Who Has the Better Chance to Repeat: UAB or Georgia State?

With the departures of Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter, T.J. Shipes will look to help lead Georgia State to another NCAA Tournament and another upset in the big dance. (Source: The Score)
With the departures of Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter, T.J. Shipes will look to help lead Georgia State to another NCAA Tournament and another upset in the big dance. (Source: The Score)

During the 2015 NCAA Tournament, we saw our fair share of upsets over the duration of the tournament. We saw some Cinderella runs, some unexpected runs, and some big individual performances as the field was narrowed down from 68 to Duke cutting down the nets at the end of it all.

Two of the biggest upsets took place on the first day of the Round of 64. Georgia State and UAB entered the tournament as 14-seeds in their respective regionals, and were projected by many to lose their opening round game.

Nobody told them they weren’t supposed to win, and they proved everyone wrong in the process.

In two of the best games of the entire tournament, UAB took down #3 Iowa State in the South Regional, and Georgia State took down #3 Baylor just hours later in the West Regional.

Both teams would see their Cinderella runs end before they even got started, as both would bow out of the tournament in the Round of 32. UAB would lose to UCLA, and Georgia State would get knocked out by Xavier.

Both of the opening round upsets created more excitement and buzz around the NCAA Tournament, and has since led to a ton of optimism for the future around both of these programs.

But, two questions remain. One, can they recreate that magic again in the 2016 NCAA Tournament if they find themselves in the same situation as last year? Two, which of the two schools has the better chance to pull off another upset?

We take a look into the scenarios for both schools heading into the 2015-16 season to see which one of the two has the better chance of pulling off a program-defining upset for the second season in a row.

The Case for the UAB Blazers

The UAB Blazers were the talk of the NCAA Tournament a season ago for many reasons. Yes, they beat the Iowa State Cyclones in the opening round. The win itself was impressive in its own right, but how they did it was even more impressive.

The Blazers only had one senior on their roster, in C.J. Washington, meaning they won games with a healthy dose of youth on their team. Five of their top six leading scorers were either freshmen or sophomores last season, with junior Robert Brown leading the way with 13.7 points per contest.

As of now, nobody has transferred out of the program, meaning everyone is back from the Conference USA tournament champion team is back in Birmingham for another year, with the exception of Washington. The familiarity that these players have with each other for a season already is noteworthy in its own right, as that will give them a leg up on their competition in 2015-16.

What some people fail to realize is that group making the NCAA Tournament last season wasn’t a fluke at all. They are a talented group of individuals who played their best basketball at the right time, and showed the rest of the NCAA what they are capable of doing on any given night. In the conference tournament, the Blazers took down Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, and Middle Tennessee on consecutive nights. That’s not an easy path to take, by any means, and the Blazers won two of the three games by at least 10 points.

In terms of players, William Lee was the 64th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2014, according to ESPN. Lee was second on the team in scoring a season ago, averaging 8.0 points and 6.0 rebounds as a freshman. He chose to play at UAB over the likes of Wichita State, Georgia, and SMU. Add in unheralded recruits like Chris Cokley and Nick Norton, and the Blazers are much better on paper than most people give them credit for.

Amidst the controversy surrounding the termination of the Blazers’ football program, the basketball team gave the city of Birmingham, AL a reason to smile. If they can pick up where they left off in 2015-16, the city will have even more reasons to smile as the Blazers make a push for another NCAA Tournament berth.

The Case for the Georgia State Panthers

The one image that people will always remember from the 2015 NCAA Tournament is head coach Ron Hunter emphatically falling off his stool as his son, R.J. Hunter, make a deep three-pointer to beat Baylor in the Round of 64. Ron tore his Achilles tendon in the Panthers’ win in the Sun Belt tournament finals, and had his ankle in a cast in the NCAA Tournament. He refused to get surgery until after the big dance, and gave us all one of the best moments in tournament history.

Hunter’s three pointer lifted Georgia State to an impressive upset win over the Baylor Bears, just hours after the Blazers shocked Iowa State. The win also helped to erase the painful memories of losing in the Sun Belt tournament final in 2013-14 to Louisiana-Lafayette. The Panthers lived up to their expectations in 2014-15, and made the tournament that much more exciting in the process.

Fast forward to 2015-16, and the Panthers will have a different look to them. R.J. Hunter opted for the NBA Draft early, leaving after his junior season in the NCAA. Senior guard Ryan Harrow and senior forward Curtis Washington have graduated, leaving holes in the Panthers’ lineup that desperately need to be filled.

Even with the departures, the Panthers should still be a top threat in the Sun Belt this season, and they can thank their recruiting class of 2012 for part of that.

In 2012, their recruiting class was 7 commitments deep, but none of the names would jump off the page at you. Their top recruit that year was Markus Crider. The likes of Hunter and forward T.J. Shipes were also in that class, making that one of the strongest recruiting classes the program has seen. Even with the departure of Hunter, Crider (9.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Shipes (4.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg) have the talents to keep the Panthers in contention in the conference.

Then, you have the transfers that Ron Hunter and staff have brought in over the past couple of seasons. Most notably, the Panthers have Louisville-transfer Kevin Ware and Indiana-transfer Jeremy Hollowell in tow for this season. Ware, who was eligible to play last season, averaged 7.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. As a senior in 2015-16, he will provide Georgia State with veteran leadership on the back end. Hollowell will be eligible to play in the upcoming season, and will provide some much needed size to the Panthers’ front court (6’8”, 210-pounds).

Their offense, which ranked 64th in the NCAA last season with 72.0 points per game, won’t have as much offensive firepower this year. With that said, they have the pieces to contend and potentially make another run to the NCAA Tournament and create some more magic of their own.

The Team With the Best Chance

It’s tough to go against the UAB Blazers when comparing these two teams to see which one has the best chance to pull off another program-defining upset in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, barring they make it back to the field of 68.

With essentially their entire roster back for another go-round in the conference, and with most of their players still developing, the sky is the limit for the Blazers of Birmingham, AL.

In 2014-15, the Blazers finished at 12 – 6 in C-USA play. With more experience under their belts, and more time to develop, it’s hard to see the Blazers digressing this season. I see them climbing into the top three in the regular standings, and having a great chance at making it back to the big dance for the second season in a row.

William Lee is going to be a star in this game by the time the year is out, and Robert Brown has the potential to make some headlines and garner some looks from NBA scouts. UAB is going to be a fun team to watch this year.

Who needs football when you have a basketball team on the rise?

– T.B.