Georgia State will make its fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament

Ron Hunter: Georgia State’s big-league mid-major coach 

Steve Spurrier, my role model in all things, used to say that if you want to know if someone can coach, look at the record. (This might fall under the heading of “no duh,” but when the Evil Genius says it, it carries the ring of truth.) So here’s Ron Hunter’s record at Georgia State. 

Over eight seasons, his Panthers are 171-94, a winning percentage of .645. They’ve won 20-plus games six times. They’re 99-49 in regular-season conference play (.669). Since leaving the Colonial for the Sun Belt, which was supposed to be an upward move, they’re 78-34 (.696). They’ve finished first in the Sun Belt three times, second twice. They’ve won the conference tournament three times in five years, and his best team was upset by Louisiana-Lafayette by one point in overtime in the 2014 final. 

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We pause for emphasis: He has done all this at Georgia STATE, which until Lefty Driesell arrived at the shank of the 20th Century was among the absolute worst Division I programs. Before Lefty, the Panthers had reached postseason play once. His teams made the NCAA in 2001 and the NIT in 2002. He resigned the next season after 10 games. GSU hoops returned to its established mediocrity. Then Hunter arrived from the unfortunately acronym’ed IUPUI, and everything changed. 

He has won three conference titles; every GSU coach before him – there were 13, not counting interims — combined to win two. He has taken the Panthers to a postseason tournament six times, double the amount of all his predecessors. He has won an NCAA tournament game, which only the Lefthander had managed, and he gets another shot at a 3-vs.-14 shock-the-world moment against Houston in Tulsa on Friday night. 

Georgia State began playing basketball in 1963. It had one winning season — that at 12-11 — before Bob Reinhart managed two in a row in 1991 (GSU’s first NCAA appearance) and 1992. It had five winning seasons under Lefty, one more under Michael Perry. Before Hunter, the Panthers had broken .500 nine times in 49 tries. He has done it seven times in eight, the exception coming in 2013. 

And we can’t ignore his time at IUPUI — eight consecutive winning seasons before he left for GSU, four 20-win seasons and one historic upset on Dec. 29, 2001, at what was then known at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. In the Jaguars’ first-ever game against an opponent from the snooty ACC, Hunter’s team beat Paul Hewitt’s Yellow Jackets 98-92. The Associated Press report referred to IUPUI as “an obscure Indianapolis school,” but that’s the Hunter footprint. He takes a team from an urban commuter college places it has never been, and you don’t do that just by rustling up some players and rolling out the basketballs. You only do that by coaching. 

To watch a Hunter team for 10 minutes is to know there’s a craftsman at work. His matchup zone, the tenets borrowed from former Temple coach John Chaney, has been the bedrock of his programs. It’s not easy to teach — a matchup zone incorporates man-to-man principles — but when done right it’s hard to crack. (Josh Pastner uses something similar at Tech.) 

He has seldom had an effective big man — that’s the downside of coaching a mid-major — but he has made do by maximizing the effect of the 3-point shot. IUPUI made 12 of 23 trey tries that night against Tech. Georgia State, per Ken Pomeroy’s data, gets 38.1 percent of its points from 3-pointers, which ranks 41st nationally; it makes 38.1 percent, which is 17th-best. If you’re looking for a formula to unseat a No. 3 seed, guarding hard and hitting over the top is among the best. 

If you’re coaching a mid-major and you notch a March upset, you get noticed. Hunter is 54, so he doesn’t quite fit the Hot Guy profile, but he’s widely respected in the industry. (He has been president of the NABC, the coaches’ organization.) After the Panthers felled Baylor in 2015, it might have been possible — wrong, but possible — for coach-searchers to see Hunter as a guy whose big moment was a byproduct of having sired his best player; we note today that the elder Hunter has made the Big Dance twice as many times without R.J. as with him. 

There’s surely a part of Hunter that yearns to see what he could do with a major program; there’s also a part that knows he has it going where he is, and there are worse places to live and work than Atlanta. He has an employer that values him immensely, a conference he can dominate and a bully pulpit for his Samaritan’s Feet charity. As perilous as it is knowing you must win your league tournament to make the field of 68, it’s not easy working in the ACC, where you can be a pretty decent team and still finish eighth and land in the NIT, as just happened with N.C. State. 

There’s no question that Hunter could coach and win in any league anywhere, and maybe if the Panthers take down Houston he’ll have that chance. But not all good coaches work in the ACC or one of the Brand Names. Rick Byrd and Bob McKillop have done just fine at Belmont and Davidson, respectively, and Hunter is doing just fine at GSU. To claim his is the best basketball program in Georgia is true but, given the in-state competition, too backhanded a compliment. His program would be the best in many states.

About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.