Earlier in the week, Hunter said, “They (the Bearcats) are staying at the Hyatt; we’re staying at the Comfort Inn. They’re eating at Ruth’s Chris; we’re eating at Wendy’s.”
On Thursday, he offered a slight correction. “We’re not staying at a Comfort Inn.” (For the record, the Panthers are being housed at a Sheraton. Though they did eat at Wendy’s on the way back from New Orleans and their Sun Belt triumph.)
Then: “For us to eat at Ruth’s Chris, we’ve got to beat a team like that.”
Then: “I’ve got a great deal of respect for Cincinnati. Mick (Cronin, the Bearcats’ coach) and I have been friends for a long time. I haven’t spoken to Mick in a while because he wanted to recruit my son, who wanted to go to Cincinnati. I had to hate Mick in my household until R.J. actually committed to me. He liked Mick for some reason. He came home one day and said he was he was going to play at Cincinnati.”
Also for the record, R.J. Hunter matriculated at Georgia State. When last the Panthers made the Big Dance, the younger Hunter’s climactic 3-pointer undid No. 3-seed Baylor and sent his father, who tore his Achilles five days earlier in celebration of a Sun Belt title, tumbling from his rolling chair on the sideline. (The chair, you should know, has made the trip here. Said Hunter: “It was kept in a private place at the school and we decided, ‘Let’s just bring it.’”)
This correspondent asked Hunter if he felt his team had a real shot at this No. 2 seed. His answer – fair warning – went on awhile.
“I don’t care who we play, I believe we have a shot. I don't believe in seedings. That’s coach-speak. People say we don’t like our seeding. We're happy to be here. As I said before, the NCAA tournament is getting to the point where there won’t be any mid-majors. We’re just happy to be here. Cincinnati is a great team. For me, I didn’t know -- when we played Baylor, I wasn’t worried about the seeding or who we played.
“My kids play with a chip on their shoulder. I coach that way. I feel like every time I coach, I’ve got something to prove. Again, as much as I respect and I love Mick, I feel like I got something to prove because he’s coaching at Cincinnati. If it was Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, I would feel the same way. I make sure our kids understand that and that’s part of the comment about the hotel. When you’re a mid-major, we don’t get some of those things. Those kids weren’t recruited by Mick. They weren’t recruited by the ACC.
“This is a stage you can prove that. This is a stage for coach Hunter to prove that he can coach against the best coaches. I told them this morning, ‘If you’re really good, I’ll see how good you are Friday at 2 p.m. I said it differently to R.J. I said, ‘I don’t think you can play with these guys. I think this is a tough level for you.’ He got so mad at me, he won a game and said, ‘Dad, I’m going pro, now what?’ That kind of backfired on me.
“The seeding, we never talk about it. I could care less about the seeding. All we want to do is play. Man, I can’t wait. Even the guys, they walked in (to Bridgestone Arena), they were like kids in a candy store. They were excited. They’re glad to be here. That's how I want the kids to play.
“We don't lock ’em up in the rooms. We’re going to enjoy this. We’re going to find out who country music stars are. We’re going to enjoy Nashville. When I was in the NCAA tournament, we won three times. I don’t remember it. Our coaches locked us in. I couldn’t tell the guys what it was like as a player because I stayed in the hotel, played the game. That's all I did.
“I want my players, when they’re my age, they’re saying when we were in Jacksonville, in Nashville, we did this. We’re going to be loose, we're going to be fun. I still don't know any country artists in the world. (The moderator) gave me one – the Garth Brooks guy, right? I do know one, Garth Brooks. My first answer was Luther Vandross. I thought he was country. I was wrong. I want my guys to have fun. We're going to enjoy. More importantly, at 2 p.m., you're going to see a group that's going to play hard and is going to believe they can win the game.”
That approach worked against Baylor in Jacksonville in 2015. It could work again against Cincinnati on Friday. Hunter has a good little team with a terrific guard in D’Marcus Simonds and a fearless shooter in Devin Mitchell. The rolling chair is on site. This could happen again.
There was, however, one person who won’t be rooting for the Panthers. “I hope I don’t get another coach like that,” one of the official transcribers said after Hunter’s session. “He talks really fast.”