As the Sun Belt conference schedule reaches its halfway point this weekend, there is still no clear frontrunner. Little Rock leads by 1.5 games - thanks in part to a win while getting a head start on the rest of the league earlier this week - while there are easily half a dozen others who feel like the conference could be theirs for the taking if they hit their stride in the second half.
In a conference that so routinely sees upsets and that rarely sees one team run away with a title, every game is vital.
And when it’s an in-state rivalry game, that goes double.
Georgia State and Georgia Southern will meet for the first time today at Hanner Fieldhouse. The women’s squads will tip off the day at 2 p.m., with the men’s game scheduled for 5 p.m.
On the men’s side, the game is a matchup of the two teams tied for second place and the latest chapter in a rivalry that is evenly split over the last decade.
“You don’t have to say much to get the guys hyped up,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “This game is circled on the calendar for both teams.”
Georgia State (13-7, 6-3 Sun Belt) comes to town as the two-time defending champions of the Sun Belt. The Panthers lost nearly every main contributor off of last season’s squad - including head coach Ron Hunter - but have bounced back under new head man Rob Lanier and are once again in the hunt.
Over the last few seasons, the Eagles (12-8, 6-3) and Panthers have remained fierce rivals near the top of the standings while each team has undergone big changes. Georgia State used to rely on big bodies, defense and rebounding while Georgia Southern couldn’t contend in the paint, but could outpace anyone with its outside shooting.
Entering today’s matchup, it’s the Panthers who are the Sun Belt’s biggest threat from long range while the Eagles rely on balanced scoring throughout their rotation and a tenacious transition defense that creates easy scoring opportunities as the team’s long-range threat has tapered off.
Georgia State’s Corey Allen and Southern’s Ike Smith lead their respective teams, with each averaging over 14 points per game. Both teams also feature three players in the top-20 in the Sun Belt in ppg. And while Georgia State is a bigger 3-point threat on paper, Eagle sophomore Calvin Wishart enters today’s game as the top-rated deep shooter for either team.
Based on stats alone, this one is too close to call. But that’s how most rivalry games should be.
“I watched Georgia and Georgia Tech and saw the empty seats,” Byington said. “This is the best rivalry in the state. This game has been nationally televised a lot and it should be every time these two teams play.”
In Saturday’s first game, the Georgia Southern women will be trying to snap out of a four-game slide.
The Lady Eagles (5-12, 2-4) were the league’s biggest surprise when they swept through the opening weekend of Sun Belt play. The Eagles have continued to play close games, but haven’t put one in the win column since Jan. 4.
They’ve faced some tough competition over that span and will try to get back on track against a Georgia State team that is just 4-13 on the season and has only one win in league play so far.
Eagle success will hinge on consistency. While Georgia Southern has taken big strides on both sides of the ball in head coach Anita Howard’s first season at the helm, many losses have featured 5-10 minute stretches - especially coming out of halftime - in which the Eagles have given up big runs and lost control of games.
Seniors Alexis Brown and Tatum Barber continue to lead the Eagles and are the only players averaging double-digit scoring, but plenty of underclassmen have produced to give the program a lot of hope for the future, including breakout freshman star Jaiden Hamilton, whose huge first season in Statesboro led to her being put on scholarship earlier this week.