While one college basketball program (Georgia) begins to establish a footprint and another (Georgia Tech) merely resembles the gum under the ACC’s shoe, Georgia State is probably somewhere in the middle: Not great obviously but not embarrassing either, because embarrassment requires a certain level of visibility.
How much of this actually is the fault of coach Rod Barnes remains uncertain. He wasn’t handed Valhalla. It’s sort of like asking someone to build a luxury resort on the site of a former nuclear waste facility and then wonder why nobody is booking rooms right away. Bad memories and a green glow dissipate slowly.
Understand, given the high school basketball talent this state produces, there’s no reason why Georgia State shouldn’t compete for conference titles on a regular basis and go to a postseason tournament periodically. If GSU is not going to be Marquette, it certainly can be George Mason, Old Dominion or VCU (the current big three in the Colonial Athletic Association).
The Panthers aren’t nearly there yet. Barnes, always exuding confidence, will convince you he’s on the cusp. “I thought it would take five years to be competitive, to finish in the top half of the league and maybe be in the top four,” he said.
Next year is season five.
Given all that Barnes has had to clean up, the assumption is he will be back, although athletic director Cheryl Levick said only, “I evaluate each program at the end of the season.” She eventually allowed that he “has done a good job.”
Bill Curry got people excited quickly with Georgia State football. Barnes isn’t yet stirring the masses, but there are distinct advantages to inheriting a blank sheet of paper (Curry had a start-up operation) to ugly baggage (no players, academic issues in basketball).
Barnes’ won-loss records have been unimpressive: 9-21, 12-20, 12-20, 11-16 (with two regular season games left). This season includes a seven-game losing streak. But he has won before. In 2001, he was the Naismith national coach of the year at Mississippi, winning 27 games and taking the Rebels to the Sweet 16. That doesn’t usually happen by accident.
But Barnes was handed a mess at Georgia State. The academic situation was so bad that he now admits he would’ve balked at taking the job in 2007 if he had realized the extent of the problems.
“I was shocked,” he said. “We had guys just not going to class. We were already in a trouble with the NCAA for our APR [Academic Progress Rate]. We were at the bottom, not only in our league but in the country. I thought I was coming here to make some [basketball] changes but I found myself having to hang with some guys, and as a coach that kind of handicaps you. You don’t run kids off but at the same time you know it’s not going to work.
“There were times when I thought, ‘Man, if I knew it was going to be this bad, I would’ve given it a second thought.’ But that has nothing to do with the school or basketball. I just didn’t do my homework.”
He has done a wonderful job in the cleanup. Georgia State has seen its multiple-year APR score increase each year, from a low of 889 (out of 1,000) in 2006-07 to a projected 946 in 2009-10 (it’s not official yet). Under Barnes, 11 players have graduated in the last three years. The program is out of the NCAA’s academic doghouse.
That should help recruiting, which is improving. Barnes lured talented guard Devonta White from Centennial High in Alpharetta last year (although he has been injured much of this season). He said more kids now actually have heard of the program, adding, “When we started, people would say, ‘Where is Georgia State?’ Some of them were in Georgia.”
He knew success “would not happen over night. But I’m excited because I know what we’ve done here and I know we’re going to win.”
Of course, even at relatively off-the-radar programs like Georgia State, the “next year” remarks play for only so long. But given what Barnes inherited, waiting one more season for a potential payoff doesn’t seem unreasonable.
By Jeff Schultz