Last spring, guard Kevin Ware made the decision to transfer from Louisville and ultimately wound up at Georgia State where he plays for head coach Ron Hunter Sr. Of course Ware became a national story as a sophomore at Louisville, when his season came to an end in the first half of their Elite Eight win over Duke due to a broken shinbone suffered challenging a Tyler Thornton three-pointer.
But that moment became a bit of a burden for Ware, who wanted nothing more than to be discussed for what he was able to do on the court as opposed to the injury he suffered. Among the topics discussed in a story written by Thomas Lake of Sports Illustratedwere the circumstances surrounding Ware’s decision to leave Louisville after redshirting in 2013-14.
Ware has another explanation for his departure: He was tired of being treated like damaged goods. Sometimes it felt as if the sight of the injury was more traumatic than the injury itself — as if his coaches and teammates never quite recovered from Ware’s broken leg. In practice, when he went up for a layup or a blocked shot, he could hear the nervous silence.
“It got annoying after a while,” he says, “and I just really wanted to come home.”
That’s certainly understandable, and the decision is just one part of the story told about a player who is an important contributor for a team looking to reach the NCAA tournament. On a team led by high-scoring seniors R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow, Ware’s averaging 8.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
Hunter and Harrow are undoubtedly going to receive a lot of attention from opposing teams, which makes Ware’s role of supplementary scoring option an important one as Lake writes in his story. Georgia State has won three of its last four games, and in all three wins Ware’s managed to score in double figures (he scored just two points in a loss at Appalachian State).
Similar to his stint at Louisville, it’s taken Ware some time to find his footing within Ron Hunter’s system. And if he can build upon his recent play, Ware could be instrumental in getting the Panthers to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
Georgia State rebuilds after devastating Sun Belt tourney loss
Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and without turning this into a physics lecture that you slept through in college, that’s essentially why your hand hurts after you punch a wall.
That law is easily applicable to March Madness. For every “One Shining Moment,” there is an equal and opposite moment of heartache. For all the jubilation and excitement that comes with thrilling comeback and buzzer-beating bucket, there is a team on the other bench that just had their hearts ripped out.
Every loss in March is devastating, but there may not have been one that hurt more than the loss that Georgia State suffered against Louisiana in the Sun Belt tournament title game a year ago. After a rough start to the year, the Panthers completely dominated the conference, finishing league play 17-1, a full five games in front of the team in second place. There really wasn’t a question about who the best team in the conference was. Georgia State was deserving of the Sun Belt’s automatic bid, but they still had to win the Sun Belt tournament title before they’d get a chance to dance.
With three minutes left in the title game, Georgia State was in complete control, leading Louisiana by nine. But the Panthers blew that lead, allowing the Ragin’ Cajuns to end regulation on an 11-2 run and force overtime when Shawn Long grabbed an offensive rebound and found a teammate for a layup with 1.4 seconds left. In the extra frame, the Panthers blew another lead and lost when star guard Ryan Harrow, who finished that day with 37 points, missed a jumper at the buzzer.
Georgia State was headed to the NIT.
“We should have gone to the tournament,” Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter told NBCSports.com this week. “We had a great year. We just had a bad seven minutes.”
Hunter locked up the film of those seven minutes for the entire offseason. No one on Georgia State — not Hunter, not his staff, not the team — watched tape of their collapse throughout the offseason, which was part of Hunter’s plan.
“First time we ever watched the Lafayette ending was the first thing we did the first day of practice,” Hunter said. “You could hear a pin drop. I didn’t coach it. I didn’t say anything. I told my assistants not to say anything. I wanted to see the kid’s reactions to it. They didn’t know it was coming.”
The film session that day may have been silent, but the first practice was a different story. It was intense. It was physical. It was chippy. There were a couple fights, which isn’t always a bad thing. The way Hunter tells it, that day set a new tone for the team and gave the program a new motto: Unfinished Business.
“I don’t think we handled [the loss] yet,” Hunter said. “Our whole target since we started lifting weights and working back in the spring is that we have unfinished business. We got to the NIT, we were excited about that. It wasn’t our goal, but what it did was made our guys hungrier.”
The Panthers will have a great opportunity to get to the NCAA tournament this season. Not only do they bring back Harrow, who you might forget was a top 40 recruit after the season that he had at Kentucky in 2012-13, but leading scorer and potential NBA Draft pick R.J. Hunter is back as well. Throw in the return of big man Curtis Washington and the addition of former Louisville guard Kevin Ware, the the Panthers have the look of a team that will be better this season than they were a season ago.
