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Why Georgia State is the season's best, and most interesting, mid-major

Author:
Ron Hunter

Ron Hunter

ATLANTA — To the outside, Ron Hunter shouldn’t feel queasy when he sees the leading figures of his Georgia State basketball team.

On a team that went 17-1 in the Sun Belt last season, Hunter has a five-star, top-20 recruit at point guard. He has guard who played on a national championship team. He has an NBA Draft prospect at shooting guard.

For a program that’s had two winning seasons in the last decade and one NCAA Tournament berth since 2001, Georgia State should like its odds with that lot.

A team that rolled through its conference last year should do so again with that kind of team. At the same time, the foundation of that team knows nothing is certain, nothing is easy.

Another way to describe those three is the following: A washout who was the point guard of the worst Kentucky team the last five years, a guard recovering from the most publicly horrific college basketball injury in recent memory and, not least of which, the coach’s son.

Georgia State has talent and experience in Ryan Harrow, Kevin Ware and R.J. Hunter but also a group that’s taken the long road to find a spot it can thrive.

“My first year here, I wasn’t stressed,” Hunter told Athlon Sports. “I’m stressed now. I saw Ryan Harrow, R.J. and Kevin Ware on campus the other day, and my stomach started turning. I can’t mess this thing up.”

Georgia State is not only one of the best mid-majors in the country but also one of the most compelling teams of the 351 playing Division I basketball.

The Panthers start their season tonight at Iowa State, a program known in recent years for its open doors for wayward souls. The Cyclones have nothing on this group.

Let’s start with the newest arrival.

When Kevin Ware returned to Atlanta, he and Hunter didn’t talk much about why he landed at Georgia State after coming off the bench as a sophomore for an eventual national champion at Louisville.

This is a new Kevin Ware, his coach told him. Not the Kevin Ware from Louisville. Not the Kevin Ware whose worst moment was broadcast on television on the largest stage.

Then Paul George happened.

In an August Team USA exhibition, the Indiana Pacers wing chased down James Harden in transition, his right leg landing in the wrong spot in the support beneath the basket. On camera, a break was evident. A hinge where there shouldn’t be one. Bone touching air.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of college basketball could summon two words — Kevin Ware.

Too fresh in our minds was Ware in the 2013 Elite Eight against Duke. Taking a jump shot, Ware landed in a way that produced the same injury, also on national television.

Ware tweeted support for George, but at the same time, he was reliving his own injury. With all the public weight of his injury at Louisville behind him, Ware progressed in his first two months at Georgia State after a year in limbo.

Ware rushed back to play for Louisville the following season, but getting kicked in the leg against Missouri State essentially ended his comeback season. He played 53 minutes in nine games before shutting down and transferring to Georgia State. The parting with Louisville was easy, Ware said.

Louisville regrouped around Ware in 2013 and won a national championship. He’s still close with many of the players on this year’s team, but continuing at Louisville and Rick Pitino in 2013-14 was impossible.

“It was hard for him to coach,” Ware told Athlon Sports. “I honestly felt he couldn’t coach me at that point because he was so concerned about my leg.”

So was the media. Ware not only watched George sustain a similarly gruesome injury, Ware felt an obligation to take media requests to share his own recovery. 

Between his injury and the George incident, Ware had connected on Twitter and Instagram with many younger basketball players suffering traumatic injuries since his own, but never this public and never in such a similar situation.

Reliving his experience came at the expense of his own progress.

Georgia State was in a practice period at the same time as George’s injury. Ware, described by his high school friend Harrow as fearless, suddenly was playing free throw line to free throw line.

Ware was in the same frame of mind when Georgia State took an eight-day trip to Costa Rica for four exhibition games.

In the third possession of the first game, Ware had his leg clipped by a Costa Rican player. He fell into a wall. Ron Hunter held back a trainer. The game was still in live play, and Ware sprung back onto the court. From there, Ware was back.

Now, Ron Hunter says Ware is a better athlete than he was in high school at Rockdale County southeast of Atlanta.

“It seemed like he wasn’t thinking; he was just reacting,” teammate R.J. Hunter told Athlon Sports. “I’m sure that dude had 40 steals in those games. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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Ware wouldn’t have landed at Georgia State if not for his Atlanta AAU buddy, Ryan Harrow.

That’s a statement in itself. When Harrow landed at NC State as a top-20 recruit for coach Sidney Lowe in 2010, he couldn’t imagine being at his third school. Other point guards in his class included No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving at Duke and NBA Draft lottery picks Kendall Marshall at North Carolina and Brandon Knight at Kentucky.

