Before R.J. Hunter could score nine straight points to bring Georgia State back from down 12 against Baylor with three minutes left, before he could pull-up from 30-feet away to drain the go-ahead 3-pointer, and before the excitement of the moment knocked Ron Hunter -- his head coach and father -- off the stool he was watching from because of a torn Achilles, the Panthers junior shooting guard had to decide if going through another year of college basketball was worth it.
Hunter's sophomore season was a whirlwind. At the onset, he was just trying to help his team finish over .500 after going 15-16 the year before. The Panthers did more than that, dominating the Sun Belt regular season before losing a heartbreaking 1-point overtime game in the tournament championship to Elfrid Payton's Louisiana-Lafayette team.
Hunter's numbers were outstanding, and his sweet-shooting stroke seemed to fit right in-line with the way the NBA was headed. He could have turned pro, but with what looked like the best team in program history set to return, Hunter decided to come back to school. Expectations would be about as high as possible for a university with as negligible of an athletic footprint as Georgia State.
If Hunter's sophomore season put him on the map, the summer going into this season helped cement his status. He was one of 30 college players invited to summer camps held by Kevin Durant and LeBron James, and he earned glowing reviews while there. He was deemed the "surprise of camp" at LeBron's event and had NBA scouts calling him "the best shooter in the country".
The reigning MVP seemed to think he was pretty good, too.
@RJH_22 yessir. Way to shoot it this weekend! Good luck this upcoming season— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) June 30, 2014
With point guard Ryan Harrow, a former Kentucky transfer, back and installed at the point, and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware finally healthy and jumping down a level, the pieces for Hunter's second breakthrough season seemed to be in place. Like so many before him, though, Hunter learned that success isn't always linear.
The Panthers dropped two of their first three games, including non-conference showcases to Iowa State and Colorado State. They were the type of wins the team needed in order to have any hope at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Conference play didn't start off much better, as Georgia State lost back-to-back games to a struggling Texas State team and Louisiana-Lafayette. By the time Appalachian State beat the Panthers, Hunter's team was just 4-3 in the Sun Belt.
As the losses piled up, Hunter's shooting efficiency plummeted. He was 0-of-10 from the three in the double overtime loss to Texas State, scoring only 10 points on 16 shots in 46 minutes. He went 1-of-8 from three in a loss to fellow mid-major star Keifer Sykes and Green Bay. Suddenly, the man considered the best 3-point shooter in the country was hitting under 30 percent of his shots from deep entering the conference tournament.
Some of the efficiency drop can be explained by Hunter's growing profile. If he wasn't the focal point of the scouting report immediately as a sophomore, he definitely was as a junior. Opposing defenses could key in on Harrow and Hunter and know that Georgia State's big men couldn't really hurt them down low. That problem became exasperated whenever starting center Curtis Washington was out of the game, because Georgia State doesn't have another rotation player bigger than 6'7.
Instead, it was a perimeter driven team. Hunter and Harrow were the highest scoring teammates in the country, both finishing in the top 35 of Division 1 in points per game. While his shooting percentages dropped, Hunter's assist percentage nearly doubled from 10.6 last season to 19.4 this year. It was similar to the transition Nik Stauskas underwent at Michigan one year ago. The added development as a playmaker will help long-term, but it came at the cost of doing what he does best, which is running around screens off the ball looking to score.
When Hunter did get back to his roots and stopped forcing his offense, the results were positive. He torched Louisiana-Lafayette for 32 points in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Tournament, and looked great while doing it.
It's that type of ability to gather himself, square up and fire quickly that has some scouts comparing Hunter to Klay Thompson. That's lofty praise, but if nothing else Hunter's skill set of is certainly in demand. Shooting has never been more in-style in the NBA.
Of course, the league can wait. Xavier is up next for Georgia State in the round of 32 on Saturday, and the Panthers have to like their chances. Beating Baylor without the injured Harrow seemed impossible given the quality of the Bears' big men. Win a game like that and suddenly Matt Stainbrook and the Musketeers don't look as intimidating.
The Hunter family's NCAA Tournament moment is the type of thing college basketball dreams about marketing. It seems too good to be true until it happens. Both father and son have handled it perfectly, with coach firing off one-liners like a standup comic and R.J. doing what any good son does: making fun of his dad.
There were plenty of occasions this year when it looked like Georgia State wouldn't get the tournament run it deserved. R.J.'s shots weren't falling and the Panthers were losing to less talented teams. March seems to have a way of finding great stories, though, and rarely has that been more evident than when the Hunter sent his father flying to the floor.
For a father and son, for a mid-major upstart and for the NCAA Tournament, it doesn't get any better than that.