More than six months since the loss that effectively ended the season of Georgia State’s men’s basketball team, coach Ron Hunter gathered his players together Thursday morning to watch the last three minutes of that defeat to Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament.
The Panthers held a nine-point lead with 3:02 left, only to see the Ragin Cajuns rally to nip them 82-81 in overtime. The Panthers then lost to Clemson in the NIT, but the goal was the NCAA tournament, a legitimate hope after the Panthers dominated the Sun Belt with a 17-1 record.
So, Hunter and the team finally watched the final 182 seconds again.
It was the first time he watched the game.
He said the locker room was silent.
Hunter then destroyed the tape.
“You can’t replay March 16 in October,” he said.
Hunter and the Panthers will begin the process of trying to make it to the NCAA tournament when practice starts on Friday.
The team returns leading-scorer and Sun Belt player of the year R.J. Hunter (18.3 points per game), second-leading scorer Ryan Harrow (17.8 points per game), starting center Curtis Washington, key reserves Markus Crider, Ryann Green and T.J. Shipes and added Louisville transfer Kevin Ware.
Hunter took a few minutes Thursday to answer a few questions. The questions and answers have been edited or paraphrased for clarity.
Q: What are your goals before the regular season opens on Nov. 14 against Tennessee Temple at the Sports Arena?
A: Our No. 1 goal is to keep chemistry with the new guys. There are two-three new guys will be in the top eight or nine. We need to continue the chemistry we developed during our trip this summer to Costa Rica. We started last year slowly because of the chemistry. After a while it clicked and we got it going. I would like for that to happen a little bit faster this year.
Q: Who do you see in that top eight to nine?
A: Our normal guys: R.J., Harrow, Ware, Markus, (freshman) Jeff Thomas, Curt, T.J. Everyone else in the program is trying to figure out those last two spots. That’s what those guys are doing.
Who starts? I’m not sure, but we need to find two more guys into that rotation.
Q: Every year you see you are going to open the bench and every year it shrinks. What do you see this year that makes you think you will go nine deep?
A: It’s like a New Year’s resolution: I’m going to have a longer bench this year. I think it will happen this year. But I go on trust and what makes me feel good. I’d rather have a tired R.J. or Ryan than a fresh whoever.
Q: With Washington out at least two more weeks after having hernia surgery, who steps in at center?
A: Right now, T.J. is in that spot. That’s the only downer with Curt out is it messes up our chemistry. Whether he starts or comes off the bench he’s a big part of what we do. T.J. has had the best summer of anybody in my program. He’ll get reps, (freshman Jordan) Session will get reps at the 5 and Markus can get that action.
Q: Now, the past two years you’ve singled out one of the big men as having a really good summer, and then the season starts and they don’t shine as brightly as it seemed they would. What is Shipes doing that makes you think that will change this year?
A: Now, Curt did what I thought he would end up doing last year. The light switch has gone off for T.J. He knows what he’s doing. First two years he had no idea what he was doing. He will still make mistakes but he knows his strengths.
Q: What are his strengths?
A: Energy and rebounding the ball. If he brings that football mentality to this team we will be unbelievable. We need that toughness. He has that and we need it consistently form him.
Q: How has Ware looked since coming back from Costa Rica?
A: He is by far 100 percent ready to play. When he got here he was mentally 40 percent ready. Now he’s 80 percent ready. He’s had a great summer. The rest of it will come with time with being back on the floor, where he’s trusting his body and his game.
Q: Because of last year, this year’s team is already being tabbed as one to watch. What are your expectations?
A: Since I’ve come into this program we haven’t shied away from expectations. Our goals are much higher than what anybody puts on us. We know what we are and what we want to do. We talked about our goals this morning and we decided as a group we wouldn’t tell anyone what our goals are. Predictions are just predictions.
Q: How is R.J.’s health after being banged up toward the end of last season?
A: I think R.J. is physically the best I’ve ever seen. He’s at 190 pounds. Much stronger, confidence is up. He doesn’t look like some little kid that just started playing basketball. He’s worked on his body. He came in at 168 – we told everybody 175 — and he’s up to 190 and looks good.