Injury thrusts Georgia State coach into NCAA spotlight
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Getting around on a torn Achilles tendon is just part of the challenge coach Ron Hunter faces in leading Georgia State against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament.
He thinks he's got that part figured out, at least for now planning to use a rolling chair when he's not in his customary sideline stance.
''I'm not sitting down. I haven't sat down in 23 years as a head coach,'' Hunter insisted Wednesday before the 14th-seeded Panthers 40-minute practice at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. He is trying to figure out the best way to approach a West Regional matchup against a heavily favored opponent hoping to make another strong run in the tournament.
Third-seeded Baylor (24-9) has advanced to the Elite Eight once and Sweet Sixteen twice in the Bears' past three NCAA appearances.
Since suffering the injury celebrating his team's Sun Belt Conference championship last weekend, the 50-year-old Hunter said he's received all kinds of offers for assistance with his achilles. People are not nearly as helpful with suggestions on how to beat the talented Bears, who have one of nation's toughest defenses, on Thursday.
''Some guy just made a new crutch he wants me to try out,'' Hunter said, adding one company ''said they've got this roller board they want to give me for the game.''
''I'm saying yes to all that. So just send it to me for free, and we'll try all of it,'' he cracked. ''I'm going to coach the way I've always coached. It'll be a little painful, but it's worth it to me.''
The Panthers (24-9) are having fun watching their coach deal with his new-found celebrity.
Let his son, R.J., and teammates Ryan Harrow and Kevin Ware - who is back in the NCAA Tournament two years after suffering a devastating leg injury during Louisville's national championship run - tell it. Hunter's had some comical moments since he began tooling around on the scooter he's using to get around the arena and to and from the team bus.
R.J., the Panthers' leading scorer who may be facing a decision soon on whether he's going to enter the NBA draft, even tried to hide the scooter at one point.
Hunter, who says the players laughed when he fell off the scooter earlier this week, joked he will have the last word when conditioning drills roll around next season.
''You would think I would have a little more sympathy with my son with this, but he's been wearing me out,'' Hunter said. '' I want him to come back and play for me next year, but all the jokes, he can go ahead and leave now.''
Baylor is appearing in the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for the first time in program history. The Bears are 8-4 under coach Scott Drew in four previous trips under him. Drew is hoping their experience from 2014 will prove beneficial against Georgia State.
''It definitely can't hurt. ... Just them being focused and making sure everyone else is focused,'' Drew said. ''That goes a long way.''
Georgia State is in the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in school history, but Drew stressed that ''just like every team in the field,'' the Panthers are well coached and have talented players. R.J. Hunter is the Sun Belt player of the year and two others - Ware, and second-leading scorer Harrow - have national championship rings from other schools.
Rico Gathers, Baylor's 6-foot-8, 275-pound junior forward, is one of the nation's leading rebounders at 11.6 per game and also leads the balanced Bears in scoring. He figures to be a tough matchup for Georgia State's front line.
''It's like facing J.J. Watt. That guy is unbelievable. It's like facing a football player,'' Hunter said. ''He's bigger than any football player we've got at Georgia State. We don't see guys like that even walking on campus.''
HOBBLED, BUT EXPECTED TO PLAY
Harrow began his college career at North Carolina State before moving to Kentucky, where he was part of a national championship program in 2012. He is averaging 20.5 points. He's been slowed by a hamstring injury the past two weeks, however the Panthers continued to thrive. The 6-2 senior expects to play Thursday, however Hunter is not sure how much.
While waiting for the tournament pairings to be announced last Sunday, Ware was intrigued by the prospect of Georgia State maybe facing Louisville in the first round. He said he was both disappointed and relieved when the Panthers were matched against Baylor. Louisville, the No. 4 seed in the East Regional, opens against California-Irvine.
''I miss those guys, but it is what it is,'' Ware said. ''Hopefully, they advance and we advance.''
R.J. Hunter said he's focused on Baylor, not his future. Dad joked that he's going to lavish his son with gifts, including a car, to entice him to return to school instead of turning pro.
''There's no conflict of interest,'' Ron Hunter said. ''I'm his dad.''