(This is the tenth in a series of stories previewing men's basketball in the Sun Belt Conference.)
GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS: Coach: Ron Hunter (5th season)
2014-15 Record: 25-10, 15-5 Sun Belt, Won regular season and conference tournament title, lost in NCAA Third Round to Xavier.
KEY LOSSES: R. J. Hunter (19.7, 4.7, 126 assists), Ryan Harrow (18.3, 2.1, 104 assists), Ryann Greene (3.6, 1.9), Curtis Washington (5.2, 4.2, 44 blocks)
KEY RETURNEES: F Marcus Crider (9.7, 6.4), G Kevin Ware (7.6, 3.1, 86 assists), F T. J. Shipes (4.6, 3.9)
When you have a first round NBA draft pick, some good things can happen.
And, good things happened to Georgia State basketball as R. J. Hunter led the Panthers to the NCAA tournament and a second round upset of Baylor before falling to Xavier.
Panthers' head coach Ron Hunter says GSU's success is a testament to a league he believes doesn't get enough credit.
"I've been an advocate saying there are good players and good programs in the Sun Belt.. Our (the league's) success in the post season showed that," the fifth year head coach said. I don't think we do a good enough job of telling the story."
As the Panthers embark on the 2015-16 season, the telling story is, how will the Panthers fare after losing their two main players, guards R. J. Hunter, a first round pick of the Boston Celtics, and two-time all-SBC guard Ryan Harrow.
The coaches around the league think the Panthers will be fine. So does Hunter.
"I think we're extremely talented and I'm extremely excited," Hunter said. "This is the best shooting team I've had in 23 years of coaching. We had three guys sitting out last year that will really help us. I don't know the timetable of when we'll get it together, but we're really talented."
Leading the list of returnees is SBC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Kevin Ware. The former Louisville transfer was a solid sixth man for Hunter a season ago. He can score, handle the ball and is a good passer. Inside, Marcus Crider is the other returning starter. HIs physicality and toughness led the Panthers inside with nearly ten points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Part time starter T. J. Shipes also returns.
But it's the new guys that has Hunter really excited.
"Jeff Thomas could have started for us as a freshman," Hunter said. "He's just a tremendous shooter. He'd beat R. J. in shooting drills. (Indiana transfer) Jeremy Hollowell is a great player. But the problem is, when you sit out a year, it takes time."
Being picked to finish second in the league isn't a surprise to Hunter.
"We didn't come here to have one good year," Hunter said. "We want to be good every year."
OUTLOOK: Georgia State's win, R. J. Hunter's heroics, the father/son angle and the elder Hunter's achilles injury gave the Sun Belt more publicity in basketball than they've had in many years. Hunter believes the Panthers will be good, and I don't question that. But the newcomers are just that and Hunter admits there may be a learning curve. The Panthers will be able to shoot and their zone defense will give opponents trouble. But there's something GSU can't replace, and that's the younger Hunter. He not only was the league's best player, he was the kind of player who could pick up a team, put it on his back and will them to a victory. In the last five minutes of the game, he was an All-American. There's no replacement for him. And, that, in itself will make it hard for Georgia State to get another title, regardless of the talent.