How Georgia State became one of the best mid-major teams in the country

USA TODAY Sports

A conference title game loss still haunts the Panthers, but Ron Hunter's team should be back and better than ever next season.

Mid-major powerhouses don't just spring up out of nowhere, and Georgia State is no exception. The Panthers' journey to becoming more talented than many high-major programs included many divergent paths and a quick detour through hell that was never part of the plan.

Georgia State was three minutes away from the NCAA Tournament a year ago. After blitzing through the Sun Belt in the regular season at 17-1, the Panthers led Louisiana-Lafayette by nine points with the clock ticking away in the conference tournament title game. That's when their dream season started to unravel.

Elfrid Payton, a possible lottery pick in next week's NBA Draft, dominated on both ends with an ability to quickly turn defense into offense. Guard Xavian Rimmer got hot for the Ragin' Cajuns as well, hitting seven three-pointers to keep them in the game the entire night. After tying it in regulation on a Bryant Mbamalu layup with two seconds left, Louisiana-Lafayette stole the game and the automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Tournament in overtime.

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Panthers after such a dominant campaign, but coach Ron Hunter's team will be back when basketball season pick up again in the fall. Georgia State is the rare low major to have high major talent throughout the starting lineup. It took a lot of twists and turns to get here, but Georgia State should be a powerhouse in the Sun Belt next season.

The big offseason acquisition was Kevin Ware, the former Louisville guard who infamously shattered his leg in front of the entire country against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Ware transferred to Georgia State, citing a desire to be closer to come. He was cleared to play immediately by the NCAA on Thursday, and he'll have two years of eligibility remaining.

It isn't often someone who played major minutes for a team that won the national title can go down to a mid-major and expect to be a role player, but that's exactly the situation Ware will find himself in. Ware is no savior for the Panthers, he's merely expected to provide some outside shooting. When it comes to star power, Georgia State already has it covered.

R.J. Hunter had offers from Wake Forest, Iowa and Cincinnati coming out of high school, but he chose to play for his dad instead. Coach Ron Hunter's biggest recruit to date is his son, a dynamic 6'5 wing who was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year last season as a sophomore. He led the Panthers in scoring by averaging over 18 points per game, and he's the type of knock-down three-point shooter that makes teams like Georgia State scary in the tournament.

Hunter attempted 7.7 three-pointers per game last season and made 39.5 percent of them. He even hit 12-of-19 from three-point range in a win over UTSA in December. He's one of the best mid-major players in the country, and a possible NBA prospect if he continues to grow from his first two years in school.

Hunter is joined in the backcourt by Ryan Harrow, a 6'2 point guard whose basketball journey has taken him from N.C. State to Kentucky to Georgia State. Harrow was the No. 39 player in the country coming out of high school in the class of 2010, according to ESPN, and chose to play for the Wolfpack. After one season, he decided to sit out a year and transfer to Kentucky. Harrow's lone year in school coincided with the only time UK has missed the NCAA Tournament under John Calipari. With the Harrison twins coming in, Harrow transferred again, this time to Georgia State.

As maligned as Harrow was at Kentucky, he was a star for the Panthers last season. He averaged 17.8 points per game and a team-high 4.2 assists. His 37 points in that conference title game loss to Louisiana-Lafayette against Payton reminded everyone just how good he can be.

The perimeter attack will get all of the attention for Georgia State, but the Panthers also have a promising big man in Curtis Washington. At 6'9, 240 pounds, Washington has the type of size and athleticism rarely seen in the Sun Belt. He signed with USC before transferring to play his first season with the Panthers last year.

For as bitter as the end of last season was for Georgia State, the Panthers should be loaded next year. They have as much talent as any mid-major program in the country. It's been a winding road to get here for the pieces that make up coach Ron Hunter's team, but soon it may finally start to pay off.

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