The Georgia State Panthers reutrn Sun Belt Conference player of the year R.J. Hunter (left).
Photo: Michael Chang
Photo: Michael Chang

Georgia State relishing being team to beat

Playing at Louisville, which received every team’s best shot, Kevin Ware experienced some unusual tactics from opponents desperate to try anything to get the upset.

The most memorable came at Villanova when, while Ware was standing at the free-throw lane, an opponent tried to untie his shorts. Failing at that, he kneeled and tried to untie Ware’s shoes.

Now at Georgia State, which is the unanimous pick to win the Sun Belt Conference and thought by some to be a damage-creator in the NCAA tournament, Ware isn’t sure if he will experience anything like “The Un-tier” again, but he knows the Panthers are going to get everyone’s best shot this season. The Panthers will open hosting Tennessee Temple on Friday.

“We always have to stay focused,” Ware said.

Georgia State seems loaded this season, definitely by Sun Belt standards and even when compared with some teams in the bigger conferences.

Already featuring conference player of the year R.J. Hunter and preseason first-team selection Ryan Harrow, who also learned a little bit about pressure as a player at Kentucky before he transferred to Georgia State, the team added Ware, who was part of Louisville’s national championship team. It also returns starting center Curtis Washington and key bench players T.J. Shipes, Markus Crider and Ryann Green and added two talented freshmen in Jordan Session and Jeff Thomas.

As a result, national publications such as Sports Illustrated and USA Today have included the Panthers in their NCAA Tournament projections.

Hunter said he hasn’t spoken to his team about the blue-and-white target that is on them, but they know and appreciate the chance.

“I’d rather get everybody’s best shot,” R.J. Hunter said. “It keeps me on my toes and my teammates on their toes knowing no game is going to be easy. That’s what great teams have to do, you have to come out every game.”

The Panthers learned a little about handling pressure last season, during which they went 17-1 in the Sun Belt.

That lone blemish during the regular-season came at Troy as the Panthers attempted to extend a school-record winning streak to 15 games in front of a national TV audience.

The next pressure test came in the Sun Belt tournament championship game, when the Panthers coughed up an 11-point lead in the final five minutes of regulation in an 82-81 overtime loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.

That is why Hunter is stressing to his players that they will not play their best in November. In fact, while he wants them to attempt to win every game he would rather they play and learn so that they will peak at the right time — in March.

“We can’t go right to March 15,” Hunter said of the date of the Sun Belt’s tournament championship game. “We just can’t do it. What you have to do is grind it out and get better. What happens between now and then will take care of itself.”

There will be ample opportunity. After hosting Tennessee Temple, the Panthers will play their next six games on the road, with stops at Iowa State and Colorado State.

Those who have been in these bull’s-eye situations before understand Hunter’s instructions.

“I’m telling them to take it one game at a time,” Harrow said. “Don’t make any game bigger than another because it will put too much pressure on you. Do what you do best listen to coach and we will be OK.”

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