It was only 13 games, but Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said he feels like he has coached two different teams this season.
There’s the squad that started 2-5, with losses at Alabama and at Vanderbilt. And there’s the squad that rebounded to win five of its next six games to lift the Panthers to 7-6 and provide new hope of NCAA tournament possibilities as the Sun Belt Conference portion of the schedule begins Thursday against Troy (5-7) at the GSU Sports Arena.
“The first felt like a glorified AAU team,” Hunter said. “We had talent, but no defined roles. After the (Florida International) game, we came together and figured out what we wanted to do.”
Though the Panthers returned a lot of starters and bench players from last season’s team, they were trying to integrate two new players in guard Ryan Harrow and center Curtis Washington into the lineup.
Hunter said it took time for everyone, including the coaches, to learn what was needed on offense and defense.
The defense particularly struggled in the opening stretch of games as guards were easily — Hunter would say too easily — able to get into the free-throw lane to create havoc.
Opponents made 47.3 percent of their shots, including 41.6 percent of their 3-pointers.
“We want you to shoot 3s,” Hunter said. “We just don’t want you to make them.”
Hunter said the coaches, like the players, needed to make adjustments and they tried some significant changes, including pure man-to-man defense. That didn’t last long before coaches made subtle changes.
In the past six games, the Panthers limited opponents to 42.3 percent shooting, including 34.7 percent of their 3-pointers. Hunter said field-goal percentage is the stat he most pays attention to as a measure of the effectiveness of his team’s defense.
“Early, it was awful, but that’s part of it,” he said. “When you play a team defense, it’s not about what you do defensively (as individuals).”
Hunter said the team isn’t going to play defense as well as he wants because, unlike his first team at Georgia State, it isn’t blessed with great individual defenders. Collectively, he said they can be good.
“Am I going to be thrilled by it? Nope,” Hunter said. “But it’s getting there in terms of winning a championship.”
The offense wasn’t poor in the first seven games — the Panthers averaged 78.1 points — but it became disjointed during the four consecutive losses to Alabama, Canisius, Elon and Florida International. The team averaged almost 10 fewer points per game (68.5), and the shooters, a group that includes Manny Atkins and R.J. Hunter, had trouble finding their spots.
Hunter made the decision to put the ball back into the hands of senior point guard Devonta White for the majority of games, instead of having him split that duty with Harrow.
The offense, particularly Atkins and Hunter, is clicking again. The Panthers averaged 79.3 points in the past six games. In the past two, in which Hunter scored 41 points against Texas-San Antonio and Atkins followed with 27 against East Carolina, the Panthers averaged 94 points.
To keep it up and have a chance to get off to a good start in Sun Belt games, Hunter said the Panthers need to focus only on the next game. After being picked by many in the preseason as a team to watch in the NCAA tournament, Hunter said they may have gotten caught up in the hype.
“The great part of where we are at now, is we are getting better, but not close to where we should be,” he said. “This group hasn’t come close to hitting that ceiling yet.”