in Atlanta was not dissimilar from the one he inherited in Indianapolis in the mid-1990s. Like IUPUI, Georgia State is a large school in the middle of a large city better known for its pro teams. More relevantly, neither school had ever experienced prolonged basketball success (outside of the short Driesell run). Hunter showed that he was able to take IUPUI out of the shadows (and from NAIA to D-II to D-I) and into respectability. That's a big reason why Georgia State decided to hire him.
The attitude towards basketball at Georgia State can't be understated. Two weeks ago Hunter said, "With so much losing that's gone on here, everybody waits for something bad to happen."
And during the streak, he's been outspoken about changing the mindset of players and fans.
"What I'm concerned about is, it's almost like they are waiting to see the bottom fall out. Around here, there's not been much success. From the very first day, I've said 'Why not now? Show me some book that says we can't now.'"
Thus far Hunter's been backing up his "Why not?" approach with results. He's shown the community and recruits that Georgia State is capable of winning. How far can the Panthers go? It might be too ambitious to think they'll be able to get an at-large bid. However, it's not unreasonable to think they could contend for a regular-season CAA championship. Luckily, we'll get to find out pretty quickly how real Georgia State is. On Monday they host preseason favorite Drexel, and then immediately go on the road against traditional powers VCU and George Mason.
The rest of the CAA and the Southeast media seem to be taking notice of the Panthers, too -- the school recently agreed to push their January 28 game against VCU back a few hours so the game could be played live on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast. Count me in as excited to see how well the Panthers, and their exceptional D, perform in conference play.
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