Saturday, March 1, 2014

Out of nowhere, a reborn Upshaw helps a program rebuild

There’s no shortage of statistical evidence—nor methodology—to indicate just how good Zeke Upshaw has been for the Flying Dutchmen this season.

In terms of raw numbers, he is the second-leading scorer in the CAA at 19.7 points per game. He has scored a higher percentage of his team’s points—29.2 percent—than anyone in the top 10.

He has scored at least 25 points in eight games. For an idea of how impressive that is, Charles Jenkins had nine 25-point games as a senior three years ago.

Presuming he scores at least nine points in the next two games, Upshaw will finish with the highest scoring average for any graduate transfer ever. Of course, “ever” is a rather dramatic and misleading term, given that the graduate transfer rule—in which a player who has graduated may play immediately after transferring to another school that features a major not offered by the school from which he got his undergraduate degree—was only instituted prior to the 2011-12 season.

But Upshaw’s feat will not likely be diminished by the increasing pool of graduate transfers in the coming years. Division I rosters featured 46 graduate transfers this season, up from 15 two years ago. Nor is it likely that any future graduate transfer will match the dramatic ascent Upshaw authored in going from end-of-the-bench afterthought at Illinois State to superstar at Hofstra.

Upshaw averaged 1.6 points per game in 62 career games over three years at Illinois State. Of the 94 other graduate transfers, only nine averaged less than 1.6 points per game at their previous stop. And none of those nine averaged more than nine points per game as a graduate transfer.

“This couldn’t have happened at a better time for me,” Upshaw said this week.

Nor could he have happened at a better time for Hofstra, which, a year removed from the bleakest moments in the history of its men’s basketball program, had an impossible-to-quantify need for a feel-good tale such as Upshaw’s.

“It’s a great story—it’s as good a story in college basketball as there is, I think,” Joe Mihalich said. “I don’t know what else would be.”

This great story has not been without its challenging moments for its main characters, who came together at their most vulnerable times.

At Illinois State, Upshaw drew the dreaded “DNP-CD” 37 times. He was impressive in the few opportunities he did receive: Upshaw scored at least seven points seven times for the Redbirds and, in consecutive games last season, scored nine points on three late 3-pointers against Indiana State before collecting a career-high 11 points against national power Creighton.

“For not playing [much] the previous two or three years before that and having games like that against Creighton and a good team like Indiana State, that definitely gave me motivation to keep going (as well as) confidence,” Upshaw said.

That confidence was tested when Upshaw played in just 10 of the Redbirds’ final 19 games, a stretch in which he scored a total of 15 points.

“That sort of defined the whole year, because it was up and down,” Upshaw said. “My coach, he’s a good coach, but he was up and down the whole year with rotations.”

By the end of the season, Upshaw became aware of the graduate transfer option and switched majors—from apparel, merchandising and design to university studies—so that he could get his degree and play somewhere else this season.

Weeks later, Mihalich was walking out of his new office at Hofstra when his cell phone rang. It was Chicago-based Joe Henricksen, the founder of the Hoops Report scouting service and a longtime friend of Mihalich’s.

At his introductory press conference, Mihalich said he realized he had to find some players in a hurry but that he was already used to being thorough in recruiting after spending more than a decade at upstate Niagara.

“We’re going to recruit anywhere and everywhere,” Mihalich said April 10. “You answer every email and you make every phone call. You look at every tape that comes in. And if there’s a genuine mutual interest, you pursue it.”

Still, he probably didn’t expect to have to go to the lengths that Jay Wright did in 1994, when, in the pre-Internet era, he pursued players sight unseen to fill out his first Flying Dutchmen roster.

“Joe [says] ‘I think I’ve got a kid for you,’” Mihalich said.

After learning more about Upshaw and watching game footage of him on the Synergy Sports Tech website, Mihalich figured he was a talented player who slipped through the cracks because of coaching changes—he had been recruited to Illinois State by head coach Tim Jankovich and assistant coach Paris Parham, who left after the 2011-12 season to take assistant jobs at SMU and Illinois, respectively—and the misfortune of being stuck behind NBA prospect Jackie Carmichael.

The lure of ample playing time drew Upshaw to Hofstra, which he committed to shortly after visiting in the early summer. Pickup ball over the next few months made it clear he would be one of the go-to players on a team bereft of scoring options.

“We just needed a guy who was a good scorer,” Mihalich said. “We do it every year—who’s going to get what. How many points is Dion Nesmith going to score? How many points will Moussa Kone score?”

