With 1:35 left in a game gone badly and sadly wrong, Ron Hunter pulled his seniors and let them have their moment. The three of them – Malik Benlevi, Jeff Thomas and Devin Mitchell – joined each other in a three-way hug. When Georgia State's season ended moments later, the three walked over to the few Panthers fans who made the trek to BOK Center and waved their thanks.
Amy Hunter, Ron’s wife, was in the front row. She was weeping.
Not to put too fine a point on a night that was scrawled in bleeding ink – Houston overran Georgia State 84-55 in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional here Friday – but this felt like the end of something. It felt even more that way when junior guard D'Marcus Simonds said in the team's media briefing, "Chances are I probably won't be back at Georgia State." And then, standing outside his locker room, Hunter was asked if he plans to coach the Panthers next season.
His answer: “I’m going to take 48 hours to decide my future.”
As Hunter spoke, GSU athletic director Charlie Cobb stood five feet away. Hunter’s phone was buzzing in his pocket. “My agent,” he said. Put simply, this 54-year-old coach will never be hotter than now, having lifted Georgia State from oblivion to the NCAA tournament three times in five years. If he’s going to make a move, it needs to be now. And his disinclination to state a renewed commitment to the program he has led since 2011 suggests it will be now.
If Friday’s game was indeed Hunter’s last, it was a tepid farewell. The Panthers trailed 15-3 after 4-1/2 minutes, prompting Hunter to call a timeout before the first media stoppage arrived. They steadied a bit, drawing within five late in the first half. Halftime saw the Cougars ahead 40-31. Not three minutes into the second half, Georgia State trailed 50-33 and Hunter was burning another TO. This time the game was gone.
This was a matchup Hunter actually liked. He felt Houston, a No. 3 seed, had cracks that could be exploited. Only one was: Star guard Armoni Brooks was held to one basket, that coming with 2:20 to play. Alas, his backcourt mate Corey Davis mustered 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists. When Davis wasn’t raining 3-pointers over Georgia State’s matchup zone, the Cougars’ big men – who aren’t very big by college standards but are massive compared with GSU’s – were wreaking havoc underneath.
Rebounds: Houston 51, Georgia State 27. Points in the paint: Houston 40, Georgia State 20. Good night, thanks for playing.
“I’m pretty sick about it,” Simonds said. “But it’s basketball. You win some, you lose some. This doesn’t tell the whole story about us.”
No, it doesn’t. Under Hunter, Georgia State became the bellcow of the Sun Belt. Trouble is, the Sun Belt is among those one-NCAA-bid mid-majors, which is a fraught way to live. Every season begins with the knowledge that, no matter how good you are, one misstep in the conference tournament can deal you out of the Big Dance.
Contrast that with, say, Tulane. The Green Wave haven’t been relevant in basketball for years – they dropped the sport for a while after the Hot Rod Williams point-shaving scandal – but they’re based in the American Athletic Conference, same as Houston and four other teams that gained entrée to this NCAA tournament. Also: Tulane has an opening, having just gone 0-18 in league play and fired coach Mike Dunleavy. It’s a fixer-upper, but it’s a fixer-upper in a conference that has clout.
“I cannot tell you how proud I am of these guys,” Hunter said by way of an opening comment. Later, however, he conceded: “When I first took the job here, we had moral victories. I don’t believe in those now. Yes, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in how we played.”
Then: “We played a team that’s 31-3. They didn’t just walk into that record.”
Of Simonds’ intention to make his name available for the NBA draft, Hunter said: “It’s time. He’s going to make a lot of money playing this game. Coming back, it’s the same thing I told R.J. (Hunter’s son, who left GSU after his junior season): I’m not quite sure what he can come back to at Georgia State.”
The same could be said for R.J.’s dad. Until Friday night, Hunter got great mileage from this team. He invariably does. He’s a showman, yes, and his referring to Houston coach Kelvin Sampson as “Grandpa” on Thursday didn’t appear to sit well with his night’s adversary, but he’s also a shrewd coach. In the Sun Belt, however, all the shrewdness in the world won’t get you to the Dance if you stumble in the league final.
Counting Simonds, four of his top six players will be gone. That’s not quite starting over, but it’s close. At 54, Hunter is at that point where he either finds a new challenge or he settles in for the rest of his career at Georgia State. For the sake of Atlanta basketball, it would nice for him to stick around. For his sake, he needs to see what else is out there.
Maybe he’ll get an offer and weigh the pros and cons and decide to go nowhere. Given the vibe of Friday night, it would be a surprise if he’s back.