The Georgia State women’s basketball squad will tip off the 2016-7 season with two games at Morehead State in Kentucky. The Panthers will play a pair of Eagles. After first contesting the local Morehead State, it will be Eastern Michigan on Saturday. Both games will stream on Georgia State’s athletic web site, georgiastatesports.com.

Last season, Georgia State went a disappointing 10-19 overall, and only 5-15 in the Sun Belt. That was good for a tenth-place finish, out of contention for the conference tournament.

But this is a new year, and optimism reigns at the Sports Arena. There is cause for it, but some questions as well.

To wit:

Good news: Madison Newby returns as point guard. The sophomore garnered Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Award for leading the league in assists last season. She holds the Gwinnett County record for assists from her time at Archer. Coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener threw her into the fire at point largely because she didn’t have a choice. There was no other dependable point guard available. The only one who could have stepped in, transfer Erica Norwood, wasn’t available until December. Madison dished out 14 assists against Troy in February and poured in 20 points versus the Trojans the previous month. No freshman in the conference had anywhere near that impact, and the Award was an easy choice. Personally, I’m surprised that Newby wasn’t selected to the Preseason Sun Belt team. How you overlook the returning assist leader is a mystery.

Bad News: Newby also led the league in turnovers, a problem that wasn’t exclusively hers. She had over 90 turnovers more than the next person on the team, but that was due to leading the offense. She has an offseason to mature and grow accustomed to be a leader, so that number should go down. Also, Newby was third last year in points with 8.6 a game. However, she preferred to penetrate on the dribble. A dependable outside shot would add a dimension.

Good News: Makeba Ponder is back for her junior season. The Second team Preseason Sun Belt selection has been the leading scorer the past two years. She is a deadly threat from outside. After blistering the nets for 69 3-pointers in her freshman campaign, Ponder only made 53 her sophomore, as opponents paid special attention off the backcourt dribble. (Her 122 currently sits at fifth on the Georgia State all-time list). She gives Georgia State an unmatched outside shot that is one of the best in the league.

Bad News: Someone else needs to step up. After finishing at the top in the outside shot in 2014-5, the Panthers fell to the bottom in 2015-6. If you subtract Ponder’s totals, their 26.7% falls to just under 24%. Ashlee Cole, who was supposed to be the second threat, had a terrible slump through the conference slate and finished the season hitting only 20%. Foul shooting had a similar drop, going from the best in 2014-15 to the cellar last year. That has to improve for the Panthers to be a factor.

Good News: Coach Baldwin-Tener scored another excellent recruiting class. For the fourth straight year, a blue-chip recruit was persuaded to stay in state. This time, it’s McEachern star Jada Lewis. She was the Player of the Year for the top region and led the Indians to the title game three times. She joins Newby, Ponder, and senior Haley Gerrin to make a strong local nucleus. The incoming class is good even without Lewis. Jaylyn Harrison, a 5’4” guard from Colonial, a traditional Orlando power. There are two quality post players. Shaquanda Miller-McCray is a 6’3” center from Crestwood, SC. But the most promising addition is Tiffany Holston, the reigning SIAC Player of the Year. She had 1,135 points and 63 blocks in three seasons at Albany State. These two should give GSU a shot blocking presence that hasn’t been seen since Brittany Logan.                

Bad News: If the freshmen play significant time, it means they’ve outplayed some old hands. Astaja Tyghter had a solid season, including 21 points against Georgia Southern in Statesboro. The last two came on a buzzer beater from the left elbow as State knocked off Southern. Alaysia Mitchell, the top rebounder, also played well in spurts but needs to show more consistency.

Good News: Haley Gerrin is finally healthy. Injuries have plagued the senior from Clarkesville, GA (Habersham Central). She had back surgery after her freshman year (the same type that Tiger Woods is coming back from), and last season a foot injury limited her in offseason conditioning and she didn’t come into full form until January. When she did return, her defense was top-notch. She stifled UT-Arlington’s Rebekah VanDijk in a GSU January win, and had 20 in an overtime win at Appalachian State. She was a leader in offseason conditioning.

Bad News: Even Tiger Woods isn’t fully back from his surgery, and that was a couple of years ago. As a starting senior, this will be Gerrin’s team, and she can’t afford to be slowed by any nagging pain or soreness in either her back or her feet.

Good News:  The Sun Belt is up for grabs. All the members of last year’s First-Team All-Conference Team graduated, and every team loses at least one member from their regular starting five, with the exception of Georgia State.

The Bad News: It is the same starting five that lost eight of their last nine games to end last season. (And the win over Georgia Southern was a bit of a fluke. Georgia State picked up two points when Sierra Kirkland accidentally redirected a crosscourt pass into her own basket). The Panthers only lose Cole and Morgan Jackson from last year’s regular rotation. Norwood and D’Arcy Draper also left, but they didn’t get significant minutes. The key for this team is if they can gel on the court, and get comfortable with Newby and her tendencies.

The addition of Coastal Carolina gives the Sun Belt 12 teams. The league scrapped last year’s home-and-home conference schedule that was such a grind. There are 18 games instead of 20. A trip to Texas to play Arlington and Texas State is out, and Little Rock and Arkansas State do not visit the Sports Arena. The Chanticleers won 7 Big South games last year, so this presents a good opportunity for Georgia State.

Troy was picked to win the league, but that comes with an asterisk. Troy upset Arkansas State in the semis of the conference tourney in 2016 and won the automatic bid to the NCAA’s. The reward was a 15th seed, and being shipped out to lose at Oregon State (It was a bitter pill for the Red Wolves, who went 19-1 in the conference schedule and couldn’t get an at-large berth). But Troy loses Ashley Beverly-Kelley, a dynamo who finished her career in Top 25 in points for the entire Sun Belt. Troy’s question is if Arjae Saunders can replace Beverly-Kelley’s production. A trip to 20th ranked Florida on opening night should serve as a test.

Troy only received 3 first place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll. The leader in that category was Little Rock, with 5. (South Alabama had 3). Troy grabbed a lot of second place votes, while Little Rock was further down the list on those that didn’t place them first. This allowed Troy to get the top spot.

I don’t get a vote in this category. If I did, I’d give the nod to South Alabama. The Jaguars have a terrific inside-out combo in Marquita Daniels (Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy – same as Dwight Howard) and Chyna Ellis. My choice for Preseason Player of the Year is Troy’s Caitlin Ramirez. She was the inside presence to complement Beverly-Kelley, and it will be up to her rebounding and post play to help smooth Saunders’ integration into the offense. I thought VanDijk struggled at times, as teams adjusted to her height by going at her and trying to get her in foul trouble.

The non-conference schedule features teams from an eclectic array of conferences. There are three power 5 matchups with Georgia Tech, Alabama, and Penn State. The Panthers return to Tuscaloosa and was ahead of the Tide after the first quarter last year. The Nittany Lions were in Atlanta two seasons ago for the Georgia State Holiday Tourney. They lost two games and left disappointed. Other teams are old Colonial Athletic Association rival UNC-Wilmington, Akron, Elon, Kennesaw State, and American.

Last two seasons, the Panthers finished at 5-4 in the non-conference slate. They’ll need to do have the same percentage or better to give them confidence heading into the Sun Belt.

Schedule Notes: In addition to Troy against Florida, the opening night features an intriguing matchup in South Alabama at Auburn. Another test will be Coastal Carolina at Clemson. Clemson went winless in the ACC last year, and this should be a good gauge as to what Coastal brings to the league.

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