And how many points would Upshaw score?

“I think we figured we’d get about 12,” Mihalich said. “So we were wrong.”

It took until the fourth game of the season for Mihalich to realize how wrong he’d been. Upshaw scored 46 points over the first three games but gave no indication he’d be anything more than a solid if unspectacular place-holder.

He cramped in the second half of the season opener, when the Dutchmen blew a 13-point lead in losing to Monmouth, 88-84. Early foul trouble against Fairleigh Dickinson two days later limited Upshaw to eight minutes and seven points. And he wasn’t the Dutchmen’s most impressive player against defending national champion Louisville on Nov. 12 when Upshaw scored 17 points and pulled down six rebounds while Nesmith had 24 points, six assists and one steal.

But at Richmond on Nov. 19, Upshaw scored 37 points—only the 19th time in school history a player has collected at least 37 points in a game—as the Dutchmen never trailed in regulation before losing in overtime.

“I never played Richmond before, but I was familiar with the team—they’re always known for having good defensive teams and going to the [NCAA] Tournament,” Upshaw said. “Scoring that much against them definitely gave me confidence for the rest of the year.”

That effort also ratcheted up the pressure placed upon Upshaw by Mihalich, who began placing superstar demands on a player less than a year removed from spending his nights in warm-ups at the end of the bench. Finally, after an ugly 86-67 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson in Hackensack, Upshaw pleaded for a little understanding.

“There was a time I was hard on him—really hard on him,” Mihalich said “After that terrible loss to FDU, I brought every player in and talked to them one-on-one. He said ‘Coach, I’m not used to this.’ And it almost made me feel bad, because it was so short-sighted of me to not realize, you know what, the poor kid isn’t used to this: Being the best player, playing 38 minutes a game, having to be the leader, asking him to play defense, asking him to rebound.

“I realized I probably needed to back off a little bit of the veins-popping-out-of-your-forehead for letting your guy blow by you once in a while.”

Upshaw responded to Mihalich’s lighter touch by ratcheting up his play and putting the Dutchmen on his back as conference season began. In 15 CAA games, he has scored at least 20 points nine times, played 40 minutes 10 times and twice tied the school record for 3-pointers in a game (seven against UNC Wilmington and William & Mary).

He has more points in the last four games (107) than he did in three years at Illinois State (100). He has hit all 19 of his free throw attempts in the last two games, the most consecutive free throws by a Hofstra player since Mike Moore in 2010-11 and two more free throws than Upshaw converted for the Redbirds.

There have not been a lot of wins—heading into tonight’s home finale. the Dutchmen (4-11 CAA, 8-22 overall) have lost nine of their last 10 and are locked into the outbracket game of the CAA tournament next Friday against UNC Wilmington—but Upshaw’s play has helped define a team that has developed an endearing grittiness in losing 10 games by seven points or less, including each of its last three.

In bursting on to the scene with a flurry as impressive as it is brief, he has also helped hasten the healing process for a program and a fan base devastated by the disastrous events of last season.

“I want the student section to fill back up for these guys,” Upshaw said. “I take a lot of pride in getting that, and sort of rebuilding and re-healing the attitude of everybody—all the fans and everybody around Hofstra.”

It is impossible not to note the juxtaposition between Upshaw, who arrived with zero expectations and is thriving within the spirit of a relatively new rule that could be easily exploited by those with impure intentions, and the hotly hyped transfers who squandered second chances in destroying the Dutchmen last season.

The rebuilding and the rebirth has begun with a player who will be positively associated with Hofstra for far longer than he actually played here.

“Illinois State is a great school and I loved my time there,” Upshaw said. “But I feel like I’ve done more work here and everything has been great here. So, yeah, I’ll definitely be wearing my Hofstra shirts for the rest of my life.”

He hopes to be wearing those shirts overseas, where he plans to pursue professional opportunities this summer. But first, there’s a Senior Night more than 900 miles east of Illinois State, followed by at least two more chances to play 40 minutes and rack up 20-plus points. Who could have imagined that a year ago?

“Great story—just a great story,” Mihalich said. “I hope for his sake it has a happy ending of some sort. I don’t know how you define that. Winning the 8/9 game and then playing your whatever off [against the top seed a week from today]? I don’t know. I hope for his sake this can have a happy ending this year.”

Who’s to say it hasn’t already happened?

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