Lefty Driesell grabbed the microphone at the end of the tipoff breakfast for Georgia State’s basketball teams and implored those in attendance to attend the games.
“You guys have to go to the games,” he told the members of the Panthers Athletic Club. “You guys have to support them with money. If you guys buy two season-tickets, you have to sell five or six more. I want to see that Sports Arena filled.”
The Panthers’ men’s basketball team had an average attendance of 915 last season. There were numerous reasons, mostly because the team wasn’t very good (12-19). However, athletics director Cheryl Levick hopes she’s hired the right man in Ron Hunter to turn around the program and fill the Sports Arena, whose court is named after Driesell, the last man to take the Panthers to the NCAA tournament.
As the men’s team prepares for the first practice of the season on Friday, Driesell told the couple hundred in attendance on Thursday in downtown Atlanta that the success the CAA is having in the NCAA tournament (VCU and GMU have made it to the Final Four in recent years) can be traced to the fact that the teams will play on the road, in places like the Sports Arena.
“Maryland had something like 10 guaranteed games last year,” he said, spreading out the fingers on his hand. “I can win a guaranteed game and I’m almost 80 years old.”
Hunter, who was hired after spending 17 seasons at IUPUI, said Driesell told him that one of his greatest disappointments during his six years was the fact the Sports Arena never sold out.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Hunter said. “I just had been on the job for a day [when he told me]. He won 29 games. What will I have to do?”
Hunter was joking, kind of. He pointed out that the campus has changed a lot since Driesell coached from 1997-2003, including numerous dorms and other on-campus hubs for students, and there’s a new administration as well.
“But we do have to have people coming to the games,” he said.
Levick said they are working on getting more fans. Their goal is to double season-ticket sales from last year, which would be 400 sold for the men’s team and 160 for the women’s team. She said renewals are significantly ahead of last year’s pace as they inch closer to the season opener. The men’s team will open with an exhibition game against Southern Poly on Oct. 31. The women’s team will host Young Harris on Nov. 9 in its first exhibition.
Levick said the next phase is a massive blanketing of season-ticket holders in football. The athletics department is also working with student leaders on campus to make sure they know times and dates of games.
While Driesell supplied most of the entertainment, Hunter and women’s basketball coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener provided some of the answers to questions about this year’s teams. The women’s team returns two starters as part of six letter-winners. The men’s team, featuring its new coach, returns four starters and three other key returners. However, they will be playing a much different, much faster system than they played under previous coach Rod Barnes, whose team went 12-19 last season.
“The shot-clock operator can retire,” Hunter joked.
Here are a few more highlights from the breakfast (questions and answers have been paraphrased):
Q: How do you measure the success of this year’s team:
Baldwin-Tener: We hope to be much more competitive in the CAA. I’m curious to see the preseason ballots at media day next week. I’ll bet we are between sixth and eighth, and possibly ninth. I hope to finish higher than that.
Q: How many pairs of shoes do you own?
Q: How will your improve the team’s free-throw shooting (the Panthers were one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country last year)?
RH: If you can’t make free-throws you can’t win. We will improve on that.
Q: Goals for the season.
RH: I can’t imagine going through college and not having an opportunity to win. I want these two seniors, who have been through a lot, to have a chance to win.
We have goals that I won’t share. But we have extremely high expectations.
SBT: The top-half of the CAA is our objective. We want to win all the games we are supposed to win and win some we shouldn’t. We lost some games we should have won last year and I want to change that.
Q: Describe your approach to recruiting?
SBT: Growing up in Smyrna, and seeing how much Georgia State has changes, it’s an easy sell right now. Where it is and where it’s going…it’s a wonderful time. We’re going to build the program the right way.
RH: I don’t have a hard time talking. If you can sell IUPUI to someone. I bet half the people in this room don’t know what IUPUI stands for. If I can sell that, I can sell anything.
Q: Do you fit your system to a team, or the team to your system?
RH: The team didn’t do well the past couple of years, so we are going to fit the team to the system. I think kids can play my system. I don’t think they brought me to coach another system.
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Follow me on twitter @ajcgsu