It has been a big week for Georgia State basketball coach Ron Hunter – or Gramps, if you prefer.
Last Thursday his daughter gave birth to his first grandchild. And while he has failed in his campaign to find some acceptable feminine variation of “Ron” to name his granddaughter, Hunter remains ever hopeful. “I don’t know if they signed a birth certificate yet, so I got one more shot,” he said earlier this week.
The one her parents have chosen seems quite fitting enough, a name that is the very symbol of the city whose bosom Georgia State occupies – Phoenix.
Georgia State thus has gained another fan. Even if this is not exactly the pace of growth the coach envisions, it is growth nonetheless.
Others may follow, as his Panthers have continued to win lately, nine consecutive at last count.
The search for meaningful college basketball in metro Atlanta will take a person to roads less traveled.
The glamor game may come Sunday, when the Duke dynasty visits Georgia Tech and engineering students get their biennial chance to yell stupid stuff at Mike Krzyzewski.
But there are bigger games being played on smaller stages before that, games that lack brand-name recognition but not relative importance.
How about a game between two conference rivals who haven’t lost yet in 2018?
That would be Georgia State (18-6 overall, 9-2 in the Sun Belt Conference) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (20-3, 10-0) Thursday night inside the Panthers’ cozy walk-up gym. While neither team is going to get a NCAA Tournament invite short of winning its conference tournament, this regular-season game remains a big barometric reading for both programs. It’s reality check time for Panthers and Ragin’ Cajuns alike.
The suggestion that he just might be hosting the biggest game in town makes Hunter smile. “One of the things I wanted to do when I built this was make Georgia State relevant in the state of Georgia. Not everyone sees that. When we’re at the point that everyone sees that then I’ve arrived with this program,” he said.
“This is the only time of year you can get away from college football and the NFL where the focus becomes basketball. When the focus becomes basketball, I want to make sure we’re extremely relevant.”
As in 2015, when Georgia State was the last state team to win a game in the NCAA tourney, it has a dynamic individual scorer. Then, it was the coach’s son, R.J. Hunter. Now it is the completely unrelated D’Marcus Simonds, the Sun Belt’s leading scorer.
There’s also this: “Defense,” Hunter said. “Our defense has been unbelievable. Eight of our last 10 games we’ve held teams under 40 percent (shooting). That’s an incredible number. We’ve got great shooters, and we shoot the ball well. But we’ve been winning games when we don’t shoot the ball well. That’s why I really like this team. That’s why I think this team can go win three games in the conference tournament because defensively we’re the best team in the league, and we’re one of the top 50 teams in the country defensively right now.”
For as long as Hunter coaches at Georgia State, every team will be judged according to the one that so dramatically beat Baylor in the first round of 2015 (on a Hunter heave that knocked his father clean out of his seat).
The coach wants you to know that this team stands up nicely to that one. Coaching at a place like Georgia State, where his program gets too easily lost amid the other distractions of the city, Hunter’s lot is to be perpetually selling. Part of his job is to work the urban campus, pitching his product to the students. They require constant prodding.
Hunter’s current message is that this is a team demanding your attention.
“That (2015) team became a really good defensive team late. This team has been a great defensive team all year-round. This team could go guard that team. We have that star player like we had with R.J., but we got a better all-around team. We’ve got almost five guys averaging double figures, we only had two that year. We’re more balanced.
“Coaching my son was the hardest thing I’ve ever done since I’ve been coaching. I’m actually enjoying this right now. I’m having a lot of fun with this group.”
He’s hoping for a full house in the Panthers 3,800-capacity place, and they should come close.
Oh, there’s another gym that will be jumping that same night, just down the street. How about a game between literal neighbors who are competing for high ground in Division II, when 20-2 Clark Atlanta hosts 19-1 Morehouse (both top 16 teams in the coaches poll)?
There is meaningful basketball to be had in these parched parts, if you just look hard enough.