Column: A new Cinderella story from men’s basketball?

When Georgia State won the Sun Belt championship and clinched an NCAA tournament berth, the Panthers have been the talk of the Atlanta sports scene.

Yes, the mid-major Panthers that have only been in the Sun Belt conference for two years. Listen to any Atlanta sports station and they’re likely talking Georgia State hoops, UGA hoops, or Atlanta Hawks hoops.

Sorry, but Braves and Falcons both of you are somewhat disappointing sports aficionados in the Peach State right now.

Georgia State basketball has been looked at as a possible Cinderella team ever since the beginning of the season. The Panthers were picked as the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt and touted as one of the best mid-major teams in the country.

Now, with the Panthers having won the Sun Belt and making the Big Dance, they have a chance to prove all of the preseason prognosticators correct. And if they do, it could be a Cinderella story that could captivate the nation as much as it has captivated Atlanta.

Reason One: Father and Son

Firstly, there is the story of the two Hunters, Ron the head coach and dad, and R.J., the junior guard, NBA prospect and son. The idea of Georgia State’s top player playing not only for his team, students, fans, alumni and city, but also for his dad as coach is one that has the potential to have basketball aficionados from New York to Los Angeles talking.

That father-son element to the team has already made both Hunters household names among the Panther Family. If Georgia State is able to put together one of those magical Cinderella runs that is so common in the tournament, that element will be much talked about in the national press and among fans. It can be one that the country can embrace.

Ron Hunter on Monday sent out this tweet:

There’s a reason why that tweet has received nearly 200 retweets and nearly 300 favorites. And while most are not predicting the Panthers to reach the Final Four, it would only up the Cinderella meter to 11 if Ron and R.J. could participate in this year’s Final Four in their native hometown of Indianapolis.

Reason Two 

From Behemoths to Underdogs Secondly, there’s the aspect of players transferring to Georgia State from larger programs.

Ryan Harrow, Kevin War, and Curtis Washington all came to play for the Panthers after transferring from Power Five schools. Harrow, the senior guard, played his first year at Georgia State last season after two seasons with Kentucky, the team many pundits have picked to win the NCAA tournament this season.

Ware transferred after playing for Louisville and was deciding between coming home to Atlanta or playing for head coach Bruce Pearl at Auburn, an SEC school. Washington only played in three games in his freshman year at the University of Southern California (USC) and sat out his sophomore season with the Trojans after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum. With the talent that the Panthers have managed to bring in from schools with higher profiles and bigger athletics budgets, this also adds to the underdog element.

The dimension to the team that players that had a tough time playing for the Goliaths have transitioned their careers to the David that is Georgia State has already received coverage in a well-covered 2014-15 season. Zach Braziller of the New York Post wrote a feature in February on Ware and Harrow’s shift from the state of Kentucky’s two flagship schools to the mid-major Georgia State.

The piece focused on how both, AAU teammates and close high school friends, have had more freedom to showcase their abilities and that there is not the pressure to win every game as there is in Louisville and Kentucky. If the Panthers are able to pull off upsets in the NCAA tournament, and that can be another aspect of the team. After all, America loves an underdog.

Reason Three: The Ware Factor

Lastly, the biggest element to the Cinderella luster that could follow Georgia State is Ware himself. Ware became a much-talked about name in 2013 for the most unfortunate of reasons—his eye-cringing leg injury he sustained in an Elite Eight game vs. Duke during that year’s NCAA tournament while with the Louisville Cardinals. 

Ever since that, most still associate him with that injury when hearing his name. When he made the decision to resume his basketball career with Georgia State (with two years of NCAA eligibility), he wanted to put the focus on “Kevin Ware, the Panthers basketball player” as opposed to “Kevin Ware, the horrifically-injured Louisville Cardinal”—and deservedly so.

Playing for Louisville brings with it much less of a media maelstrom than playing for a mid-major like Georgia State. On a national stage with the Sun Belt championship televised on ESPN2, Ware gave fans across the country something else to associate his name with—willing the Panthers to a 38-36 victory over in-state rival Georgia Southern behind an 18-point performance.

Now, Ware is back in the NCAA tournament with a chance to once again be recognized for his on-court talent before a national audience.

The Panthers have the pieces together that could lead to one of those captivating Cinderella stories. The next step is displaying them on the court before a national audience.

As New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would say—on to Baylor.