In a college basketball season where the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press’ weekly Top 25 Poll has changed seven times, a bevy of high major programs have been in the spotlight this year. Teams from the Big East, ACC and Big Ten have really dominated the national headlines that have in turn created some very compelling storylines.
While this has been full of reoccurring motifs, the nation has overlooked one true star of the college hoops world: Georgia State Panthers freshman guard R.J. Hunter.
Hunter, a 6-5 guard from Indianapolis, had plenty of opportunities to join the high major hoopla coming out of Pike High School. The lanky wing player was recruited by the likes of No. 8 Miami (FL), ACC powers Wake Forest and Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in the Big East. However, Hunter forwent the chance to be just another player in a big time program and leaped at the chance to join his father, head coach Ron Hunter, in Atlanta and become the face of an ever-growing program in GSU.
And, even though Miami has leapfrogged up the national rankings and those other programs play on national television seemingly every game, Hunter hasn’t regretted his decision one bit.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I could have an instant impact,” Hunter said. “I thought I could come [to Georgia State] and do something big. So, I came here, got comfortable and things really went pretty smooth. You definitely want to play in the spotlight, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Despite suiting up for a smaller program, Hunter proved all season long that he has big-time talent. The rookie didn’t waste anytime proving his skills this year either, debuting his collegiate career on the road at Cameron Indoor Stadium, against then No. 8 Duke, and registering an impressive double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds in a 74-55 defeat.
“It took me about a month or so when I got here to get adjusted,” Hunter recalls. “But, once I got my confidence I realized I was just playing ball like I have my entire life. When we went into Duke I just tried to do anything I could to help us win.”
The freshman sensation admits that he couldn’t have gotten comfortable on his own. Hunter praises several upperclassmen as large components to his acclimation to a new team and environment, despite being the coach’s son.
“When I got to campus a few guys took me under their wing,” Hunter explains. “A lot of my success points to the older guys. The two guys that helped me out the most were [junior forward] Manny Atkins and [junior guard] Devonta White. Right from when I visited campus you would have already thought I was on the team by the way they embraced me.”
With a little help form his friends and steady confidence, Hunter put together a stellar freshman campaign for the Panthers — one of the best in Colonial Athletic Association history and in the nation this year as well. Hunter set the GSU freshman season scoring record at 527 points and was one of just four freshmen in the nation to average at least 17 points and five rebounds per game this season.
Among his other accomplishments, Hunter also won the CAA Rookie of the Week six times and Player of the Week once. Additionally, the rook tied a CAA record for most three-pointers in a game when he drilled 10 attempts from beyond the arc against Old Dominion on Feb 2. In that game, Hunter scored a career-high 38 points — the most by any freshman in the nation this season as of March 4.
“I was on a tear like I was in high school in our first game against UNCW [on Jan 23],” Hunter said. “That’s when the game started slowing down. Basketball is a lot about confidence. Once you get your confidence going, there’s a lot you can accomplish. I started to feel like I was one of the best players on the court every time I went out there.”
Interestingly enough, all of Hunter’s success in the CAA instantaneously became a memory, as his team’s season finale against Northeastern on Feb. 27 was his last game in the Association.
Hunter and his team are ineligible for the CAA Tournament this week, a competition he feels his club is talented enough to win, due to the conference’s realignment policy as GSU will flee for the Sun Belt conference and green football pastures this spring. But, the well-rounded gamer will still make his presence known down in Richmond. Hunter is the runaway favorite for CAA Rookie of the Year, but is also a candidate for the All-CAA 1st Team and Player of the Year as well.
And he’s not even 20 years old.
Hunter has also been extremely dedicated to his studies at GSU. Many have even praised him as one of the most professional young men to ever walk through the doors of the Georgia State facilities. Whether in a new conference next season, or potentially in the professional ranks a few years down the road, Hunter is certainly optimistic and excited about what the future has in store.
“It was a really incredible year to kind of leave my mark on the CAA,” Hunter said. “We’re going to have to come out with intensity to try and win every game in the Sun Belt and that’s going to be fun. But, I’m definitely working for one day having the opportunity to play in the NBA. That would be a dream come true.”
For now, Hunter is focused on his studies and recuperating before a summer of more workouts. He’s also doing a lot of reflecting on what was truly a historic freshman season— and his last —in the CAA.
Thus, while seven teams will compete this weekend in Richmond for the CAA Championship, R.J. Hunter will be in Atlanta, planning to inscribe his name all over a new conference’s record books.
And maybe an introduction to the national spotlight that he undoubtedly deserves, as well.