Friday, January 3, 2003

First-round dreams fuel last college season

Brandon Hunter returned to Ohio U. with goals: winning, earning a degree and improving his NBA chances

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio's Brandon Hunter.
(Ohio Media Relations photo)
| ZOOM |
There are days when Brandon Hunter thinks: Why did I come back?

The day after he returned to Athens, Ohio, after his Christmas break was one of them. Hunter, Ohio University's star forward from Withrow High School, got up early to go to the gym and try to work his way out of a shooting slump.

"We had practice at 4," Hunter said. "The women practiced from 10:30 to 1. So I was going to go over to the gym at 8:30 and work on my shot."

But Hunter's car, a 1996 Lincoln, wouldn't start.

"The electrical system is messed up," he said. "I've got to figure out how to get it fixed. I was thinking if I hadn't come back to school, I would have had the money to buy me a nice new truck or something."

Hunter nearly did take the money and forego his final season of eligibility last spring. He declared for the NBA draft, but he withdrew May 15. He was allowed to return to school because he hadn't hired an agent.

Hunter and Ohio U. come to Cincinnati on Saturday to play the University of Kentucky at U.S. Bank Arena (4 p.m. tipoff).

Hunter knows he made the right decision when he returned for his senior season. It's just hard to see that when it's a cold morning and your car won't start.

"You have mixed emotions," Hunter said. "When things are going wrong, you second-guess yourself."

Hunter comes from meager means. The money from the NBA or playing in Europe would have solved some immediate problems - such as car trouble - but Hunter was able to look beyond the immediate reward. He knew if he stuck it out for another year at OU, it would pay off more down the road.

"He's really serious about his education," OU coach Tim O'Shea said. "He's going to graduate. A basketball career is relatively short. When he's through with that, he wants to come back to Cincinnati and work with kids."

Hunter has some experience with that already. He quit basketball as a ninth-grader so he could watch his younger sisters, Jenna and Jennelle, because his mother didn't have money for a baby-sitter.

"It was up to me to take care of the them," Hunter said. "It made me stronger."

This season has tested Hunter's strength. His frustration has increased because Ohio U. has struggled; the Bobcats come into Saturday's game 3-5.

Hunter also hasn't played as well as he expected to. He leads the Bobcats in scoring (18.4 points a game) and rebounding (12.6 a game), but he's shooting just 23 percent from 3-point range after shooting 37 percent last season.

"I believe we've got enough talent and experience to get it turned around," Hunter said. "You've got to stay confident. I've missed a whole lot of shots (lately) that I normally make - 17-foot jumpers, open 3s, jumpers off the curl. You get frustrated and it's really not a lot of fun. But I'll work at it. I know I'll be OK."

Hunter had a lot of reasons for coming back. Ohio U. had everyone returning from last season's team.

"I've never won a championship in college," he said. "I've never been (Mid-American Conference) player of the year."

And there's the matter of graduation.

"I knew if I went to the NBA or went to Europe and was making six figures, I'd never go back to Athens and finish my degree," he said.

But make no mistake, Hunter's No. 1 motive in coming back was to improve his stock in the eyes of the NBA. He opted out of the draft when he realized he was going to be a second-round pick at best.

"I knew from talking to people," he said. "I evaluated things myself."

His evaluation was right on, says Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting.

"He would not have been drafted in the first round," Blake said. "Staying in school gave him the best chance."

It's not a guarantee. At 6 feet 7, he's small for a power forward in the NBA.

"He's not really a 'tweener,'" Blake said. "He can play inside and out. But his size is questionable. He competes well. It's up to the individual teams and their needs. He needs to go to predraft camps and play well."

The strength of Hunter's game is, well, his strength. He's a chiseled 265 pounds, so he can bang with most anyone.

He has worked to develop the rest of his game.

"The one thing he's gotten better at that separates him from other players is he's scoring pretty well off the dribble," O'Shea said.

Hunter, a two-time first-team all-MAC selection, came out of his shooting slump in a 104-101 win over St. Bonaventure on Tuesday. He scored 18 points, going 7-of-12 from the floor. (He had made only nine of 33 shots in his two previous games.) He also set a Convocation Center record by grabbing 23 rebounds against the Bonnies.

"He's played well overall," O'Shea said. "He just went through a little shooting slump that players oftentimes go through."


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