“I didn’t think I’d be in college this long,” Harrow told Athlon Sports.

After Lowe was fired at NC State, Harrow transferred to Kentucky where he sat out for a season due to NCAA rules. The Wildcats won the 2012 national championship with Harrow on the bench.

When Harrow took over at point guard, Calipari was enjoying an unbroken record of standout point guards from Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to John Wall to Brandon Knight to Marquis Teague.

Harrow may have had trouble filling those shoes under ideal circumstances, but outside factors made it impossible. In Georgia, Harrow’s father, Mark Harrow, suffered a stroke in the June before the point guard’s lone season at Kentucky.

The mental toll of his father’s ill health and his struggles on the court were only magnified by the scope of attention at Kentucky. He went scoreless in February home games against Florida and Tennessee. He shot 2-of-14 in a loss to Vanderbilt in an SEC tournament loss that banished Kentucky to the NIT. He scored five points in a loss to Robert Morris. 

A season that started in the top three of the AP poll ended with a one-and-done in the NIT against a team from the Northeast Conference.

“It wasn’t as if Ryan came in here and it just worked,” Ron Hunter said. “When you get a kid who was at Kentucky and comes to Georgia State, you’ve got a lot you’ve got work through.

“What Ryan Harrow went through wasn’t injury, but he was beat down at Kentucky. I don’t know if you can be beat down any more.”

Beyond repairing his confidence, Harrow also began to encounter his father’s recovery head on. The stress of being helpless to aid his father was replaced by watching his father’s day-to-day challenges.

Harrow was eligible immediately to play at Georgia State last season, but he wasn’t ready to play at a high level. The Panthers started 3-6, only one win over a Division I team.

Eventually, Harrow returned to the form that was familiar to Ware, his teammate with the Atlanta Celtics. Georgia State won 22 of 23 games, and Harrow averaged 17.8 points per game and earned All-Sun Belt honors.

“When he came home, he came back to life,” Ware said. “I’m not used to seeing the Ryan that was at NC State or at UK. That wasn’t Ryan at all. When he came to Georgia State, coach let him play.”

The toughest challenge for Hunter, though, hasn’t been working to repair the confidence of Harrow and Ware.

“The hardest part of this has been as a father,” Hunter said. “I hope when this is all said and done, I don’t say, ‘Man, what happened with my son?’ That’s what I’m trying to balance a little better.”

With National Player of the Year Doug McDermott gone from his father’s program at Creighton, the Hunters are the most notable father-son duo in college basketball.

Of Georgia State’s top three players this season, R.J. Hunter was the first to arrive in Atlanta. R.J. was a three-star recruit with offers from a handful of mid-tier major conference programs, but he elected to follow his father to Georgia State where he was the Sun Belt player of the year last season.

Ron Hunter never coached his son in a game until Georgia State’s 2012-13 opener at Duke. Growing up, Ron always gave R.J. a choice of getting “coach” or getting “dad.” Most of the time, R.J. chose “dad.” Now, he doesn’t get a say in the matter.

Neither party, though, could say they were unprepared for the father-son/coach-player experience.

Ray McCallum, who coached his son a Detroit, is R.J. Hunter’s godfather. R.J. also spent time talking to Bryce Drew, who played for his father at Valparaiso.

“At one AAU tournament, he pulled me aside and said, ‘look, it’s going to be tough, but it was the best four years of my life playing for my dad,’” R.J. Hunter said. “‘If you can make it work, you can make magic.’”

Magic at Georgia State will take work, though.

Georgia State enjoyed a banner season a year ago before losing to UL Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament. The Panthers lost their NIT opener to Clemson. The margin of error for a Sun Belt team is slim.

The Panthers are replacing two starters who averaged double figures last season. One new starter, forward Curtis Washington, is a transfer from USC, who also came as a project with “two bad shoulders.” A freshman may end up taking the final spot in the starting lineup.

And Hunter isn’t ruling out another round of Ware reliving his trauma from Louisville as more attention comes to Ware’s season.

The pieces, they hope, are in place — a lights out shooter in Hunter, a floor general in Harrow, a defensive game-changer in Ware.

“I feel like we’ve got the best 1-2-3 punch in the country,” Ware said. “We all have a different game but we all complement each other so well.”

Images courtesy of Georgia State athletics