Ron Hunter's Georgia State Panthers are 11-3 (3-0 CAA) this season, one year removed from a 12-19 campaign.

RICHMOND, Va. – Ron Hunter is fiery, funny and charismatic with a machine-gun tongue. He’s so animated on sideline, he makes Bruiser Flint and Shaka Smart, two the CAA’s more demonstrative coaches, look like they’re teaching high school economics.

Hunter’s Georgia State team embodies much of that spirit. Despite an 0-8 record at the Verizon Wireless Arena, despite years of irrelevance, despite doubts of the Panthers’ legitimacy, Georgia State never looked intimidated and never backed down Wednesday in a 55-53 springboard win for the program.

The Panthers looked like a team with something to prove. After a 12-19 season last year and zero winning seasons since joining the CAA in 2005, GSU (11-3, 3-0 CAA) has been reborn under Hunter, in his first season with the school. The Panthers have won 11 in a row with essentially the same talent they had last year.

The knock on Georgia State had been its awful non-conference schedule, but after wins over the CAA’s preseason favorite (Drexel) and hottest team (VCU), the Panthers look for real. When they wake up Thursday morning, they’ll be alone in first place atop the CAA, unfamiliar territory.

“First of all we didn’t come here to make statements. We just wanted to come and show we belong,” Hunter said, ignoring the irony of his words. “We want to be relevant in the CAA and [VCU] is a great program. I challenged these guys. I challenged these guys from day one. We were picked last (actually 11th) in this league. I’m going to coach with a chip on my shoulder and want these guys to play…with a chip on their shoulder.”

Meanwhile, when the rest of the CAA gets its hands on Wednesday’s game tape, I imagine they’ll start cramming zone defenses down VCU’s throat for the foreseeable future, starting with Sunday’s game at Drexel.

In the face of Georgia State’s mixture of zones, the Rams shot an abysmal – almost unbelievable – 27.1 percent. How bad was it? Simply put, it was VCU’s worst shooting performance in 12 years. Not since the Rams (11-4, 2-1 CAA) misfired to the tune of a 25.4 percent “effort” in a 75-58 loss at Western Kentucky on Dec. 11, 1999 has VCU turned in a more futile shooting display.

The cure for zone defense is often the 3-point shot. The idea is to get to the heart of the zone and kick to available shooters when the defense collapses. Hit enough threes and you’ll force the opposition to switch into man-to-man. Only the Rams couldn’t.

Junior Troy Daniels was one of few offensive bright spots for VCU Wednesday. He scored 15 points on five 3-pointers.

They missed 9-of-10 threes in the first half and finished 6-of-23 on the evening. Junior Troy Daniels accounted for five of those. The rest of the team was a combined 1-of-15 from long range. Senior Bradford Burgess, a 41 percent career shooter from 3-point range, was 1-of-7. Burgess’ night was a total nightmare. He was 1-of-15 from the field in the worst offensive game of his illustrious VCU career.

VCU spent much of the night fighting to solve the zone. There were a number of possessions in both halves that saw the Rams produce little in the first 25-30 seconds of the shot clock, which led to either hurried jumpers or contested drives. Georgia State also got solid interior defense from shot-blocking forward Eric Buckner, who rejected three attempts.

“The key to the game was we wanted to shorten the game up. We wanted to put the game in the half court,” Hunter said. “This is the best defensive team I’ve ever coached. I think it’s one of the best defensive teams in the country. They understand the matchup [zone]. The matchup is really hard to figure out and these guys have really figured it out, and we thought if we could just get them in the half court we’d have a great shot at it.”

Georgia State’s zone was accountable for at least some part of VCU’s nightmare shooting night, but the Rams also missed a ton of open looks. Early in the second half, Burgess airballed a wide-open 3-pointer from the left wing, the Rams’ evening in a nutshell. At one point in the second half, VCU was 3-of-20 from the field.

After the game, junior Darius Theus and Smart admitted the Rams lacked aggressiveness attacking the Panthers’ zone. They will likely get plenty of practice in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Georgia State handled VCU’s pressure as good as, if not better than, any other team this season. The Panthers utilize the full-court press nearly as much as the Rams and were prepared.

“We’re a pressing team, so we press every day,” Hunter said. “We press in our sleep. We press everywhere. We press in film. Everything we do, we press, so that’s not going to be a big factor for us because we press each other in practice, so I thought these guys handled it well.”

While the Rams did generate 13 turnovers, it wasn’t enough to swing the game in their favor. There’s a big difference between forcing 13 turnovers and forcing 16, 18 or 20. Even when the Rams did turn over the Panthers it didn’t guarantee points. VCU, which rode an eight-game win streak on the back off points off turnovers, had just eight Wednesday.

Despite all of VCU’s shooting problems, the Rams actually had a chance to win the game on the final possession, but Daniels’ 3-pointer from the wing fell short. That’s the silver lining, although the 7,600 fans in attendance might not be ready for glass half-full analysis.

But this was Georgia State’s night. The moribund program from Atlanta has been largely an afterthought in the CAA. Success has been fleeting. The Panther’s most memorable moment since joining the league in 2005 came on a 50-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer, which gave it a 70-68 triumph over William & Mary in the first round of the CAA Tournament, in 2007. That was the whole list. Not anymore.

The Panthers are a different team under Hunter. They built confidence by beating some weak teams into submission, but that confidence has now fueled wins over two of the CAA’s best ballclubs. Hunter has Georgia State believing it itself. The Panthers aren’t a terribly gifted offensive team, but senior Jihad Ali is a smooth lefty shooter, breakout sophomore guard Devonte White is nimble and fearless and Buckner runs the floor well.  As long as the Panthers defend the way they did Wednesday, they’re not going anywhere.

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