Gonzaga's Mike Hart leads 14th annual Glue Guys team
Let's start with some numbers, shall we?
1 The number of Division I starters who take a lower percentage of their team's shots than Mike Hart, Gonzaga's 6-foot-6 senior guard. (His name is Jonathan Lewis of Jackson State, if you care. And a hat tip to my colleague Luke Winn for digging up that nugget.)
8 The number of turnovers Hart has committed this season. In 552 minutes. "I challenge you to go through the annals of history and see if you can find anybody with a stat like that," Gonzaga coach Mark Few says.
0 The number of college scholarship offers Hart received as a senior at Jesuit High in Portland. That includes Division II and Division III as well. An assistant coach from a local Division III school came to watch Hart play a couple of times, but he decided to pass.
18 The number of games Mike Hart has started this year for the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
I know what you must be thinking: This doesn't add up. Hart's contribution to Gonzaga's success this season may hard to quantify, but it's easy to see. That's saying a lot for a player whose coach never heard of him until he showed up for practice as a walk-on four years ago. "He's unbelievable, man. I've never had anybody like him in all my years of coaching," Few says. "Every team in America could use somebody like him. He has a knack for the ball that you just can't teach. He's incredible at taking charges, at helping, at fighting through screens and moving the ball. He's a crafty, timely cutter. And then he'll come to you and tell you that he doesn't want to start because someone else needs more confidence. He has work ethic, honor, values -- everything, man. He's just a big-time kid."
Fans can be forgiven if they are unfamiliar with Hart's contributions. A former walk-on who barely shoots is not going pop out of the box scores, much less the headlines. There is, however, one place where Hart is not only noticed but heralded, not just appreciated but held in the highest esteem. For his tenacity, his savvy, his persistence against all odds, and for lending college basketball's number one team his remarkable Cinderella story, Mike Hart has been named the captain of Sports Illustrated's 14th annual All-Glue team.
That's right, Gonzaga. The slipper still fits.
SI's All-Glue team started as a story that was published in our 2000 NCAA tournament preview issue. The purpose was to shine a spotlight on players whose value was lost in the shadows. That first story was written by my colleague Alex Wolff, and every year since then, I have carried forth his sticky mantle. In the history of this exercise, however, never has a player ascended to the captaincy from such a nondescript launching point as Mike Hart has.
Hart averaged all of eight points per game as a senior at Jesuit High, and he was named second team all-league. His favorite sport was soccer, so he never played any hoops on the AAU summer circuit. Hart decided to attend Gonzaga, mostly for its business program, but in the back of his mind he was foolish enough to believe that he could be a part of the school's basketball program.
His confidence was not commensurate with his pedigree, but it was validated during pickup games at the campus rec center. Hart became friends with some of the basketball players, and they encouraged him to show up for an open tryout. Few delegated the task of choosing a walk-on to his assistants, and they selected Hart from the small pool candidates.
You might think Hart walked into practice just happy to be there. But you'd be wrong. "To be totally honest, from the first day I put on a jersey, I thought I could compete" he says. As he went up against featured starters like Matt Bouldin, Jeremy Pargo and Steven Gray, Hart's confidence continued to grow. One day, he asked Bouldin if he was crazy to think that he was doing a good job defending him. Bouldin replied, "You do as good a job as anyone does against me in a game." Yet, Coach Few didn't seem to notice. Hart wondered those first few weeks whether the coach even knew his name.
Hart did not play a minute that first season, so technically it qualified as a redshirt year. During home games, he did not even have a seat on the bench, instead parking himself on a stair behind the managers. The following season, he made it on the floor for mop-up duty, logging a grand total of 37 minutes. By the time he was a redshirt sophomore, however, Hart had made enough of an impression on Few during practice that the coach started inserting him for the final minute of each half, usually when the Zags needed a defensive stop. "He was giving our guys fits in practice, just constantly taking the ball from them," Few says. "He would impact the game and help us win even if he played two or three minutes." Eventually, Few started giving Hart some offensive possessions as well. He couldn't quite figure out why, but when Hart was out there, Gonzaga's offense seemed to function more efficiently. During a West Coast Conference tournament semifinal against San Francisco, Hart played a season-high 13 minutes.
Hart caught a break at the start of his junior season when the NCAA suspended forward Guy Landry Edi for eight games because he had played with a professional club team in his native France. A few minutes before the start of Gonzaga's season opener against Eastern Washington, Few told him that he was going to start. Hart ended up starting the first 18 games last year before shifting to a sixth man role after Landry Edi played his way back into the lineup. He averaged 1.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game.
Because he had completed his undergraduate degree in four years, Hart was planning to leave Gonzaga unless Few was able to put him on scholarship. It was a no-brainer. Hart worked hard in the weight room to build up his frame, and when this season began he resumed his role as the first reserve off the bench. Before the team's game against Illinois on Dec. 8, Few told Hart he wanted to promote him to the starting lineup. Hart demurred, telling Few that he shouldn't make the change because he didn't want Edi to lose confidence. Few put off the change for a while, but he eventually decided it was more important to have Hart on the floor.
Unlike many players, who start out as highly-recruited prospects and then fall into a supporting role, Hart knew that this was the only way he was going to earn playing time. For him, being a Glue Guy wasn't just a first choice, it was the only choice. "I knew the only way I could prove my worth was to show the coaches that I could do all those little things, that I could be that Glue Guy," he says. "I see it as my job to give our team energy. That's how I always played the game. I'm proud of being that guy that holds it all together and helps our team whatever way I can."
