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.
Georgia State is the heavy favorite in the Sun Belt this season as the back court duo of Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter returns from a team that came a game away from making the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers became even more intriguing this offseason with the addition of Louisville transfer and guard Kevin Ware. Ware was a medical redshirt at Louisville last season after dealing with the aftermath of a gruesome leg injury and is cleared to return this season at Georgia State.
While a high ankle sprain isn’t a season-ending injury, it can be a lingering injury that is difficult to fully recover from. Given Ware’s injury history, a high ankle sprain could result in him missing a good chunk of time.
Ware’s injury might not cause him to miss many games — if any — but Georgia State has high aspirations this season and needs Ware if they hope to maximize them. This will be an injury to monitor over the next few weeks as we get closer to the season.
Last Season: 23-12, 10-8 Pac-12 (t-3rd), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Spencer Dinwiddie
Key Returnees: Josh Scott (14.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Askia Booker (13.7 ppg, 3.3 apg), Xavier Johnson (12.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Wesley Gordon (5.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Dominique Collier, Tory Miller
Outlook: Colorado had won their first three Pac-12 games and were sitting at 14-2, ranked 15th in the country, when Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL last season. They finished the year losing 10 of their final 19 games, losing in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before watching Dinwiddie head off to the NBA. The trio of Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon will give Tad Boyle one of the best front courts out west, but finding a way to fill Dinwiddie’s void will be key. Askia Booker is back and Boyle brings in top 100 recruit Dominique Collier to handle ball handling duties, but the key in the back court may end up being the development of Xavier Talton (who grew three inches this summer), who played well down the stretch last season, and whether Jaron Hopkins or Tre-Shaun Fletcher make the leap as sophomore.
Last Season: 26-11, 10-6 Atlantic 10 (t-5th), lost in the Elite 8
Key Losses: Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford, Khari Price
Key Returnees: Dyshawn Pierre (11.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 40.9% 3PT), Jordan Sibert (12.2 ppg, 42.6% 3PT)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Bass (transfer), Darrell Davis, Detwon Rogers
Outlook: Dayton was as good as any team in the country in February and March of last season, going 9-1 to close out the Atlantic 10 season before making a run to the Elite 8. Losing Devin Oliver will hurt, putting pressure on Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre to take on a bigger role offensively. The combination of Oakland transfer Ryan Bass and sophomore Scoochie Smith will be counted on to take over ballhandling duties. Dayton should compete for top four in the A-10.
Georgia State Panthers
Last Season: 25-9, 17-1 Sun Belt (1st), lost in the first round of the NIT
Key Newcomers: Kevin Ware (transfer), Jalen Brown, Jordan Session, Jeff Thomas, Carter Cagle
Outlook: Ron Hunter will have himself one of the most talented back courts in the country. Former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow finally found himself last season and Hunter will hope that he can work the same magic with former Louisville guard Kevin Ware. And here’s the scary part: sharpshooter R.J. Hunter is the best player of the three. The Panthers should roll through the Sun Belt again, and should be a trendy cinderella pick if they reach the NCAA tournament. They lost in the Sun Belt title game last season.
Kansas State Wildcats
Last Season: 20-13, 10-8 Big 12 (5th), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Will Spradling, Shane Southwell
Key Returnees: Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu, Thomas Gipson
Key Newcomers: Justin Edwards (transfer), Brandon Bolden (transfer), Stephen Hurt, Malek Harris, Tre Harris
Outlook: Kansas State has a chance to be really good this season. Sophomore Marcus Foster has a shot to end up as the best shooting guard in the country this season, while Wesley Iwundu will be a trendy breakout candidate this year. Justin Edwards was a very productive player in his two seasons at Maine and will compete with Malek Harris for minutes on the wing. Stephen Hurt and Brandon Bolden will help add height inside to the muscle-bound duo of Thomas Gipson and D.J. Johnson. The biggest question mark is at the point. Can Jevon Thomas or Nigel Johnson embrace the role?
Last Season: 24-10, 12-6 American (t-3rd), lost in the Round of 32
Key Losses: Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford
Key Returnees: Austin Nichols (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Shaq Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Nick King (4.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Kedren Johnson (transfer), Calvin Godfrey (transfer), Dominic Magee, Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins, Avery Woodson
Outlook: Last season, Josh Pastner’s team was built around a talented, veteran perimeter attack. This season, all four of those guards are gone, meaning the strength of the Tigers will be their young, talented front line of Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin and Nick King. The perimeter is a massive question mark, however. Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, who sat out the 2013-2014 season, is the only guard on the roster that has played Division I basketball, and it’s still unclear whether he is going to be cleared to play this season. Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee and Markel Crawford, who is coming off of an injury, are expected to see big minutes at the guard spot.
