Georgia State takes Sun Belt, poses Cinderella threat

The Georgia State Panthers completed their inaugural season in the Sun Belt Conference with a 17-1 record.

ATLANTA — Shirts flashing RUN SBC were everywhere, dotting the corridors and the rafters of the 3,500-seat arena the Georgia State Panthers call home, bringing singularity to a coronation years in the making. The school stole some inspiration from hip-hop icons for the T-shirts — complete with sunglasses reflecting a team huddle and the Atlanta city skyline; a nod to the team’s Sun Belt regular season championship and possibly a claim to city (or state) bragging rights — and it ran away from Western Kentucky on the court, just like it did the rest of the conference in its inaugural SBC season.

After taking out the Hilltoppers with the typical combination of steady ball-handling, long-range effectiveness and an improving defense capable of showing different high-pressure looks each time down the floor, the Georgia State program is officially back on the map. Saturday sealed the deal; there was no letdown, not even with the title in hand.

Boasting one of the most efficient offenses in the nation — ranking 22nd in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, averaging 114.3 points per 100 possessions — the Panthers are a serious mid-major threat this month. If the list of small schools putting the high-profile programs on alert starts with undefeated Wichita State, as it should, it doesn’t take long to reach Georgia State.

There’s serious upset potential tucked behind the Georgia state capitol building.

The Panthers are one of just three programs nationally to boast four 1,000-point scorers on the roster and they are prototypically built for tournament success. For one, they never turn the ball over — ever. They ranked first nationally in turnover percentage (12.3) entering Saturday’s season finale, and they coughed it up just seven times to Western Kentucky, despite battling a desperation press for the better part of the second half. With that Sun Belt title already locked up, some inefficiency or a lack of focus would have been understandable. It just didn’t happen. There’s also the fact that the Panthers feature 3-point shooters all over the floor, including two of the very best in 6-foot-5 R.J. Hunter and 6-foot-6 Manny Atkins, and that they knock down their free throws better than all but four other Division-I programs.

Tally some of those numbers up: (1) Don’t make mistakes; (2) Stretch the floor with Cinderella’s weapon of choice and the potential competitive equalizer, the 3-pointer; (3) Do not give away free points and punish opponents for putting you on the line. Not a terrible combination.

It wasn’t good enough early in the season against SEC foes Vanderbilt and Alabama, but that was then. There’s now a greater cohesiveness to this roster composed of so many moving parts. Georgia State has come a long way since its 3-6 start, winning 21 of its final 22 games, and the run has made a believer out of its head coach.

"If you don’t turn it over and you make your free throws, man you’re gonna have a chance to win every single game," said coach Ron Hunter, who is now 61-35 in his three seasons in Atlanta. "We talk about that every day. No matter what happens, if you don’t turn it over and you make your free throws — what happens is you can always comeback and you can always extend leads.

"And when it’s really big is in tournament play. We don’t have to do anything different. I don’t even have to have practice this week. I know these guys are gonna play. … Even if we don’t make shots, it won’t matter. It won’t matter because we won’t give you free shots and we won’t give you free runs on the other end. Every time we step on the floor, I know that."

There are potential weaknesses: defensive inefficiency (relatively speaking), a lack of interior size and depth, rebounding — much of which compounds upon itself. But if the final record is any indication, the positives outweigh the negatives, and, like Hunter said, in a tournament setting there are many, many good qualities to buy.

"We have so much offensive firepower, that if we play any bit of defense I felt like we can beat anybody any given night," senior point guard Devonta White said. "And that’s on any level."

There’s still work to be done. Such is a mid-major regular season conference champ’s task and, potentially, curse. The bracket is not set in stone for another week — and, in the context of the Sun Belt Conference, everything can change.

When it was all but over — the starters were out, the reserves were in and 57 seconds showed on the clock — the rather raucous Georgia State student section (all things considered) let out its own rendition of a popular college basketball chant. The section had altered the words from ones it screamed at the opening tip, though it would have been accurate at either juncture. Little changed except added enthusiasm:

On and on it went; the volume refusing to wane. It was indeed a celebratory atmosphere from start to finish in the GSU Sports Arena, the venue’s first sellout in 25 years. Conference titles are not taken lightly in these parts. The Georgia State program holds very little historical significance in the grand scheme of college hoops, and a trip through its small arena’s tight corridors or a glance at the rafters inspires little in terms of a flashback, perhaps just a simple reminder of the short-lived but successful Lefty Driesell era that is now more than a decade in the rearview mirror.

When Hunter took over the program in 2012, the Panthers were coming off seven straight losing seasons. He inherited some talent in that first year — the same talent that previous coach Rod Barnes could not win more than 12 games in a season with for four years — and turned the Panthers into a 22-win team, taking Colonial conference members and former NCAA tourney darlings VCU and George Mason down to the wire. The next year produced a sub-.500 record, but the changes were evident: the offensive efficiency (namely turnovers) jumped by leaps and bounds, the team attacked more on both ends of the floor.

Then the pieces began falling into place.

Like most other strong mid-majors and Rome, the 2014 Sun Belt champs were not built in a day. Or in one recruiting class. It’s a patchwork effort guided by good fortune, good coaching and very good transfers.

