The Georgia State's men's basketball team is on an eight-day trip in Costa Rica with three goals to accomplish.
The first is to give away more than 5,000 shoes to needy children as part of coach Ron Hunter's work with the charity Samaritan's Feet.
"I wouldn't do this if we couldn't give away shoes," Hunter said. "We will run out of shoes before we run out of people. That's the frustrating part."
Guard Ryan Harrow said he remembers working with the charity while he was a player at Kentucky. The team went to an in-state school to wash the feet of children and provide them with shoes.
"That's the main goal, going out there to help people that are less fortunate so we can be grateful," he said.
This is the second trip Hunter has taken with the Georgia State team. He and the squad went to South Africa two years ago to give away shoes.
Hunter has taken seven trips on behalf of Samaritan's Feet, including one previously to Costa Rica when he was the coach at IUPUI.
"I know the need is there," he said. "I'm excited to go back and help some of the children we didn't get to help before."
Of secondary importance is basketball.
The team has played four games against club teams from Costa Rica. Some of the shoe giveaways occurred in cities that hosted the games, which were played Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Before the team left on Thursday, Hunter said some of the key players -- last season's leading scorer R.J. Hunter, second-leading scorer Harrow and perhaps Curtis Washington -- wouldn't play in all four games. He singled out Kevin Ware, who transferred from Louisville in the offseason and is expected to start, in that group of players who wouldn't play in all four games.
Ware suffered a horrific broken leg in the 2013 NCAA tournament. After appearing to be mentally over the injury, Hunter said Ware seems to have taken a step back after Pacers guard Paul George suffered a similar injury last week.
"We want to ease him into this," Hunter said.
The good news was that there are several players Hunter wanted to give a lot of playing time to while in Costa Rica.
Guard Jeff Thomas, a freshman from Norwalk, Ohio, already is penciled in as a starter.
"Jeff has been ahead of everybody," Hunter said. "He's caught all of our eyes."
Thomas helped lead the Norwalk High School boys' basketball team to a Div. II state title earlier this year.
He started school the day after graduation and has been attending classes and practicing basketball all summer.
Redshirt freshman guard Isaiah Dennis has been right behind Thomas in improvement. Dennis has lost none of the explosiveness he showed last season before he was sidelined with a foot injury.
Another freshman, Jordan Session, is pushing for playing time.
The competition is fine with Ron Hunter. He wants a deeper bench than he had during last year's Sun Belt championship season when the team rarely used more than eight players in critical games, and those players typically didn't play many minutes or score many points. He also hopes that the four games can improve the team's chemistry so that it can avoid a slow start similar to last season, when the Panthers started 2-5.
Harrow said the work has begun.
"We've really taken in the new guys and made them into our family like we did last year," Harrow said. "Everybody is happy for the next person. There's no animosity, no trying to compete, not trying to outdo each other. We are trying to be good collectively."
Georgia State opened its Costa Rican International Tour on Friday evening with an 82-29 victory over Cartago. Thomas led the Panthers with 19 points, while Session added 16.
Thomas scored 18 of his points in the first half and unofficially added three rebounds and a pair of steals.
Following a shoe distribution with Samaritan's Feet on Saturday morning, the Panthers defeated Puntarenas 54-42 in game two of the four-game exhibition tour. Thomas, who was not one of the five starters in that contest, scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds.
In the third game, which was played against Juegos Nacionales in San Jose on Sunday, Georgia State recorded a 71-41 victory. Hunter led the team with 19 points. Harrow scored in double figures for the second straight game, finishing with 12 points. Thomas and fellow freshman Session each chipped in with five points and two rebounds.
On Monday morning, Thomas and his teammates took part in its second shoe distribution with Samaritan's Feet. The Panthers traveled to the town of Guarari, which is a "shanty town" inhabited mainly by immigrants from Nicaragua.
Georgia State played its final game of the trip Monday night, facing San Ramon.
The team returns to the United States on Friday.
By Doug Roberson - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT)
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