Kenya Hunter had barely lived in Bloomington for seven months before he found himself wondering if he was going to have to move again.
His initial hiring came later in the annual hiring cycle than it usually would because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s shake-up of the NBA calendar. The New York Knicks had fired David Fizdale in December of 2019 and were playing under interim coach Mike Miller when the season was suspended in March of 2020. When the league announced the parameters of its re-start bubble and it became clear the Knicks wouldn’t be a part of it at 21-45, they moved forward with hiring a new coach in Tom Thibodeau in late July. Thibodeau in turn hired Kenny Payne from Kentucky, leaving Wildcats coach John Calipari an opening to hire long-time friend Bruiser Flint away from Indiana, which put IU coach Archie Miller in need of an assistant with East Coast ties.
That led him to Hunter, who was two years into a tenure at Connecticut.
All of that happened relatively quickly, but so did the demise of Archie Miller’s tenure at Indiana. Thanks to six straight losses at the end of the season that turned a 12-9 team on the safe side of the bubble into a 12-15 without even a whisper of an NCAA Tournament argument, Miller was fired four years into a seven-year contract and Hunter started thinking about where his eighth coaching job would have to be.
But when Miller was fired, Hunter was asked not to put his home on the market just yet.
“I was in constant communication with (athletic director) Scott Dolson,” Hunter said Thursday in a Zoom press conference. “He asked me to wait and see who he hired before making my decision. I was excited about that. Didn’t know if it was going to work out, but was excited to know that he wanted me to stay here.”
Hunter still put feelers out just in case. He didn’t know what direction Dolson would go for a hire, and if he brought in another college head coach, Hunter knew that coach could come in with a ready-made staff from his previous program and there wouldn’t be space for him. However, Dolson kept Hunter and Mike Roberts, who had also been an assistant coach on Miller’s staff, to be part of the transition team and to keep the program running until a new hire was made. Hunter treated that opportunity as its own job interview.
Hunter and Roberts made sure the current players kept showing up for conditioning and workouts and stayed in their ears while some entered the transfer portal and some didn’t. They stayed in contact with committed recruits Logan Duncomb and C.J. Gunn and even with uncommitted recruits, selling Indiana even without knowing who the head coach was going to be.
“It was a difficult time,” Hunter said. “Obviously, it’s the first time that this happened to me that I was a part of the transition team, but I was happy to do it. I know it’s a difficult time for everyone. I think the biggest thing is what we’ve always done, be there to support the kids on their decision. When it took a little bit longer and guys started entering the transfer portal, all you could do is talk to them and their parents and support them. … My biggest thing was to sit still and let things happen.”
As fate might have it, Dolson eventually hired another coach from Thibodeau’s staff with the Knicks, which gave Hunter a real opportunity to earn a spot on the staff. Mike Woodson was an All-American as a player at Indiana, but he had never coached in college, and of the three men who were assistants on his last staff when he was head coach of the Knicks in 2013-14, the only one who is still coaching, Darrell Walker, is head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock.
Hunter decided quickly that Woodson was a man he wanted to work for, and Woodson felt the same way. Two days after Woodson’s introductory press conference, the news broke that Hunter had been retained.
“First off, it was just his presence,” Hunter said when asked what told him Woodson would be a good man to work for. “When you talk to him, you’re talking to someone who’s real. I think the knowledge of the game he has and some of the things he wants to implement from the NBA style to college excites me. I’m excited about that. Him being an Indiana graduate, his blood, sweat and tears was shed here. I think he’s going to put a lot of effort and time into making this a program that everyone can be excited about. I wanted to have a chance to be a part of that.”
In the two weeks since, Hunter has already had a major impact in shaping the roster Woodson will carry into his first season.
Hunter was a big reason why the Hoosiers landed guard Parker Stewart as a mid-year transfer in December and a big reason why Stewart withdrew his name from the transfer portal after putting his name in when Miller was fired. Hunter was close with Stewart’s father Anthony, who died in November unexpectedly at the age of 50. Stewart transferred from Tennessee-Martin, where his father had been coaching when he died, to play for Hunter and he announced his intent to stay at Indiana about a day after it was announced that Hunter would stay.
Stewart will be a critical component to make Woodson’s four-out, one-in offense work. The Hoosiers will need 3-point shooting to space the floor, and they lost a lot of it with the transfers of guards Armaan Franklin (Virginia) and Aljami Durham (Providence). The Hoosiers two leading returning 3-point shooters, guard Rob Phinisee and forward Jerome Hunter, hit 25 3-point shots each last year. No other returner hit more than 12.
In 2019-20 at UT-Martin, Stewart hit 71. He also hit 71 in the 2017-18 season at Pittsburgh before transferring from there.
“He’s one of those guys who really fits especially the way Coach Woodson wants to play,” Hunter said. “In transition he runs the floor hard and he can spot up for 3s. The thing that excited me, I was gone the last couple of days, but (associate athletic director for basketball administration Thad) Matta come up to me and he said, ‘Your guy Parker made 20 for 21 from 3.’ We celebrated that. It’s a situation where he’s known for being a really good shooter. Now it’s, you’ve done it in practice. Hopefully that translates to games for us. He’s a guy who can knock down shots and also guard 1, 2 and 3 positions.”
Hunter was also instrumental in adding Pittsburgh transfer point guard Xavier Johnson. Before he attended Pitt, Johnson committed to Nebraska under Hunter was there working for Tim Miles. Both northern Virginia natives, they maintained a relationship over Johnson’s three years at Pitt, and Hunter began recruiting him back in February when Johnson hit the transfer portal even before Miller was hired. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound point guard who averaged 13.7 points and 4.9 assists per game in three seasons at Pitt.
“I feel like what he brings to the table is something we missed last year as far as the talent level,” Hunter said. “He has a gift to create in transition not only for himself but for others. I think he’s a guard, first-step wise, that can get feet in the paint. He’s continually getting better with his 3-point shot and there’s still a lot of work to be done there. He makes everyone around him better. He can hopefully get easier baskets for some of our guys, putting them in position to be successful, and defensively I think he can dominate the ball as far as guarding the ball. I think that’s how Coach Woodson wants to play moving forward.”
Hunter has to make some alterations to the sort of player he’s looking for now, but he can at least trust that he’ll be able to stay in Bloomington long enough to have an impact.
“I know there was a reason for me to come to Indiana in a short period time, coming in in August,” Hunter said. “Normally an assistant coach doesn’t move at that time. I think everything happens for a reason. I’m here, I feel like, for a reason.”
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