In a rivalry game that was always going to be a huge deal, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.
Georgia Southern and Georgia State are tied atop the Sun Belt Conference standings and both have a shot at winning the regular season championship on the final day of the season when State pays a visit to Hanner Fieldhouse for a 5 p.m. tipoff today.
A sellout crowd is expected to watch Georgia Southern great Tookie Brown play his final home game, with the often-chippy in-state rivalry and the postseason implications fueling a fire that has been burning hot for the last week.
“We’re not going to change our approach,” GS coach Mark Byington said. “We’re playing really good basketball and we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing.The only thing we control is our game. Our goal is to play really well at 5 o’clock on Saturday.”
For Georgia State (21-9, 12-5 Sun Belt), things are very simple. A win will ensure them of the regular season crown, the top seed in next week’s conference tournament, and an automatic NIT bid if it is unable to advance to the NCAA tournament.
A Georgia Southern win will guarantee a top-2 seed in the SBC tournament and a bye all the way to the semifinals, but the Eagles would also need a loss by Texas State to UT Arlington or - failing that - a series of three other conference games to break just the right way in order to take the regular season. A loss by the Eagles would prevent them from getting a top seed and will force them to play in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
That puts a bit more pressure on the Eagles, but it is also keeping them locked in on the important things amidst all the buildup and hype of the Panthers coming to town.
“We just have to focus on what’s right in front of us,” Brown said. “It’s going to be crazy and it’s going to be a good time, but we have to just be concerned with what’s going on in the game.”
“I know that everyone is excited, and they should be,” Byington said. “But the truth is that this won’t be the most important game we play this season. There are bigger games ahead, so we want to focus on one game at a time and put ourselves in the best position we can moving forward.”
As usual, Southern and State feature two different styles of play. And - also as usual - both have been very effective in executing those styles throughout the season.
Georgia State is led by preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year D’Marcus Simonds. The junior has already announced his plans to leave school early to chase a professional career and his 18.9 points per game showcases next-level talent. The Panthers are also loaded with five seniors with plenty of experience and have veterans like Malik Benlevi and Jeff Thomas who always seem to save their best for run-ins with Georgia Southern.
The Eagles have players with the ability to take over games as Brown has done throughout his career, but the team’s recent success has stemmed from even and consistent efforts all the way down the scoresheet. During Georgia Southern’s current six-game winning streak, it’s been a routine occurrence to see three or four Eagles in double-digits with no one player consistently leading in the scoring column.
While Brown and Quan Jackson have lived up to the feared backcourt combo they were supposed to be, freshmen guards Calvin Wishart and Elijah McCadden have become dependable role players. Down in the paint, the trio of senior Montae Glenn and juniors Simeon Carter and Isaiah Crawley have produced an inside offensive threat that the Eagles haven’t had in recent seasons.
“A lot of teams have the strategy to take Tookie out of the game,” Byington said. “We’ve shown that we have guys who can step up and make plays if that happens.”
That wasn’t quite the case a month ago in Atlanta when Georgia State limited Brown and pulled away in the final minutes to notch a win. But it has been a very different Eagle club in the following weeks.
“Georgia State is a very good team that got the best of us last time,” Byington said. “I think that game was a turning point. We were very disappointed with how we handled the end of that game. I expect another tough game on Saturday and it’s up to us to do better this time.”