Flashing back to the 2015 NCAA Tournament, one of the most memorable moments for a mid-major basketball program occurred at the hands of Georgia State guard R.J Hunter. What seemed to be a Hail Mary of a shot found the bottom of the net to knock off third-seeded Baylor and set off a celebration of epic proportions.
The moment of head coach Ron Hunter falling off his chair in jubilation is well engrained in the minds of college basketball fans. Georgia State became an overnight sensation.
The Panthers played a competitive game that ended in defeat to Xavier in the Second Round. Hunter would leave early for the NBA Draft becoming a first-round pick for the Boston Celtics.
Second leading scorer Ryan Harrow graduated but every other Panther who contributed returned a year ago. Indiana transfer Jeremy Hollowell joined the fray, and Georgia State was tabbed in the preseason as the team to beat in the Sun Belt.
What followed was a season that began promising with a 7-2 non-conference mark, the best start in Hunter’s Georgia State coaching career. A 5-2 start in conference had the Panthers in great shape in the Sun Belt race. However, a 4-9 tumble to close the regular season and a first-round exit to Texas State in the conference tournament was an incredible disappointment.
By taking a closer look at the numbers, the Panthers simply fell short in critical statistical categories in Sun Belt play.
Even with the Panthers placing third in points allowed in Sun Belt play (67.7), the offense did not produce enough. Ranking ninth out of 11 teams at 65.4 points a game, Georgia State scored under 60 points seven times in conference play, going 2-5 in those games.
Where the Panthers struggled the most was on the glass and in the paint, as they ranked next to last in rebounding margin, dead last in offensive rebounds, and next to last in blocked shots in conference play.
One other critical area that was lacking in Sun Belt play was behind the arc as Georgia State only made 107 three-pointers in 20 games, ranking 10th out of 11.
Of course, it is never easy to replace two top scorers who averaged nearly 40 points a night, particularly for a mid-major program. The absence of Hunter and Harrow simply left a void that the Panthers could not fill last season.
As well as the senior and former Louisville guard Kevin Ware (11.6 points per game), redshirt sophomore Isaiah Williams (9.3) and redshirt freshman Jeff Thomas (6.1) played in the backcourt last season, it was not nearly enough to replace the production left by the former Panther stars.
With Ware departing along with forward Markus Crider (8.9 ppg./5.0 rebounds per game), Ron Hunter returns just about everyone else from a year ago.
Three transfers, all returning to their home state, in Willie Clayton (Charlotte), Devin Mitchell (Alabama), and graduate transfer Justin Seymour (Murray State) provide a huge boost of experience and talent at key positions for the Panthers.
Clayton will provide much needed size and bulk in the paint. The 6’8, 245-pound forward played three years at Charlotte and started 85 out of 96 games. Averaging 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds in his 49er career, Clayton figures to partner with Holloway (14.8 ppg./4.9 rbs.) to give Georgia State a formidable duo in the frontcourt.
Mitchell was a highly touted guard prospect out of high school, but saw limited playing time in his only year for the Crimson Tide. Once Avery Johnson replaced Anthony Grant as head coach, Mitchell decided to transfer in hopes of more minutes elsewhere.
Seymour was a late addition to the Panther program after Ball State guard Jeremiah Davis decided against transferring in. That opened the door for the former Murray State Racer, who began his career at Utah. Seymour shot 40.4 percent (91-225) from the three-point line in his two years at Murray State.
Freshmen Chris Clerkley and D’Marcus Simonds also join the program in 2016-17. Clerkley is a forward who is active on the glass, but will need work on his offensive repertoire. Simonds is an explosive wing who originally committed to Mississippi State. In a loaded backcourt, Simonds will fight to be in the rotation for Ron Hunter this season.
On paper, the roster is certainly in much better shape across the board from a year ago. With four Division I transfers, a coach that knows what it takes to get to the NCAA Tournament, and a program eager to make amends for a tough season last year, expect the Panthers to be in the mix for the Sun Belt title this season. A return trip to the NCAA Tournament might present another moment that could spark another wild Ron Hunter celebration, and wouldn’t we all love to see it again?