It’s a new day at Georgia State. One of the great stories of March last year, they were among the darlings before the NCAA Tournament and then once it got going. They would have been a great story even without the dramatic win over Baylor and the family aspect involved. But that team is no more in a lot of respects, as the Panthers will have a new look this season. They will, however, not have such a new look in key respects.
Ron Hunter is still on the bench. And the Panthers should still contend in the Sun Belt Conference all the same.
The first part is a big reason for the second one. Since coming to Atlanta from IUPUI, Hunter has rebuilt the program back into a consistent postseason contender. It’s easy to forget that for a stretch well over a decade ago, when Lefty Driesell was at the helm, Georgia State contended just about every year in the old Trans-America Athletic Conference as the conference transitioned into the Atlantic Sun. They had five straight winning seasons from 1997 to 2002, beating Wisconsin in the 2001 NCAA Tournament. The program then fell on hard times before they joined the CAA for a few years, where they started slowly before Hunter came aboard.
Hunter instantly turned the program around when he arrived. He got his team to play with an edge, not unlike the one he coaches with, and the results showed. They contended in the CAA before heading to the Sun Belt so the football team could play in Division I-A, and have been to two straight Sun Belt championship games. They lost a heart-breaker in 2014, getting the game of a lifetime from Ryan Harrow with his father, who had been ill, in the stands, but broke through in a low-scoring title game (38-36) last season. The rest, you already know – Hunter tore his Achilles in the celebration, then fell off his chair when his son hit the game-winning three-pointer against Baylor. He showed us the human side of himself that makes him such a gift to college basketball.
He’s especially been a gift to Georgia State, though, as the program enters this season in the best place it’s ever been. They have won 87 games the past four seasons, the most in any four-year stretch. Hunter has led the program to three of their four winningest seasons and half of their postseason appearances with three in his four seasons at the helm.
Whereas Hunter was previously famous as much for his off-court work as on the court, it’s his coaching exploits that get the attention now and help the off-court work. He has famously partnered with Samaritan’s Feet, an organization that collects shoes for underprivileged children around the world, and has received numerous honors for that and more. While he had success at IUPUI on the court, getting them to the NCAA Tournament and producing George Hill, it was overshadowed by bigger programs in the state and wasn’t quite on the level of what he’s already done in Atlanta.
Harrow is done and R.J. Hunter, the program’s all-time leading scorer after just three seasons, is now in the NBA after leaving school early and being drafted, and they aren’t alone. The Panthers lose two other starters in Curtis Washington and Ryann Green. But they will simply reload, as more transfers will lead the way after Markus Crider, who has been in Atlanta his entire college career. The senior forward is their leading returning score and led the team in rebounding last season, and was a key to their Sun Belt championship run. They also return Louisville transfer Kevin Ware, who will be the featured perimeter player, and he gets help from Samford transfer Isaiah Williams, who was the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year two seasons ago. Indiana transfer Jeremy Hollowell should make an impact right away up front.
The Panthers will get tested in non-conference play, with trips to Ole Miss and UAB among the highlights, along with visits from Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee. Conference play starts out favorably for them as well, as they have five straight at home after they open at UT-Arlington and Texas State, two teams picked near the bottom of the conference in the preseason coaches poll. While that is followed by three more in a row on the road, the stretch at home gives them a chance to get some good momentum early on. Their trip to Louisiana to play UL-Lafayette on March 3, their next-to-last regular season game, could come with the regular season title on the line.
It will be tough for this season’s team to match the offensive prowess of a year ago, or even the year prior. The Panthers shot 48 percent from the field and had a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, a year after they averaged nearly 78 points per game and shot a little under 47 percent. Repeating the defensive effort will be a bigger part of a path to success, as last year opponents shot under 39 percent and gave the ball away over 15 times a game.
This time around, there won’t be a great family story within the team. But the rest of the story could certainly repeat itself, especially the part the Panthers want the most, which is where the season ends up. Hunter has done nothing but win in Atlanta, and he has enough talent to continue doing that this season.