This will appear in tomorrow’s paper, but thought I’d post it now:
Georgia State coach Ron Hunter promises his team will become relevant in the CAA.
Even after winning 10 consecutive games there are still plenty of questions because the Panthers have beaten just one team, Drexel, which has a winning record.
Those answers should come as early as Wednesday, when Georgia State plays at VCU, riding an eight-game winning streak, with more coming Saturday when it visits George Mason.
It’s a gauntlet that could establish the Panthers, predicted to finish 11th in the preseason, as the team to beat in the conference. Georgia State already passed the first test by beating the Dragons, who were picked in the preseason to win the conference, at the Sports Arena 58-44. Now they must face the Rams, who were picked third, and the Patriots, who were picked second.
“[Playing for] first place on the road in the CAA, that’s going to happen a lot for us,” said Hunter, whose team is 3-3 on the road this year including neutral-court games.
It can be easy to dismiss Hunter’s confidence as the product of a coach at a new school who is caught up in the emotions of a school-record win streak built against teams that are a combined 44-93.
Add to that the Panthers have yet to have a winning conference record since joining the CAA in 2005-06 and even Hunter has acknowledged that some of his players seem like they are waiting on the bubble to burst. So when he says “we are going to play meaningful CAA games,” it sometimes sounds like he’s still trying to convince his players as much as he is everyone else.
“I didn’t inherit a bad basketball team, I inherited a team that didn’t know how to win,” Hunter said. “Now, these kids have a swagger. They understand that they can win and that they want to win.”
But instead of focusing on the big-picture impact this trip could have, Hunter is telling his squad to worry just about VCU (11-3, 2-0), a Final Four participant last year and an example of what Hunter thinks is possible for his program.
“We don’t worry about what’s in back of us or in front of us,” he said. “All we care about is VCU.”
Led by senior Eric Buckner, whose shotblocking ability (2.92 per game) is the hub around which the Panthers’ matchup zones and presses work, Georgia State’s players said they are following their coach’s guidance. They don’t even seem to be thinking much about VCU, either. After the win against Drexel, they said they are focusing on three things: defending, rebounding and running.
Georgia State is limiting opponents to 57.8 points per game on 38.4-percent shooting. They have created 61 more turnovers than they’ve made. The Dragons, who averaged 12 per game, committed 25 in Monday’s loss. During the win streak, opponents are shooting just 34.2 percent. The Panthers have forced 53 more turnovers.
VCU coach Shaka Smart said the Panthers will “definitely put some heat on you. He’s got those guys playing with terrific energy, the way they defend, they way they press, the way they get up the floor. He’s got those guys playing as well as anyone in the league.”
Smart also traces the Panthers’ success to Hunter’s previous success at IUPUI and that the team features six seniors. He said those who did preseason predictions seemingly forgot that experience can quickly turn into success.
“That’s one of those things that you shouldn’t overthink,” he said. “If you have five good seniors, you will have a chance to win some games.”
Reflecting Hunter’s wish, Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said the Panthers are already contenders in the CAA.
“They get on streaks like this, where they haven’t had this success, and they feel good about themselves,” he said. “Ron has them enthused and playing hard. They are going to be a tough out.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu