The last time Georgia State’s Ron Hunter won a conference tournament, he celebrated with a belly flop on the court in a wild postgame celebration.
That was 11 years ago when he coached underdog IUPUI. If Georgia State repeats the feat at Lakefront Arena on Sunday, his first reaction may be a sigh of relief.
The Panthers (24-7, 17-1), who have won 21 of their past 22 and took the Sun Belt Conference regular season title by five games, are overwhelming favorites to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. With that status comes the overwhelming pressure of having an entire season defined by what happens this weekend.
Win, and they believe they can do damage in the NCAA tournament.
Lose, and the season will be a crushing disappointment.
“When that first (tournament championship) came, I didn’t plan that celebration, so I don’t know what I would do,” Hunter said. “I will say I will be just as excited if we are able to get this done because it would cap off what has been a terrific year.”
The new Sun Belt tournament format favors Georgia State, giving the Panthers a double bye into Saturday’s semifinals along with No. 2 seed Western Kentucky. Georgia Stae have to win only twice to cut down the nets.
“We just talked about let’s play the best, most efficient games that we’ve played for 80 minutes,” Hunter said. “It’s 80 minutes. Don’t make it bigger than anything else. This is a very talented team. If we play what we’re capable of doing and what we’ve done all year, we’re going to be fine.”
Still, nothing is as easy as it appears during championship week.
Regular-season champions won only three of the 11 tournaments completed by Tuesday night.
The list of upset losers included Vermont, which won the America East by two games; Green Bay, two games clear in the Horizon League; and Davidson, which won the Southern Conference by three games.
None of them even reached their tournament championship game.
“It doesn’t matter at this time of the year,” said sophomore guard R.J. Hunter, Ron Hunter’s son and the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. “Everybody is zero and zero. Winning streaks don’t matter. Nobody wants to go home, so everybody is playing a little better. You just have to be on top of your game. We all want that pressure, and we all want that spotlight.”
R.J. Hunter, who averages 18.5 points, is part of an unusually gifted offensive team. Four Georgia State players have scored 30 or more points in a game, including his 41-point outburst on 12-of-19 3-point shooting against UTSA in December.
The others are Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, a McDonald’s All-America selection in 2010, swingman Manny Atkins and point guard Devonta White — all double-figures scorers.
Sun Belt opponents have not been able to keep up with them.
The Panthers beat two-time defending tournament champion Western Kentucky by 18 and 23 points.
“We’re built like an AAU team,” Atkins said. “We like to run, we have four guards on the team that can do really anything on the floor, and that’s what makes our team so great. If we go out there and play our game like we have been, there’s really no team that can beat us right now in our league.”
Guarding against overconfidence may be their biggest concern.
Atkins, a senior, already has cautioned his teammates not to be cocky when they arrive in New Orleans.
The Sun Belt tournament will be a stepping stone to bigger things only if they take it seriously. Georgia State, which upset Wisconsin in its most recent NCAA tournament appearance 13 years ago under former Maryland coach Lefty Driessel, can’t wait for another chance.
“I think we can be a Cinderella,” R.J. Hunter said. “There’s just a lot of talent and firepower, and you don’t see that at this level. The sky’s the limit for us. We have lethal scorers and we’re unselfish. Everybody just sacrificed because we want to win so bad.”