Panthers thrive with transfers, father-son duo

GSU Communications

Over the past two months, it’s hard to argue that Georgia State hasn’t been the best basketball program in Georgia. The Panthers have lost just once since Dec. 7 of last year, and have kept fans on their toes with some thrilling finishes that led to a 14-game winning streak, a school record. With four regular-season games left, the Panthers are 20-7, 13-1 in the Sun Belt Conference.



If the vibe seems different than in years past, it’s because head coach Ron Hunter, who previously spent 18 years building the program at IUPUI in Indianapolis, decided to take a chance on the dormant Panther program back in 2011 after Rod Barnes was fired. GSU hadn’t had a winning season since 2003-04, but the animated, energetic Hunter turned things around in 11-12, winning 22 games right off the bat and stoking interest in the Panthers with an exciting, fast-paced style of play. Last season brought a step back with a younger team and 15-16 record. But this winter has proven that he’s assembled the pieces for a contender into March: a senior point guard and four-year starter in Devonta White, high-major transfers in wing Manny Atkins, post Curtis Washington and guard Ryan Harrow, and his son, R.J., a swingman who can light it up from almost anywhere on the court.

Furthering the narrative of change was the Panthers’ move this year from the East Coast-heavy Colonial Athletic Association, which they joined in 2005, to the Southeast-based Sun Belt, a move that makes sense geographically and renews some old regional rivalries.

The NCAA Tournament was the offseason aspiration of the Panthers, who gained immediate eligibility for Harrow, a scoring guard coming over from Kentucky. The 6-9 Washington, a Southern Cal transfer, became eligible after sitting out a year.

But the team, which was trying to integrate new Harrow and Washington into the starting lineup, stumbled out of the gate. White and Harrow struggled to find ball-handling balance and rhythm with the wings. A 3-6 record to start made it easy to slap the “same-old GSU” label on a group destined to underachieve. An overtime loss to Southern Miss left a bad taste in their mouth, as the Panthers blew a five-point lead with under a minute left in regulation.

“When you add two guys into the starting lineup like Ryan Harrow and Curtis Washington, it’s a cliché to say this, but I believe in team chemistry,” said Panthers play-by-play man Dave Cohen. “It took them a little while to get comfortable as a unit. When Coach Hunter moved Devonta back to the 1 and Ryan to the 2, things really started to click.”

Cohen, the voice of Panther sports for 31 years, has seen more Panther basketball — good and bad — than anyone over that span. He’s seen the Panthers under seven coaches and in three different conferences, but just two NCAA Tournament appearances, one in 1991 under Bob Reinhart and one in 2001 under the legendary Lefty Driesell, who led the Panthers to their only Tournament win, over Wisconsin.

But starting with an inconspicuous six-point win over struggling former CAA mate Old Dominion, the Panthers turned it up a notch and became the first Georgia State basketball team to start 10-0 in conference.

Perhaps more impressive than the current 17-1 run is exactly how the Panthers have managed to win many of their games. It’s been a mix of close calls and blowout wins, but there hasn’t been a dull moment.

The Panthers won on December 22 at UT-San Antonio by 31 points in a game where Hunter — the team’s leading scorer at 19.3 points per game heading into the Thursday matchup with UT-Arlington — exploded for a career-high 41 points on 12 three-pointers, a school record. They blew out traditional Sun Belt power Western Kentucky on the road, 77-54, using a 15-0 run right out of halftime that turned a close game into a rout. Home wins over UT-Arlington and, most recently, Louisiana-Lafayette, have turned heroes into White and Atkins, who both hit last-second threes to either tie or win games. The Panthers have also successfully navigated some tricky scheduling as a result of two postponements due to ice storms, which also disrupted practice time. GSU may not be 30-0 like everyone’s mid-major darling Wichita State, but these guys know what adversity looks like.

The younger Hunter is the star on the roster and has the perfect mix of fundamentals and pizzazz. He specializes in defensive deflections with his long arms and works hard for rebounds, but has been known to pull up from 30 feet when he’s in a zone. He also leads the team in minutes played (34) and steals (1.9) per game.

“I know it’s an overused term, and I’m not just saying this because he’s Coach Hunter’s son, but it’s basketball IQ,” Cohen said. “He’s got that. He knows where to go and what to do.”

The crowds at the GSU Sports Arena, which have been increasing ever since the December turnaround, clearly appreciate having a bona fide star. Perhaps the Panthers’ most prized piece of hardware from their CAA days is the Freshman of the Year award that R.J. took home last year. On this career arc, he can anticipate more accolades coming his way.

With R.J. lighting it up and playing most of every game, on the other end is the bench production. Ron Hunter favors a smaller rotation, but points and rebounds have been tough to come by for the Panther for most of the season. The key to postseason success may lie in 6-foot-5 sophomore Markus Crider, an undersized but athletic post player who has, until recently, been comfortable as a defensive specialist and rebounder.

With four regular-season games remaining and the Panthers one win away from mathematically sealing the top spot in the conference (a feat that would ensure at least an automatic bid to the NIT), GSU is positioning itself for a March run. The top two seeds in the Sun Belt receive byes all the way to the semifinals of the conference tournament in New Orleans, meaning that two wins in the Big Easy are all it would take to put the Panthers in the Big Dance for only the third time. NIT fall-back aside, a Tourney berth is within reach.

“This is what I call a window of opportunity,” Cohen says. “If there’s a time to rise above and make it happen, now is that time.”


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