Head Coach Ron Hunter has helped curb the consecutive years of losing at Georgia State. Now he has his sights set on taking the Panthers back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
“We haven’t talked much about it. It’s great for our school, though. Georgia State hasn’t had a lot of things to cheer about over the last 10 to 15 years,” Head Coach Ron Hunter admitted when asked about his teams school-record of 12 consecutive victories.
He’s right. The Atlanta-based school has only had two winning seasons in the past decade, failing to make the NCAA tournament both times. It was in the 2000-2001 season when its fans last saw the basketball team get to the Big Dance.
“But for us as a team, we don’t talk much about it,” coach continued. “We’re more concerned about trying to win this league.”
The league of which Hunter speaks is the Sun Belt Conference– the new home of the Georgia State Panthers. His team currently sits in sole possession of first place after reeling off 10 straight wins against conference foes. Last season, the script was a bit different for Coach Hunter, whose team struggled to fight off conference opponents in the Colonial Athletic Association. That team ended the year with a sub-.500 overall record and finished conference play 10-8. Ironically, it was the burgeoning strength of the CAA back in 2011 that convinced Hunter that Georgia State would be a good destination. The conference boasted three tournament teams–VCU (now in the A-10), Old Dominion (now in Conference-USA), and George Mason (now in the A-10)–and the rebuilding situation at Georgia State intrigued the former IUPUI coach (Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill played for Hunter).
No longer having to deal with those opponents, Georgia State has thrived in the Sun Belt largely because of its duo of scoring guards–R.J. Hunter (Coach’s son) and Ryan Harrow (Kentucky transfer). The two have combined to averaged 37.8 points per game, nearly half of the Panthers’ points.
Coming out of high school, both Hunter and Harrow received high-major interest, but took different paths to Georgia State. Hunter, from Indiana, received offers from the likes of Cincinnati, Miami, Iowa, and Vanderbilt, but settled to play for his dad at Georgia State. Harrow, from Georgia, eliminated much of his recruitment process by declaring to play for Sidney Lowe at N.C. State before most teams could extend an offer. But Harrow still garnered interest from big time programs like Kentucky, the school he would later transfer to after leaving N.C. State. After a up-and-down stint at Kentucky, the rising red-shirt junior guard transferred a second time. He decided to attend Georgia State, which would allow him to be closer to his father who had a stroke before the 2012-13 season.
Make no mistake, though, that the Panthers are more than just Hunter and Harrow. Seniors Manny Atkins and Devonta White are contributing 26 points. While White has spent all four years at Georgia State, Atkins transferred from Virginia Tech after his sophomore season. Like Hunter and Harrow, he received a lot of attention from the nation’s top tier team; he held offers from Michigan, Florida State, Marquette, and Georgia. The man in the middle, Curtis Washington, is also a transfer who is producing for the Panthers. After two dormant seasons at USC, the 6’9” big man is now contributing 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game for Georgia State.
The combination of experienced transfers and home-bread players, have put Georgia State in play for an NCAA tournament bid. While their record and winning streak are impressive, their bid is not guaranteed. In the event that they do not win their conference tournament, they would have to vie for an at-large bid, which could be tough given their less-than-stellar resume. Currently, they rank 86th in RPI and have played three teams with a top-100 RPI and lost all three–@Southern Mississippi (75-65), @Vanderbilt (86-80), vs. Canisius (79-71). They also have three bad losses against teams outside of the top-100 in RPI–@Alabama (75-58), @Elon (90-85), @Florida International (61-60). Their strength of schedule is very weak (ranks 235 in the nation) and they have mostly beat up on teams outside of the top 150 in RPI. Nevertheless, Joe Lunardi currently has the Panthers in the tournament as the 13th seed in the west bracket.
Coach Hunter is trying to keep his team focused despite the lure of a possible tournament bid.
“One of the things we keep talking about is we don’t want to look too far into the future. I know what’s happened in this league in the past, where the winner of this league has not gone to the [NCAA] tournament. That’s something we’re very mindful about. We’re just now playing our best basketball. We’re peaking at the right time.”
If the Georgia State Panthers do in fact make the tournament, they will be a formidable opponent because of their efficient and dynamic offensive attack. None of the players on the roster have NCAA tournament playing experience, but expect Ron Hunter to have them in the right mindset.
*Qutes from Myron Medcalf of ESPN.com
*R.J. Hunter Photo Credit: Patrick Dufft
*Ryan Harrow Photo Credit: Randy Wilson Photography