ATLANTA — For some time, magic has been in short supply for local devotees of the college game. And it is a tad early to dump all the expectations of March upon one urban campus. Still, Georgia State, now with 14 consecutive wins, unbeaten in its conference, has some hocus pocus going for it.
In early December, the Panthers (17-6, 10-0 Sun Belt) were gaining notice — as one of the more disappointing teams in the land. Both NBC Sports and Yahoo Sports said so right there on the Internet. Their ample backcourt gifts had led to a 3-6 record. Alabama overpowered them. Then they staged a furious comeback only to be undone in overtime at Southern Miss. That was Dec. 7.
They haven't lost since.
Now Georgia State is transforming into the story of a little team that is an intriguing mosaic, a collection of odd pieces that makes up a very watchable whole.
When fast-talking coach Ron Hunter was dislodged from his position at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in 2011 to work Georgia State's cozy, walk-up studio apartment of a fieldhouse, he had a well-established blueprint in place. Seventeen years at IUPUI prepared him for team-building at a big-city, low-profile program. He was well-practiced at weaving his illusions from the coarsest thread.
The formula at play with these Panthers goes like this:
Inherit a senior leader (Devonta White).
Have a talented son, R.J., who doesn't want to run away when it's time to go to college. It helps, also, if, he still can carry a heavy scoring load.
And tap into the wide vein of restlessness and dissatisfaction out there in the modern college marketplace. There is constant movement in college basketball — more than 500 players were involved in Division I transfers in advance of the 2013-14 season. And Hunter eagerly exploits that.
There are multiple elements involved, but the power of the transfer is most telling in Georgia State's run. Three of the Panthers starters began their college experience at larger, more noted institutions (Manny Atkins at Virginia Tech, Curtis Washington at Southern Cal and Ryan Harrow at North Carolina State and Kentucky).
There is an unspoken stigma about the transfer — that he is running away from some kind of trouble, that he is damaged goods. Yet you likely have never met a coach who celebrates the transfer player quite like Hunter.
"I knew when I took this job from Day 1 it wasn't going to work with me just taking high school kids," he said.
Many of these players' foundations have been built on wheels, the coach said. They changed AAU teams, changed high schools, it is a part of the culture.
Rank-and-file students transfer all the time — the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center said 32 percent of full-time students fit that mold.
And Georgia State has made a nice living catering to kids who began their studies elsewhere.
"But when an athlete does it, it becomes like a taboo thing," Hunter said.
"At our level we're not going to get the Ryan Harrows right out of high school," he said. "I'll recruit 'em. We recruit a lot of kids that people don't think we should be recruiting, but we recruit them thinking they might come back."
While at IUPUI, Hunter drove to Elizabethown, Ky., to watch Washington play, only to discover that the 6-foot-9 prospect committed to Southern Cal while Hunter was on the road. The coach fumed. But look who's in the post now for the Panthers.
Transfers, the right kind of ones anyway, come to Hunter, he said, often changed in positive ways. Maybe they are humbled a bit, more receptive to coaching, hungry to prove themselves.
"What you want to make sure is that they love basketball. If they love the crowds and all the outside stuff, you got the wrong one. You got to make sure they love playing," he said.
"Most kids coming out of high school choose a college based on the crowd, the size of the arena, the I'm-going-to-get-to-the-NBA (attitude) — all the wrong reasons. That's why our transfer rates are so high. So, by the time they come back to you those things aren't as important anymore."
Harrow saw the bright lights of Raleigh and Lexington before transferring home to be nearer his father. Mark Harrow suffered a stroke the summer of 2012.
When he arrived, Harrow was so concerned about fitting in that Hunter had to caution him not to over-pass, not to be too selfless. He is the Panthers' second-leading scorer, just behind R.J. Hunter's 20 per game.
Going from Rupp Arena to the GSU Sports Arena (capacity 3,400) has been not the shock it would seem, Harrow said.
"I'm extremely happy. We're winning games. I get to see my family and friends. The boys have accepted me. Coach Hunter has made me into a better player, a more mature player," he said. Best of all, he has one more season of eligibility remaining.