The team can sense it, Hunter says, and it comes through in the way that they have worked in practice. The community can sense it as well. Georgia State hosted a Midnight Madness event this week. It was close to sold out. When Hunter first took over in Atlanta there were only a couple of hundred people that showed up. “Our last few games, you couldn’t even get a ticket at our place,” he said. “We don’t even have a big place, but we have less than 75 season tickets left in our building. It’s incredible.”
The students are into it, but, more importantly, the city is starting to get behind the Panthers. Part of the reason for that is the presence of Harrow and Ware on the roster. Both are Atlanta natives who are well-known in the city after decorated high school careers. Ware and Hunter are talented kids, but it’s their hometown that made them such a priority for Hunter to recruit.
“We’ve got guys from the city that people recognize and know and are going to come to games,” Hunter said.
“Bobby Cremins … made Atlanta a basketball city. When I took this job, I said I wanted to turn Atlanta into a basketball city again.”
2014-2015 Season Preview: Georgia State is the heavy-favorite in the Sun Belt again
The power in the Sun Belt will once again lie in Atlanta. In 2013-2014, during just their second season in the conference, Georgia State steam-rolled through the regular season. They went 17-1 in league play and had the look of a program that was going to give some high seed nightmares. That was until they ran into Louisiana in the Sun Belt title game, blowing a nine-point lead in the final three minutes before losing in overtime.
The Panthers are looking for redemption this season, and they bring back enough talent that they should be the overwhelming favorites to get it. Ryan Harrow, who a former top 40 recruit that played at both N.C. State and Kentucky, starred for the Panthers last year. He’ll be joined in the back court by former top 50 recruit and Louisville guard Kevin Ware this season. Oh, and the best player on the team is sharpshooter R.J. Hunter. Georgia State is loaded. Period.
Their biggest challenger will likely be Louisiana once again. That’s because the Ragin’ Cajuns have another future NBA draft pick on their roster. Shawn Long may not be a top ten pick like Elfrid Payton was, but he is a 6-foot-10 big man that blocks a lot of shots, averaged 18.6 points and can hit threes. Oklahoma State transfer Brian Williams will provide a jolt of athleticism and toughness on the wing, but the x-factor will end up being Xavian Rimmer, a senior guard that played his best basketball late in the season and during the Sun Belt tournament.
Those two teams are probably a cut above the rest of the conference, but there are some capable teams in the league. Georgia Southern will be one to keep an eye on. There are a couple question marks — namely, how will GSU adjust to a new conference and just how long Eric Ferguson will be suspended for his offseason legal troubles — but if all goes according to plan, the Eagles return star guard Jelani Hewitt and get back a pair of former all-Southern Conference big men (Ferguson and Trent Wiedeman) who redshirted last season.
Arkansas-Little Rock loses Will Neighbour but they bring back Josh Hagins, James White and a healthy J.T. Thomas. Louisiana-Monroe loses a couple of starters, but they bring by all-league forward Tylor Ongwae. Losing a guy that averages 20 points isn’t easy to overcome, but UT Arlington‘s offense should be more balanced without Reger Dowell. Their senior back court of Lonnie McClanahan and Jamel Outler will be tough. Arkansas State lost seven of their top eight from last season. John Brady better home those new guys are ready to compete from day one.
In: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State Out: Western Kentucky
PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
The Sun Belt has had quite a bit of individual talent in the league over the last year or two, but Hunter is as good as any of them. That includes lottery pick Elfrid Payton. Hunter is a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is one of the best shooters in the country and capable of putting 30 on anyone.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM:
Ryan Harrow, Georgia State, Sr.: Harrow thrived last season after transferring into the program from Kentucky, playing the role of point guard alongside Hunter.
Shawn Long, Louisiana, Jr.: Long is not only a very good college player, his ability to block shots and hit threes will get him NBA attention
Jelani Hewitt, Georgia Southern, Sr.: Hewitt was a big-time scorer in the SoCon for GSU last season, and his production should translate to the Sun Belt as well.
Tylor Ongwae, Louisiana-Monroe, Sr.: Ongwae, a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 16.2 points in his first season with ULM after transferring into the program from a JuCo.