Ron Hunter enters his second season as Georgia State’s men’s basketball coach and isn’t doing so lightly. The Panthers, 22-12 last year, will open the season at Duke on Friday.
Aside from the fact that it’s at Cameron Indoor Stadium (Hello!), the Panthers feature seven players who didn’t see a minute of action last year. Many of those, such as Manny Atkins, Markus Crider and R.J. Hunter III, will be counted on this season.
Hunter say down for a Q&A to preview the season.
The first part focuses mainly on the team.
The second part, which will focus on Duke, will run Thursday.
Q: Are you still planning on an eight-man rotation?
A: Yes. You’ll never have to ask me that again. It’ll always be an eight-man rotation. It’s what I’m comfortable with. I thought about going a bit deeper but I’m not.
Q: Have you decided if it will be either T.J. Shipes or LaRon Smith who will redshirt?
A: T.J. is definitely playing. We’ll just wait and see what happens with LaRon. I’m not going to put him in a game with meaningless minutes. I don’t think that helps him. We’ll just see what happens but T.J. will definitely play. He’s worked his way into the rotation.
Q: Is the LaRon decision related to physical strength or basketball skills?
A: It’s a combination of both and different things. He’s learning a new spot, that’s the first thing. When you are learning a new position it’s really difficult. We need him to be a 4 by the end of the day, and he’s not ready to do that. Right now, we have a lot of 5s. Right now it’s more learning what we are trying to get done. He’s getting better every day. It’s not a clear-cut decision. He is by far the best rebounder in the program. Because he’s such a great rebounder he’s making my decision harder.
Q: Who is emerging as the leader?
A: Devonta quietly is our leader. That’s no secret that Devonta, R.J. and Manny are the keys to what we do. Those three guys dictate practice, dictate the games, they dictate a lot of different things. Now R.J. may think he’s the only one on the floor who can say certain things to me because I’m his dad and he can get away with it.
A lot of times R.J. will text me late at night or call me and he’ll say, ‘ Hey dad, can we move practice back 15 minutes?’
Now I know that’s D-White saying, ‘Call your dad and say this.’
I think they are taking advantage of that and we’ll have a talk about that really soon. R.J.’s not scared to ask me anything because I’m his dad. Most guys won’t ask my anything but R.J. will ask. We are starting to get a kick out of that but R.J.’s going to have to shut that down. He thinks he can just ask me anything.
Q: Do you say yes when he asks about moving practice?
A: It depends. Most of the time I say no or I’ll answer it this way, ‘No, so tell Devonta to call me.’ That’s how it usually works and he’ll say OK.
Q: Who has improved most since practice began?
A: The entire team has improved. But the biggest shock to me has been James Vincent. It’s not just his play because his numbers won’t indicate it, but his attitude, he wants to be there, he wants to be part of it. It hasn’t always been that.
He’s been the biggest surprise to me because he wants to win. I don’t think he really wanted to win last year. I think he was just happy a part of the team. But he knows he’s a big part of it so the adjustment he made with his attitude is the biggest surprise. Our guys get better every day.
But that’s the one constant we’ve talked about the past two weeks as a staff, that’s been our biggest surprise is James’ attitude toward basketball, period.
Q: Is that showing up in his work ethic?
A: James has never been a guy that was going to spend one second past practice. But he is actually staying two minutes past practice. For James, that’s like two hours. He’s actually showing up early, which for James is a big thing.
Even after the first exhibition game, he said, ‘It feels like I’m in high school again where I’m having fun.’
For James to say that, it’s a big thing.
For four years James has not liked basketball, has not liked it at all. Now James is actually enjoying it. He’s having a good time. He’s talking to guys. He’s part of the unit. Before it was always the unit and James over on the side. That’s been the biggest improvement. The guys want to see him succeed.
Q: Is that a matter of playing time, now that he knows he’s like going to get more minutes?
A: It’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s a combination of our young guys accepting him. Sometimes you get on a team and a culture and things are what they are. But we have so many new guys they don’t know and they just accepted him. They’ll knock on his door and say, ‘James, you’re going with us’ when they go do stuff.
I think that’s great. He likes that. He likes these guys. The South Africa trip helped him. He didn’t want to go on the trip. Being around those guys and spending time with them, now he feels like he’s part of the team. I don’t’ know if ever since he’s been at Georgia State if he’s ever felt like a part of the program.
Now I feel like he feels like he’s a part of what we are doing.
Q: Are you seeing evidence of the South Africa trip and the Navy SEAL training?
A: No question. Just their mentality. How we communicate to each other. Our work ethic.
One of the things that I thought would be a big problem with these team that I haven’t seen yet was mental toughness. I think for a young basketball in a short period of time we’ve seen a lot. We’ve done a lot.
So I think that it has paid off and we’ll really see it pay off toward the end of the year.
From a coaching perspective some of the things that I’ve tried to create in practice or that I’ve seen in the exhibition games … getting down early, handling the nerves, not calling a timeout just to see if they can fight through it. Listening to them in timeouts, listening to them in the locker rooms.
I see evidence of some of the things we’ve talked about since June 6.
Q: Because it is such a young team, how quickly have they picked up on what can be your complicated defensive schemes?
A: The summer helped us. I’ll be honest with you, if this rule hadn’t passed there’s no way we could even be ready for this game. I’m not going to say if we are going to win this game or going to lose this game, but we are more prepared because of the new rule allowing us to work with these guys on June 6. I don’t know if I will do it next year because we will have a veteran group. But everyday we were doing something on the days we were allowed to do something. It really helped us. It came at the right time. If it came a year later I wouldn’t know what to expect right now. I really wish I had the rule a year ago when I first got the job because it has made a huge, huge difference.
I looked at the tape, where we are now compared to last year, it’s not even close.
– Doug Roberson, AJC and AJC.com. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu