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Sullivan: Buffalo’s Rob Lanier looks to write a storybook ending at Georgia State

You can’t brand this stuff up. But you can certainly write a volume virtually it. Rob Lanier, the Buffalo native and caput basketball coach at Georgia Country, is doing just that. Lanier is putting together a volume most his experiences in the game.

This season will make for a compelling chapter, and information technology’s not over yet. Lanier’s storybook season connected Mon nighttime in Pensacola, where the Panthers trounce Louisiana, eighty-71, to win the Sun Chugalug title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

So Lanier, 53, who played at St. Bonaventure in the late 1980s, returns to the Big Trip the light fantastic toe every bit a head double-decker for the showtime fourth dimension since getting there with Siena as a first-fourth dimension head homo at 33 in 2002.

“Time sure flies,” Lanier said Tuesday morning on the five-hr bus ride home to Atlanta. “It’s 20 years between last night’s title and that MAAC title.

Lanier said this was ane of his more blissful bus rides. It was on another squad bus, in mid-December, when Georgia Country reached the low bespeak — and equally it turned out, a turning point — of a tumultuous season.

That’s where he got the title for the latest chapter of the volume: Reform, Alabama.

Georgia Land was favored to win the Lord’s day Chugalug this season. Lanier had everyone back from a team that lost in last year’due south conference championship game. That was partly because of an NCAA rule that allowed athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the Covid disruptions from 2021.

Information technology was a mixed blessing. Suddenly, the Panthers had 15 scholarship players, which brought some squabbling over playing fourth dimension. Eliel Nsoseme, their star 6-8 forward and emotional leader, missed the beginning semester with a knee injury. Lanier also had six unvaccinated players, four starters.

“I told them that regardless of what decision they made, I’k not going to judge them and concur it against them,” Lanier said. “If they decide not to become vaccinated, we’ll go through whatever turbulence that might create for united states of america, and I’g not going to blame them. And we didn’t.”

Rob Lainer is a cousin of Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, the #ane pick out of Bona in 1970. (Epitome courtesy of Georgia State Athletics)

Inevitably, at that place was turbulence. If one guy tested positive, they all went into contact tracing. The Panthers had five games canceled due to Covid from early December to mid-January. The lack of games and practice fourth dimension made information technology difficult to institute whatsoever kind of rhythm and momentum.

“All these things got magnified by the expectations we came into this season with,” Lanier recalled. “We got into a rut, and we knew it.”

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On Dec. 14, they went to Mississippi State of the SEC and got smoked past 29 points.

“It was a miserable game,” Lanier said. “We had guys virtually get into fisticuffs on the demote. We looked really out of sorts.”

It got worse. On the ride abode from Starkville, the team coach broke downwardly in a small-scale city chosen Reform, Alabama. Information technology was later on midnight. There were no repair shops open, no set up solutions. Chris Kreider, an banana charabanc, knew a high school coach in Tuscaloosa, well-nigh 30 miles abroad.

The high school coach, Curt Weeks, got out of bed, institute a school bus and drove to Reform to rescue the Panthers. He drove them to a Tuscaloosa hotel, where they stayed the dark. Looking back, Lanier sees that crisis and human action of kindness as a bonding experience for his squad.

“If we had only fabricated it back to Atlanta, nosotros probably would have continued to wallow,” he said. “But that night gave me fourth dimension to develop some clarity in that moment. We made a roster alter. I had some clarity on how I wanted to move forward and how I wanted to deal with players.

“I did a miniature scouting report on the state of our team and put it in an electronic mail and sent it to our staff. And then we met the next morning time.”

Things didn’t turn around overnight. Georgia State started 0-4 in the Sun Chugalug. Just Nsoseme came dorsum in the New year’s day. They won at Louisiana and, a week later, embarked on a 10-game winning streak that culminated with the Dominicus Belt championship game on Monday night.

Before the Panthers left for the tournament, Lanier re-sent the electronic mail with the scouting study from the day after the charabanc mishap. He wanted his coaches to know how far they’d come.

Oh, and who showed up for the Dominicus Belt title game in Pensacola? Curt Weeks, the guy who picked them up in the bus in Reform.

“Our players saw him and went bananas,” Lanier said. “It was and so crawly. I was just watching a video of it. The fact that it came full circle and Coach Weeks was there at the game with us was actually beautiful.”

Lainer is headed to his showtime NCAA Tournament in xx years. (Prototype courtesy of Georgia State Athletics)

It could get even better if the pick committee puts Georgia Country in Buffalo when the NCAA Tournament returns to the urban center on March 17 and xix at KeyBank Center. Lanier coaching for the upset on St. Patrick’due south Day with the abode folks cheering him on, now that would be storybook.

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“Aye, no question,” Lanier said. He said it would hateful the world to two other Buffalo natives on his squad — assistant coach Hashemite kingdom of jordan Glover, who played at St. Joe’s and coached at Daemen, and Joe Jones, a Park School grad who missed the entire season with a foot injury.

“Once those guys knew at that place was whatsoever possibility of u.s.a. coming to Buffalo, that became an instant topic of give-and-take throughout our team,” Lanier said with a express joy. “The rest of the staff is and so tired of hearing about Buffalo.”

At that place’southward too the remote possibility that Lanier and his son, Emory, could current of air up in the same subregional side by side week. Emory is a sophomore reserve at Davidson, which has a strong case for an at-large bid out of the A-10.

“If I could be where he is and not take to play him, that would exist awesome,” Lanier said.

It would be quite a story, one that goes dorsum to Lanier’s boyhood on Buffalo’s East Side. He grew up in the Donovan Drive apartments, ii doors down away from Desmond Oliver, who followed him into the profession and is at present head jitney at E Tennessee State.

Lanier got his start every bit a grad assistant under Jack Armstrong at Niagara from 1990-92. He spent v years under Jim Baron at Bona, where he recruited most of the grade — including Tim Winn — that would become on to snap the Bonnies’ 22-year NCAA tourney drought in 2000.

He went on to Rutgers, working in the Large East from 1997-99 while his wife, Dayo, was in her first year of residency subsequently completing medical schoolhouse at UB. Lanier then took an assistant chore at Texas nether Rick Barnes. He writes almost Barnes persuading Dayo to come to Austin on his website, coachspeak.cyberspace. It’ll likewise be i of the chapters in his book.

Siena hired him as head double-decker in 2001. The Saints had a losing record but won the MAAC tourney and an NCAA berth in his first season. He afterwards got to an NIT, but cruel out of favor and was fired in 2005.

Lanier went to Virginia for two seasons before joining Baton Donovan at Florida for iv years. Then information technology was back to Texas with Barnes, who left in 2015 to take the Tennessee job. Lanier went with him and was associate head coach for four years before Georgia Country came calling.

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He has said he wasn’t fully ready to be a head coach when he got the Siena job at 33. He learned a lot afterward getting fired, working under respected mentors like Donovan and Barnes.

“In basketball, we e’er talk about players and how as they become more experienced the game slows down for them,” Lanier explained. “In some means, in coaching the job slows down for you lot — not just the game, but your role as a leader and your ability to see the forest for the trees.

“In a word, you go clarity. I think your clarity sharpens over the years. You don’t get caught up in the wrong things. Yous don’t make information technology about yourself equally much. It’south near leadership and other people. At least, that’s kind of been my journeying.”

That coaching journey has taken Lanier to the MAAC, the Atlantic 10, the Big E, the ACC, the Big 12, the SEC and now, the Sun Belt. That’s a lot of capacity in his circuitous hoop saga, and it prepared him for the unique challenges this season threw his way.

Lanier stepped into big shoes at Georgia State. Ron Hunter had averaged more than than 21 wins a season in eight years and reached the NCAAs in 3 of the last 5 years, including an upset of Baylor as a 14 seed in the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

He says he never felt pressure to win there. Rather, he saw information technology equally an opportunity to thrive at a school with the resources and commitment to win consistently. Lanier doesn’t desire Georgia State to exist one of those mid-majors that’southward happy to simply get to the NCAAs. He wants a mid-major that tin can brand deep runs, like a Gonzaga, or Butler dorsum in the twenty-four hours.

“We want our program to be associated with being dangerous in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I want u.s. to heighten the bar. I’yard not guaranteeing information technology, but that’s the goal.”

One thing seems clear. No Power 5 squad will be happy to run into underdog Georgia State next calendar week in the tournament. The Panthers are dangerous. Just await who’s driving the bus.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News iv squad in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more than of his piece of work here.