Father and son have NCAA hopes for GSU Panthers
By Titus Falodun Staff Writer | 3/14/2014, 11:24 a.m.
ATLANTA – With one dream and 15 players, the Georgia State University’s men’s basketball team is 80 minutes away from an NCAA tournament berth.
The Panthers have already claimed the regular season Sun Belt Conference title, with a 17-1 conference record (24-7 overall), with a award-winning roster, featuring four recently honored all-conference players: R.J. Hunter (Sun Belt Player of the Year), Manny Atkins, Ryan Harrow, and Devonta White.
“We’ll turn in all the individuals awards right now for a chance to go to the NCAA tournament,” Head Coach Ron Hunter told The Atlanta Voice, following the team’s last practice Wednesday, March 12, before leaving for the conference tournament in New Orleans the following afternoon.
Despite earning the Sun Belt Coach of the Year honor, the third-year coach is not interested in the growing hype or spotlight; his focus is making sure his team is poised and determined to prove itself in the Big Easy.
It’s been quite a journey since Hunter’s first home game as the Panthers’ coach, when vacant seats were overwhelmingly the spectators. Now, students and patrons alike are being turned away at the ticket gate, because the place packed.
This season alone serves as a microcosm of Hunter’s tenure, as the team started out with more losses than wins, due to the struggles of finding chemistry with new additions (i.e. transfers) and returning players adjusting to new roles.
Now, the Panthers are going to need to shine all weekend long at the Sun Belt Conference tournament, in order to transfer regular season triumph into postseason glory.
That’s where Hunter’s star player and son, R.J., comes into play.
The 6-6-sophomore guard leads the team in scoring with 18.5 points per game, in addition to grabbing 4.6 rebounds per game, earning him first-team all-conference honors for the second consecutive year.
“Just to see the hard work pay off right in front of your face, there’s no feeling like it,” R.J. told The Atlanta Voice. “For me to enjoy that here, with my family around me, that’s special.”
It’s a family affair for R.J. on and off the court.
“I don’t score without screens and passes, so all my credit goes to my teammates,” he said. “They really care about me getting open and getting shots.”
And when he gets open, he gets BUCKETS!
He has made 92 3-pointers this season, just two shy of the school record. He also ranks in the top-20 in the NCAA in 3-point and free throw percentage.
R.J. may have the scoring part down, but it’s going to take a total team effort on both ends of the hardwood to turn an NCAA dream into reality.
The pressure is on, but guess who is not going to crack?
“We all think like a veteran team, I think that’s why our team is so good, because we have a lot of guys that’s playing for the same things and playing for the same reasons,” Panthers forward Manny Atkins, who earned second team all-conference honors for the first time in his career, told The Atlanta Voice.
The redshirt senior, who averages 14.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, is not about to let this last chance to enter the “Big Dance” slip away.
“With this being my last year, there wouldn’t be a better way to go out,” Atkins said.
The ball is in your court, Panthers. Game on.
Follow Titus Falodun, The Atlanta Voice journalist at @titusfalodun.