If you hear a Georgia State men’s basketball player say “Zero, Zero, One,” it’s not some bit of pop culture fluff or the name of one of coach Ron Hunter’s complicated defenses.
It’s something that could be the key to matching last year’s successful 22-win season as the team prepares to begin practice on Friday.
To build camaraderie and mental toughness on a team that features nine new players, Hunter had them do some unusual things this summer:
• He hired a former Navy SEAL to put his team through some exercises;
• He hired a sports psychologist;
• And he took them on a trip to South Africa;
On that trip, part of Hunter’s efforts with the charity Samaritan’s Feet, the team constantly heard children saying, “Zero, Zero, One.”
No one knew what they were talking about.
“Zero, Zero, One,” is part of a prayer that children say daily. If there’s not food for breakfast or lunch, can their please be something for dinner?
“All of our kids are going to eat,” Hunter said. “One of things the players will say is ‘0-0-1,’ a reminder that it can be a lot of worse.”
Hunter topped that by putting the kids through several days of training at a local middle school led by former SEAL John McGuire. It was something that VCU has done. Georgia State players carried inflatable boats over their heads and pushed themselves physically to a point they had never before experienced.
“It was harder mentally than it was physically,” said guard Devonta White, who estimated he did 600 push-ups in two days. “It’s going to help our team mentally. When we think we can’t go further … we can fight through anything that happens in a game.”
It seems to have worked. Hunter said the players no longer complain after workouts.
Of course, Georgia State’s real practices haven’t begun and Hunter promises to be even more intense this year.
This year’s team will be led by White, the only returning starter, and key reserves-turned-starters Rashaad Richardson and James Vincent. Hunter expects that Manny Atkins, who sat out last year after transferring from Virginia Tech, and his son R.J., who must call Hunter “Coach,” will round out the first five.
He plans to rotate eight players, and he said six players understand his system better than the rest, which means there are two spots up for grabs. The NCAA has yet to rule on Curtis Washington, a transfer from Southern California.
Denny Burguillos, a 6-7 forward, has been the surprise since offseason workouts began on June 6. Hunter describes him as a “face-up five,” meaning he can hit 3-pointers, and is a good passer and rebounder who fits into Hunter’s system perfectly. Plus, Hunter said Burguillos has a mean streak.
“When I yell at him, he yells back in Spanish,” Hunter said. “I don’t know what he’s saying. I assume he’s saying ‘Coach, I love you!’”
Few teams loved playing Georgia State last year. The Panthers forced 515 turnovers while limiting opponents to 38-percent shooting, including 31.5 percent from the 3-point line. The Panthers needed that defense because they hit 43.5 percent of their field goals, including 31.7 percent from the 3-point line.
Hunter doesn’t think points will be a problem this year with White, Atkins and Hunter. The team will continue to focus on learning Hunter’s schemes, which can switch from zone to man-to-man or some type of hybrid within the same possession.
Like last year’s team, Hunter said this group has quickly bought into his system as they prepare for the season opener at Duke on Nov. 9. When they get frustrated, they think about “Zero, Zero, One,” the SEAL training, or go talk to the psychologist.
Hunter is excited to try to better last year’s results.
“Now, it’s like putting together a cake,” he said. “You get all of these great ingredients together. We have all of the ingredients. I can’t wait to bake this cake and see what it tastes like.”
Georgia State key dates
First practice: 5 p.m. Friday.
First exhibition: vs. Life University, 7 p.m., Oct. 29.
First game: at Duke, 7 p.m., Nov. 9.
First home game: vs. Monmouth, 7 p.m., Nov. 19.
First conference game: vs. Drexel, 7 p.m., Jan. 2.
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu