College basketball in the state of Georgia has had many wild turns in the past 10-15 years, but has never been consistent. Why do UGA fans only care about football and not basketball? Why does Tech have such high draft picks, but can’t compete in the ACC? Why don’t star players want to stay in the state to play for hometown teams? These are questions I ask myself every November when basketball season begins.
The University of Georgia basketball program is a direct depiction of what can happen if you don’t keep recruits in state. Growing up I watched one man’s decision break UGA recruiting for years to come. His name was Louis Williams. When Lou decided to skip college and go pro, he left UGA fans saying what if. He and Mike Mercer were one of the most exciting combos in the entire nation of high school basketball. The inability to keep studs in state is what killed UGA and still hurts them to this day. It probably also doesn’t help that their conference, SEC, is completely dominated by the idea of football season, even in the winter well after the season is over.
Georgia Tech, on the other hand, always seems to sneak past UGA and grab the in-state studs like Derrick Favors, Gani Lawal, or Chris Bolden. They also seem to grab out of state studs like Chris Bosh and Jarret Jack. The school itself is known for its academics and also has a small budget for sports, which is why they still run the option offense in football. Big name offenses and coaches cost money they wont spend. Being in the ACC, however does help bring in competitive athletes. I mean who wouldn’t like the chance to make Roy Williams sweat in his suit, try to shoot Syracuse out of their cursed 2-3 zone, or win a game in front of the Cameron Crazies. This sounds exciting doesn’t it? Why not go see a Georgia Tech Game then? That’s because this year they are the second best team in Atlanta.
Who else is even a major player in the state besides these two schools? The answer is the Georgia State Panthers. This is a team in a mid-major conference, but with some premium talent. The best bang for your buck in the state to watch basketball is the $10 it costs to go see this Georgia State team. They capitalize on what UGA cannot: Keeping star players in state. This Georgia State team consists of Ryan Harrow, Kevin Ware, and RJ Hunter. Each of these players has interesting stories getting them back to Atlanta.
Ryan Harrow was a big recruit, when I was in high school. People spoke of his explosiveness, his handles, and his ability to make someone, that thought they were good at basketball, look like a baby that just walked for the first time (and most likely, he’ll just break your ankles). That’s why John Calipari came calling. He signed Harrow thinking he found his next point guard. Now Harrow is back home, developing, and really making Georgia State the team it is. The ball is in his hand more than any other player because he makes every player better, which makes this team the most competitive it has ever been. Which is scary considering he isn’t even the best scorer on the team.
The best scorer title goes to RJ Hunter. Last year college basketball had a big headline with Creighton’s Doug McDermott and his father that coached him. The story people should be looking at this year is the hot hand of RJ Hunter and his dad, and GSU coach, Ron Hunter. RJ Hunter could be at many other big schools, in big conferences, with big names, but he chose to play for his dad at Georgia State. The Hunter clan led the Georgia State Panthers to a 25-9 record last year before getting upset in their conference tourney by Louisiana-Lafayette. This year Hunter is a preseason Naismith Player of the Year candidate and has the opportunity and skill to average 25 or more points a game and get Georgia State back to the NCAA Tournament, which UGA and Georgia Tech probably wont be in. RJ Hunter is also a projected 1st round pick, which no Georgia based team has seen since Derrick Favors with Tech and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with Georgia.
The last star of the Atlanta Big 3 is Kevin Ware. Most people relate that name with the Louisville player that broke his leg in the Final Four, and providing a storyline that led Louisville to win the National Championship, but Ware is past that time in his life. He is an aggressive, explosive threat that can guard your best player. This summer I watched Kevin Ware D up Louis Williams in the AEBL summer league in Atlanta. In that same game, I watched him euro step on a fast break and elevate above his teammates and the opposing team for a highlight dunk. The man has put in the time, and is back and ready to help this team get back to compete against bigger programs. He is the final piece of what this team needs to succeed. He will guard your best player and get to the rim and provide excitement to the game, which may provide solid momentum to the GA State that could leave teams scrambling to recover.
For an Atlanta sports fan like myself, that same $10 I would spend at a bar, on an overpriced dinner, or for my beer at the Falcons game, could be way more useful purchasing a ticket to see this Georgia State team play in the heart of Atlanta. With this team providing big names in Kevin Ware, highly recruited players like Ryan Harrow, and first round draft picks like RJ Hunter, the sky is the limit. If Georgia State can win this year, it could change basketball for this school forever. Georgia State has an opportunity to become a mid-major powerhouse like Winthrop, Butler, or even Wichita State. Now lets think who doesn’t like watching those teams play when March comes around. The little brother of UGA and GT is finally starting to grow and for UGA and GT basketball fans, that is truly a scary thought to consider…