Hunter: Georgia State can make NCAA tournament

Ron Hunter doesn’t want fans of his Georgia State men’s basketball team to shy away from expectations, so he is putting this out there:

His team is good enough to make it to the NCAA tournament.

“It’s a good team; it’s OK to say we are going to do something,” he said. “Georgia State has really struggled in regard to accepting being good. That’s still part of the culture I’m trying to change.”

Hunter isn’t burdened by years of futility, with the two bright spots being NCAA tournament appearances in 1991 and 2001. He only knows the past two seasons, in which he has led the Panthers to a 37-28 record.

And he has several reasons to feel good about this team.

First, 11 players returned, including several scorers who are led by Sun Belt preseason all-conference selection R.J. Hunter, who averaged 17 points per game last season. Joining Hunter are forward Manny Atkins (14.2 points per game), point guard Devonta White (14.8 points, 2.8 assists per game) and combo guard Rashaad Richardson (7.3 points per game), each a senior. Also returning are forwards Markus Crider, LaRon Smith, T.J. Shipes and Denny Burguillos.

The squad was strengthened by the addition of Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow and center Curtis Washington, who sat out last season after transferring from USC.

In addition, all of Hunter’s assistants returned.

The combination resulted in Hunter saying that he finally feels comfortable coaching at Georgia State. His first season 2011 featured players, a school, a conference, a city and a state that were new to Hunter. The second featured nine new players and coaching his son, R.J., for the first time. This season features another new conference, but Hunter is familiar with everything else.

“My team will play better,” he said. “Players know what I’m doing and staff knows what I want. I’ve been trying to teach everybody about the culture I wanted. Now other people see my vision.”

There will be challenges, but Hunter doesn’t seem concerned.

First, how does he keep all of his scorers happy? He points to the exhibition game against Shorter in which 30 baskets featured 15 assists.

“From Day 1, they have been extremely unselfish,” he said. “It hasn’t been an issue.”

Second, can R.J. Hunter, his son, avoid the sophomore slump?

Hunter said Harrow will help in that regard because he and White can support some of the scoring load, or with their ability to penetrate and dish, give Hunter more open looks from the 3-point line. Harrow started at N.C. State before transferring to Kentucky and has seen a lot in college basketball.

“Ryan talks to R.J. in a way that only he can,” Hunter said. “That more than anything else will help R.J.”

Third, can the Panthers get any offensive production from any of their big men (which was a defensive strength in 2011 but a problem in most areas last year)?

Washington saw his first action in more than two years during Monday’s exhibition game and blocked eight shots. Shipes, who was very raw last season and is more of a power forward, had 11 rebounds and three blocks. Each scored in double-figures. Put the stats together and they had a triple-double.

“Last couple of years, if we played the Grady Hospital All-Stars, our guys wouldn’t have gotten a triple-double,” Hunter said.

If Hunter can get something out of some combination of the four big men, it will take the pressure off all the outside shooters.

Lastly, Hunter said the team will need a little luck and to stay healthy.

Already tabbed as a team to watch by a few national sports publications, Georgia State will get some early chances to impress at Vanderbilt on Nov. 12 and in the preseason NIT.

Hunter said the ingredients are there for a run to the NCAA tournament. And fans can talk about it.

“It’s OK to say we’re good,” Hunter said.