Last Season: 19-13, 11-7 Big Ten (3rd), lost in the Round of 64
Key Newcomers: Jacob Hammond, Tarin Smith, Moses Abraham (transfer)
Outlook: The Huskers were one of the most surprising teams in the country last season, coming out of nowhere to finish fourth in the Big Ten. They return three of their top four scorers — leading scorer Terran Petteway, wing Shavon Shields and stretch four Walter Pitchford — and also get back Tai Webster, a talented guard who played for New Zealand in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, but good luck trying to get a win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Season: 25-10, 10-8 Big Ten (5th), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Key Returnees: Sam Thompson (7.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Shannon Scott (7.5 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.0 spg), Amir Williams (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Anthony Lee (transfer), D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, David Bell, Kam Williams (redshirt)
Outlook: Ohio State is going to be very young as they kick off the post-Aaron Craft era, but there is talent on their roster. Shannon Scott will not replace the intangibles that Craft brought to the floor, but he should be able to replace his ability to be a lock down defender at the point. The addition of Anthony Lee up front will bolster a front line that will include Amir Williams and Marc Loving, who should be in line for a big jump in production, while Sam Thompson will once again provide aerial acrobatics and stalwart perimeter defense. The x-factor is going to be D’Angelo Russell. He’s got a reputation for being a big-time scorer on a team that will be lacking offensive firepower, but it’s not easy being a freshman scorer in a league as good as the Big Ten.
Last Season: 26-10, 11-7 ACC (5th), lost in the Round of 32
Key Newcomers: Sheldon Jeter, Cameron Johnson, Tyrone Haughton, Ryan Luther
Outlook: The Panthers will lose their two best players from last season in Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, but if there is anything that we’ve learned about Jamie Dixon’s team, it’s that they are always ready to call the next man up. With Cameron Wright out for ten weeks with a broken foot Durand Johnson (who’s returning from a torn ACL) will have to carry the offensive load, while James Robinson and rising sophomore Josh Newkirk will give Dixon a solid back court attack. The question mark is going to be in the front court. Michael Young had some promising moments as a freshman and Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter will be eligible this season. One of the trio of Joseph Uchebo, Tyrone Haughton, and Ryan Luther should be able to be effective in the ACC.
Last Season: 26-5, 14-4 ACC (2nd), lost in the Round of 32
Outlook: For the third straight year, Syracuse will enter the season with just one point guard on the roster, and for the second straight season, that point guard will be a freshman that is getting thrown directly into the fire. Will Kaleb Joseph follow in the footsteps of Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis? That remains to be seen, but what we do know is that he won’t have nearly the experience around him. Trevor Cooney, an inconsistent three-point marksman, is the only one of Jim Boeheim’s four leading scorers from last season that returns, and Rakeem Christmas and Dajuan Coleman won’t exactly provide a pressure release inside. Chris McCullough is a five-star prospect, but he’s more athlete than basketball player at this point. Syracuse is going to need Michael Gbinije, Ron Patterson, B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson to make significant improvements if they are going to contend in the ACC this year.
Last Season: 21-12, 9-9 Pac-12 (8th), lost in the NIT 1st round
Key Newcomers: Brekkott Champman, Isaiah Wright, Chris Reyes, Kyle Kuzma
Outlook: I’m quite bullish on the Utes this season. In fact, I think there’s an outside chance that they end up being the second best team in the Pac-12 this season. For starters, the Utes lost so many close games last season thanks to dreadful late-game execution, and that can only get better this year as they essentially return everyone from last season, including one of the nation’s most under-appreciated stars in do-it-all guard Delon Wright. Forward Jordan Loveridge and point guard Brandon Taylor are back as well, and Larry Krystkowiak also adds a pair of talented freshman forwards in Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma, the latter of which redshirted in Salt Lake City last season. Winning is a skill and I don’t think it was a fluke that Utah consistently lost close games, but if they improve the way I think they can this year, they may not be involved in as many close games.
Kevin Ware played a grand total of 53 minutes over nine games with Louisville this past season. Following a Dec. 17 win over Missouri State, Ware was shut down for the season, as he was continuing to recover from a gruesome compound leg fracture he suffered during the 2013 Elite 8 game against Duke.
In April, Ware transferred to Georgia State, citing the need for a fresh start. This summer, Ware received word that he would receive a waiver making him eligible to play immediately for one of the top mid-major programs in the country. The transfer guard was able to suit up for the Panthers during their foreign trip to Costa Rico, though, his debut with his new school did come with a brief scare, as Georgia State head coach told Jeff Goodman of ESPN that Ware was clipped from behind during the team’s first game.
“He hit the wall, went down, stayed down for a little bit, and the entire team froze,” Hunter told Goodman. “I was scared to death when he didn’t move at first — but then he got up and sprinted back.”
The 6-foot-2 Ware will be part of a very talented perimeter for Georgia State, along with R.J. Hunter — 18.3 points per game, 40 percent 3-point shooting — and Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow — 17.8 points and 4.2 assists per game. The high-scoring duo led the Panthers to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game, only to have their NCAA tournament title hopes dashed by an upset delivered by Elfrid Payton and Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns do return forward Shawn Long, but the Panthers should be heavy favorites to top the conference standings once again.
Georgia State opens its season against Tennessee Temple on Nov. 14, three days before an early season test against Iowa State in Ames.