The first time Ron Hunter detected that his attempt to instill a new culture at struggling Georgia State had done some good, the Panthers were on their way back from a road trip in November.
Much to the first-year coach's surprise, he saw nothing but smiles when he glanced over his shoulder at his players seated behind him.
"They're enjoying college basketball and I could see it in their faces," Hunter said. "That's when I knew the culture was changing because you've got to understand, my first three months, man, I thought I was working at a morgue. Everyone was down, everyone was depressed, nobody smiled. Now all my jokes are funny."
It's easy for Hunter to coax smiles out of his players these days since Georgia State is in the midst of an unlikely turnaround. A Panthers program that hadn't come close to achieving a winning season since joining the Colonial Athletic Association in 2005 has now reeled off 10 consecutive victories entering a Wednesday night's measuring stick game at surging VCU.
Whether Georgia State (10-3, 2-0) is a CAA contender or not is still debatable since only one of the 10 teams it has beaten has a winning record, but the Panthers have at least made a believer out of one opposing coach. Drexel's Bruiser Flint raved about Georgia State's combination of presses and matchup zones after the Panthers held his team to 31.9 percent shooting in a 58-44 victory on Monday night.
"They play a style that can really give you problems," Flint said. "They really keep you off balance. You've really got to be on top of your game in terms of the thinking part of it because they take advantage of your mistakes. So, yeah, I think they have a chance (to contend). They've got an older group that has really bought in to what Ron is trying to teach. They're going to be a tough out."
What is most surprising about Georgia State's success is Hunter inherited the same group of players who staggered to a 12-19 record under former coach Rod Barnes last season. Upon leaving IUPUI after 17 years to come to Georgia State last March, Hunter planted the seeds for the quick turnaround by essentially stripping the Panthers program bare and promising returners a fresh start.
He redid the locker rooms with everything from fresh paint, new photos and new furniture so they were barely recognizable from the previous season. He introduced the idea of the arena going dark during player introductions and changed which side of the court the team sits during games. And in addition to those cosmetic changes, he chatted individually with each returner and emphasized that a successful 2011-12 season could make their legacy turning around the program rather than the underachievement of the past.
"We changed a little bit of everything," Hunter said. "How we walk, how we brush our teeth, how we change our clothes. Everything we do, we changed.
"It wasn't about the Xs and Os. It was more about getting these kids to believe they were a good team. I told them this last night. If they give me the best basketball year of their lives, I'll give them the best basketball coaching year of my career. If we put that together, something special can happen, and I think that's starting to happen a little bit."
Where the Panthers have excelled most this season is on defense.
Fueled by the emergence of 6-foot-10 senior Eric Buckner as one of the nation's premier shot-blockers, Georgia State has limited opponents to 34.2 percent shooting during the win streak. Opponents have committed 53 more turnovers than the Panthers during the streak, leading to transition opportunities at the other end for Georgia State's guards.
Outside shooting and free throw shooting remain a concern for Georgia State, but enough returners have blossomed under Hunter to mask it so far. Speedy 5-foot-10 point guard Devonta White has more than doubled his scoring average as a sophomore, while seniors James Fields and Jihad Ali have increased their outside shooting and efficiency.
When Hunter left consistently solid IUPUI to come to a Georgia State program that has looked overmatched in the CAA, many questioned whether that was a wise career move. Hunter cited his comfort level at urban campuses and his desire to come to a league as consistently strong as the CAA as reasons for the decision.
It's too soon to suggest Hunter has validated his move, but there are definitely some encouraging early signs. He landed a promising four-man recruiting class in November highlighted by his son R.J. and he's winning with players who weren't successful under his predecessor.
"I don't think we're playing great basketball right now, but we're playing winning basketball," Hunter said. "That's all that matters. The validation will come if we get to postseason play. Then I'll use that word validation. But right now, we're just looking forward to our next game and we want to continue to get better. I came here to build a winner and that's what we're going to get done."