First came the solid foundation. White, a former two-star recruit, is a holdover from the Barnes era and is more than capable at the point guard position, creating opportunities for teammates and providing enough of an offensive threat that he’ll finish his career at least No. 3 on the program’s all-time scoring list. There’s already talk of his jersey hanging from the rafters one day. On Hunter’s first day on the job, White walked into his office and was given a set of instructions: "I’m giving you the keys to my program. Don’t wreck my car. I like driving nice cars. Don’t wreck it."

He didn’t.

Then came the transfers.

Atkins, the sharpshooting forward that stretches defenses by knocking down 45 percent from 3-point range, was in line to become a starter at Virginia Tech, but after two seasons he sought more playing time. Fellow mid-majors Charlotte and Tennessee Tech showed interest; Hunter won the race. Atkins sat out the 2012 season and is now firing on all cylinders in the Panthers’ dangerous offense, running up a 122.6 offensive rating (85th nationally) while boasting a 65 true shooting percentage. Guard Ryan Harrow, a former five-star prospect out of the metro Atlanta area and a two-time transfer (N.C. State, Kentucky), followed suit this past offseason and received a waiver due to his father’s medical condition. Harrow’s immediate eligibility gave Hunter a high-major backcourt to run his offense through.

The icing on the Panthers’ offensive-minded cake is the coach’s son, R.J. Projected as a potential NBA prospect, the younger Hunter would not be playing in Atlanta were it not for his father — he graduated from Pike High School in Indianapolis as one of the top shooters around and with offers from Iowa, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Miami. When he called to make his commitment, R.J. once said his father was speechless for the first time in his life. His new coach even hung up the phone on him. With range for days, the sophomore has become one of the most efficient offensive players in the country, eclipsing the 20-point mark 12 times this season.

White, Hunter, Atkins, Harrow — each taking different paths to Atlanta, but brick by brick the foundation slowly set. That’s plenty of talent, specifically offensive talent, to pack into one of the smaller gyms in Division-1, and it’s a group not too many teams will want to see in the NCAA Tournament’s larger arenas later on this month. The Panthers just need to earn their dancing shoes.

Right after Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson handed Coach Hunter the wood-paneled trophy commemorating a 17-1 regular season record in Sun Belt play, tying the best conference mark in school history, the coach immediately turned the crowd’s collective sights from the past to the future, repeating:

Ron Hunter knows the view from the outside-looking-in and the inside-looking-out. One is much better at this time of year. While he was guiding IUPUI into the Division-I spotlight, Hunter won both a conference tournament title (2003) and a regular season conference championship (2006). They came in separate seasons and only one got him into the NCAA Tournament; at the mid-major level, regular season titles do not provide near as much utility. Tourney wins lead to coveted automatic bids.

"I remember those (IUPUI) teams," Hunter said. "I remember when we won the league but we didn’t go to the tournament, we played our best basketball about the first week of February. We held on to win it at the end. We just held on. I don’t feel like we’ve held on to anything right now. We’re playing well."

So the Panthers will look to pull off the Sun Belt sweep in New Orleans. And once again, Georgia State is not chasing much history here.

The program boasts only one NCAA tourney win in its history — a 50-49 upset of 6-seed Wisconsin back in 2001, Driesell’s final stand with his 11th-seeded Panthers. That was the program’s pinnacle. The Badgers were just coming off a Final Four appearance, and Driesell, who won 786 career games and led four separate programs (Davidson, Maryland, James Madison, Georgia State) to tournament wins, would only coach two more seasons before retiring. It was all downhill from there, three Atlantic Sun titles in the past and bad days ahead. Until Hunter.

After the game, Hunter acknowledged that Western Kentucky was circled on the schedule — "They set the standard in this league." — but perhaps the standard is being re-set in real-time. In its first season in Sun Belt play, Georgia State toasted the competition, finishing five games up in the standings, dropping their only game by four points on the road to Troy. Hunter said that the bus ride back from Troy was silent, miserable. They went back to work, wrapping up the schedule on a seven-game winning streak. On Saturday, with that offense built to spread the floor and a defense showing zero reluctance at putting pressure on the ball from all sorts of angles, Georgia State eventually wiped the floor with the standard-bearing Hilltoppers.

Then they hoisted signs and a trophy.

"We always told ourselves: ‘We’re gonna sell this place out," White said. "We’re gonna be winners.’"

The good days have returned, but how long will they last? If Georgia State gets upset in New Orleans, its 2014 playing days are numbered, thanks in large part to the 3-6 start that will not inspire much confidence in terms of at-large relevancy.

Therein lies the balancing act for Hunter and his players over the next week: they’ve just made program history — in style — but nothing is guaranteed. There is still work to do for one of the most dangerous mid-majors in college basketball. And if all of this offense firepower and all these moving parts want a second chance against the big-name programs, this time on the biggest of stages, they’ll need to take care of business for two more games.

"I told (the team) even last night that it’s one of the strangest feelings is I think we’ve got a lot of basketball left. I’ve said it from the first day, ‘I’ve got a really good team.’ We went 17-1 in the Sun Belt. I don’t care what you do in any league you play, we were 17-1. … I thought about a week ago: ‘The team’s peaked.’ We’re at the point where we’re playing our best basketball right now."