TULSA — The first challenge of any mid-major trying to pull an NCAA Tournament upset is to eliminate the mystique of its highly seeded opponent. In facing Houston — a team with a 31-3 record, a potential NBA lottery pick on its roster, and a coach with over 500 career wins — Georgia State coach Ron Hunter knows it’s a tall task.
“We have not shot, buddy. I don’t even know why we’re coming,” Hunter joked to reporters when asked about his impressive opponent.
Then he corrected himself: “The only thing I think Houston definitely has better [is] a much better coach. Their coach is so much better. I don’t know if I’m going to be in the game, I’m outmatched.”
“Kelvin [Sampson], he’s like my idol,” Hunter said. “When I was — I think when I was 10, he was 60 at that time. I really look up to grandpa. He’s got a great team, been coaching longer. I will ask grandpa if I should call a timeout. I’ll ask him who I should start. If it’s four minutes to go in the game and we are winning, I will ask grandpa if it’s okay to finish the game and we can win because I don’t even know why we’re here.”
In truth, Sampson is only nine years older than Hunter. But the sarcasm highlights a crucial point in the upset bid of the 14-seeded Panthers. Before you can win, you must believe.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem for this year’s group. Equipped with an upperclassmen-heavy roster and the NCAA Tournament experience of last year’s First Round loss to Cincinnati, Georgia State has been on a mission all year to return to the Big Dance. After winning the Sun Belt championship last weekend, the team didn’t stick around to watch the Selection Show because the players didn’t believe it mattered which opponent they drew. Driving back from New Orleans to Atlanta on the bus, they reconsidered and pulled off to a truck stop bar to watch as a team.
“We knew we weren’t going to be over a 10-seed-type deal. We were going to play somebody that was…better,” Panthers star guard D’Marcus Simonds said, using air quotes and a sarcastic tone to accompany the word “better.”
“We’re just going to come play as hard as we can,” he added.
A year ago, Hunter picked up on a happy-to-be-here vibe around the team, but before practice on Wednesday, he walked into the gym and seeing no laughing, no joking. What was planned to be a walk-through turned into a full-blown practice. Despite his underdog status, Hunter said he will be “extremely, extremely disappointed” if Georgia State doesn’t win Friday’s game.
On paper, the place where Houston carries the biggest advantage is on the boards. The Cougars have size and athleticism to spare, and ranked highly in both offensive rebounding percentage (20th nationally) and defensive rebounding percentage (84th). In the same categories, Georgia State was miserable: 316th in offensive rebounding and 337th in defensive rebounding.
“Sometimes the rebounding is one of the most misleading stats,” Hunter said.
His Panthers only out-rebounded three opponents in their 24 wins this season, and often won with deficits exceeding 10 or even 15 boards. On Dec. 29, they were out-rebounded by NAIA foe Middle Georgia State, a game they won 117-69.
“We know we’re probably going to get out-rebounded,” Hunter said. “I also know that we’re going to defend you and we’re going to make threes. So those two things, you can book those two things are going to happen.”
Win or lose, count on Hunter to have a lot of fun. During the team’s official practice Thursday on the BOK Center floor, he broke out his best dance moves while directing the team’s band, and later grabbed a ball during the team’s layup lines as if he was going in for a dunk. He dribbled dramatically toward the hoop, jumped in the air, and Simonds swatted his shot into the first row.
Hunter laughed and the team huddled up. If the first challenge is staying loose and confident, then it appears Georgia State will begin its quest for an upset off on the right foot. All they need to do now is take down Grandpa.