Nine months on the job, Ron Hunter has already done something only one other Georgia State basketball coach ever did: He has won eight consecutive games, matching the record established by Lefty Driesell’s Panthers on their run to Round 2 of the 2001 NCAA tournament. Here, however, comes a disclaimer:
Not one of the eight teams the Panthers have beaten holds a winning record, and if you’ve ever wondered how an 8-3 team can have an RPI of 287, here’s your answer. According to ESPN Insider’s numbers, Georgia State has played the worst schedule among the 345 Division I teams. And here, bang on cue, came Hunter’s rebuttal.
“First of all, I didn’t make the schedule, but I’d rather play the Sisters of Poor 27 times and be 27-0. It’s more about winning than RPI. If my mother brought her team down here, I’d want to beat her — and I love my mother.”
And here Hunter, who in addition to being smart and energetic and funny as all get-out is alarmingly media-savvy, nodded to his visitor and said: “If we’d been 5-5 with a good RPI, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Guilty as charged. As we know, Georgia State has a hard time getting noticed in the Atlanta market, but eight wins on the trot — the Panthers can establish a new school standard Thursday by beating Georgia Southern here — will catch the eye. Especially at a place that has known eight winning seasons in its 48 years of playing.
“I’ve never been in a place where expectations were so low and the passion and the spirit were so down. It took three months just to get my kids to smile.”
Some coaches might find that daunting. Hunter doesn’t do daunted. He has big plans for the program with the walk-up gym based on the Concrete Campus. How big? Here goes.
“We’re trying to become Atlanta’s team. I’m from Indianapolis [his previous stop was IUPUI] and I saw how Butler, a mid-major, dominated that city. I want us to be so you can’t get a ticket … I think we’re good enough to win our league [the estimable Colonial Athletic Association], but I don’t want to be just good. I want to be great.
“I’m not going to apologize for wanting to win. When I took this job, they didn’t give me a little sign that said, ‘You can’t win this year’ … I want us to embrace this streak and this attention … My biggest problem is how to handle success, especially with a team that’s never won, and develop a swagger that isn’t cockiness.”
One way to impart the message might be to break a bone. Hunter did that, slamming a metal chair in disgust and fracturing his index finger. “I’m the only coach in the country who’d won six straight and broke his finger in practice.”
Backing up a bit: Does Hunter really believe his team can win a conference that has recently dispatched two members [George Mason and VCU] to the Final Four? “I do. Things have to go well, but that thing about conference play being different? The ball goes in the basket and they still give you two or three points. It’s still basketball. And nobody’s going to play harder than us.”
Georgia State being tabbed — not by the media but by the league coaches — to finish 11th in the 12-team CAA was mere grist for Hunter’s motivational mill. “We were picked last [or thereabouts] by the coaches, and we didn’t have a player on the all-conference team. That puts a chip on my shoulder. Before we played [CAA opponent] William & Mary, I told our kids, ‘Their coach said we were the worst team in the league.’ ”
Actually, there’s no evidence that Tony Shaver, who coaches the Tribe, said any such thing, but why stand in the way of a good goad? (For the record, GSU beat William & Mary 66-34.) Hunter is peddling hope at a program that has rarely known any, and he’s a good enough coach that we should take heed. “Self-imposed limitations are the worst,” he says. “You say you want to get a C, and you’ll get a C. Low expectations mean low results.”
Is Hunter happy to be 8-3? Nope. “I thought we’d be 10-1.” And is he worried that his team’s less-than-stellar schedule will catch up to it? “I hope Georgia State is on the bubble on Selection Sunday and people are saying, ‘They should have played a tougher schedule.’ I’d love that.”
If Georgia State is being discussed in any way on Selection Sunday, Ron Hunter will have lent RPI a new meaning — he’ll have become a Really Prophetic Individual.
By Mark Bradley