GSU Panthers
Look to Make it Back to the Tournament

By Dave Cohen

Coming off a 24-11 season a year ago and a loss to Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament, Georgia State Basketball, led by head coach Ron Hunter, enters the 2018-19 season not only with a lot of expectations but with a lot of excitement surrounding the program. For the Panthers, it was their second NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four years. There's no question that Hunter has moved the program onto solid ground. He's led the Panthers to five seasons of at least twenty wins as he enters his eighth season at the helm. With an experienced nucleus of players returning, led by All-Sun Belt Conference guard D'Marcus Simonds along with shooters Devin Mitchell and Jeff Thomas and power-forward Malik Benlevi, Georgia State will be among the favorites in the always competitive Sun Belt Conference this season. Insite's Dave Cohen talked with coach Ron Hunter.

Jordan Session and Isaiah Williams both graduated and are now playing professionally in Europe but with the nucleus back you've got to be excited about this year's team.

I'm really happy with where we are right now. We've got experience back and our young guys are really coming along. We've got four seniors and then you add D'Marcus (Simonds) to that and Kane (Williams) who's played a lot of minutes. We've got a lot of veterans, but we still have to go through the process. They've been practicing well and that's what we've been doing as we get ready for the season. I feel really good about this group.

You've had five seasons in which your Panther teams have won twenty or more games. You've certainly put Georgia State Basketball on solid ground with regards to being in contention for a conference championship every year.

I've always said that the hardest part maintaining the success. Not that it's easy to build or change a program's culture, because it is difficult. I've now done it at two places. (IUPUI and Georgia State) Maintaining it become the challenge at the mid-major level because of the ups and downs. We had a player like R.J. (Hunter) who came out early and that set us back a little bit and we may face the same situation with D'Marcus so preparing for that scenario and all the things that come with that are a challenge. I love the success we've had. I've got a great staff and I think that helped. So, for the most part we've had the continuity, but as new guys have come in, whether freshman or transfers, learned the system. Our seniors, since I've been here, have understood our culture of winning and how the process goes. It's great when players can teach players.

We've seen a number of special players here during the last seven seasons, including current All-Sun Belt Conference guard, D'Marcus Simonds, who's heading into his junior season. With everything that he's already accomplished and with his skill-set, what did you want him to work on to improve during the off-season?

The obvious one is to become a better jump shooter. Sometimes that's just shot selection. I think he's already a very good shooter, maybe a little more streaky than anything else. More importantly too is for him to cut down on his turnovers and he's really been working on that and I think he's doing a much better job. We're putting him in situations where he doesn't have to make an outstanding play every time down the court. He's got good players around him and I think he's going to trust his teammates a little bit better this season.

Among the new faces this season are Pitt transfer Damon Wilson and two heralded freshmen in Nelson Phillips (Warner Robins) and Kavonte Ivery (Stockbridge). How will they impact your rotation?

You know, last year I thought our bench was average. This season will be different. I don't know if I've had a bench with this since I've been here. It's a talented group but what it does not have is a ton of experience. You can throw Josh Linder and Chris Clerkley in that mix. They've both improved. We've got a lot of guys that we can put out there that we can throw at opposing teams. Those young guys are really talented. They've been great in practice and have been able to push the guys in front and that makes them better.

Once again this season, you've put together a challenging non-conference schedule leading into Sun Belt Conference play. Games against Tulane, Alabama, Kansas State, Mercer, UNC-Wilmington, etc.

Yea, I may be crazy! (laughs) This is a tough schedule. But, if I'm going to schedule this way this is the team to do it with. This team plays with a chip on its shoulder. They feel like they have something to prove and they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The best way to do that it to try and play some of the best teams in the country and that's what we are going to do.

Georgia State opens the regular season November 6 vs. East Tennessee State. For tickets call 404-413-4020 or visit online at georgiastatesports.com.

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