Even as a starter, Hart is still only averaging 16.7 minutes per game. He has made 20 field goals all season (11 were three-pointers). Still, his contributions have been invaluable, whether it was getting a clutch late steal and offensive rebound that helped Gonzaga salt away a road win at Saint Mary's, or his lockdown defense on Santa Clara's Kevin Foster, who averages 18 points per game but scored only four against the Zags, thanks largely to Hart. At one point during that game, Hart gave Gonzaga three consecutive possessions by snaring offensive rebounds in traffic. It may have been the first time a player received a standing ovation from the home crowd in mid-possession.
Hart has already helped his team achieve what no other Gonzaga team has: a No. 1 ranking. He hopes to add to that legacy two more first-time accomplishments, a No. 1 seed and a spot in the Final Four. Though he has always had more swagger than his gifts warranted, even he is amazed at where his persistence has taken him. "I always had the confidence that I can play, but I would never have imagined things would work out this way," he says. "The position we're in right now and my role on this team, I don't think anyone would dream my journey would culminate like this."
It is a story befitting a program that started out as a Cinderella and morphed into a juggernaut. More than anyone else this season, he has proven that there are many ways for a player to make himself valuable that don't show up in a box score. So it was fitting that when I asked Few what he would miss most about SI's 2013 All-Glue captain, he gave an answer that had nothing to do with numbers:
Coming into this season, nobody thought of Anderson as a Glue Guy. He was a consensus top-five player in his high school class and a surefire one-and-doner. But a funny thing happened on the way to the draft lottery.
It started last summer, when Anderson practiced with his future UCLA teammates in advance of their exhibition tour of China. He could see right away that Larry Drew II, a senior point guard who transferred from North Carolina, had seized the reins of the Bruins' offense and was not letting go. It took a little while for Anderson to process his disappointment that he wouldn't play his chosen position, but once he did, he started to adapt. For the first time in his life, he threw himself into the role of power forward.
By the standards of his pre-college hype, Anderson's season could be labeled a disappointment. He is averaging just 9.9 points a game, fourth-most on the team. But he is still a huge reason why the Bruins won the Pac-12 regular season championship. As a rebounder, Anderson ranked sixth in the conference in league games with a team-best 8.9 per game, and he was also eighth in the league in assists (3.4). He is also second on the team in steals at 1.8 per game. "I get knocked a lot because I don't really dunk the ball, but I think people who really understand the game are appreciative of the way I play," he says. "I'm just out there trying to make the guys around me better. Scoring a lot has never been my game."
Indeed, even as a senior All-America at St. Anthony High in New Jersey, Anderson averaged just 17 points. He has narrow shoulders and a light frame and he doesn't exactly jump out of the gym -- not exactly the formula for effective rebounding. The fact that he gets so many boards is a testament to his tenacity, not to mention his dedication in the weight room. His prowess on the boards exceeded even his own expectations. "I am surprised, but that's what happens when you're playing hard," he says.
Anderson earned his spot on the All-Glue team because of his attitude. Many players with his high school accolades could have become a locker room poison if they were forced into a supporting role as a freshman. Anderson never did. To him, being called a Glue Guy is flattery, not an insult. "That's not a bad thing to me, because it's a part of winning games," he says. "If you look at the really good teams around the country, I'm sure you could point out a Glue Guy on every team. I like playing this role because of my competitive nature. I want to be out there on the floor, and I want to win."
Book smarts don't always translate into court smarts, but Ejim has made his mark at Iowa State with his mind as much as with his body. He carries a 3.74 grade point average and was just named the Big 12's first scholar-athlete award winner, an honor which covers all sports. Not only is Ejim first in his class, he's also first on the glass as the league's leading rebounds at 9.3 per game.
Ejim is not that tall, and he's not overly athletic. He gets so many rebounds for a simple reason: He is always the smartest guy on the court. "He does it through positioning," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg says. "If you look at the great rebounders like Dennis Rodman or Kevin Love, they just know where the ball is coming off. They know how to make contact and release and get the ball. [Ejim] just has a nose for it."
Though Ejim has never been a big scorer, Hoiberg started him from day one his freshman season, as much for his calming influence as his rebounding skills. Ejim ranks fourth this season on the team at 10.6 points per game, but he has shown a natural ability to blend with high scorers Will Clyburn and Tyrus McGee, just as he did in the past with guys like Royce White, Chris Allen and Diante Garrett. Though Ejim grew up in Toronto, his parents are from Nigeria, which made him eligible to try out for the team that their native country sent to the Olympics last summer. Ejim did not make it to London because he was cut, but he did tour with the team through several countries. He returned to Ames with a more efficient offensive game, plus a whole lot of extra confidence.
Though the Cyclones have five seniors on their roster, the players voted Ejim a co-captain last fall alongside point guard Korie Lucious. "That just shows you the respect everybody has for him," Hoiberg says. "He's our most vocal guy on the floor, and everybody knows what he has accomplished off the court."
The play will be etched in memories for decades to come. With 3.5 seconds left in Butler's game against Gonzaga on Jan. 19, Jones stole an inbounds pass from Zags senior guard David Stockton, drove to the lane, and dropped in a floater to deliver a dramatic 64-63 victory. There was much to admire about that play: the steal (made possible by a shove that was just strong enough to dislodge Zags center Kelly Olynyk without drawing a call from the refs); the presence of mind not to hurry; and the ability to convert a difficult field goal. But what impressed Butler coach Brad Stevens the most was what he has always seen in Jones -- the genuine enjoyment of being in a high-pressure situation. "From the first day that he got here, he has always seemed ready for the moment," Stevens says. "Fear is not a factor at all with him."
I listed Jones as a forward because that's how he appears on Butler's official roster, but if there is any player in America who can be characterized as "positionless," it is Jones. He has the build of a two guard, but because he is not a good outside shooter (he attempted just one three-pointer all season), he has had to earn his minutes through his versatility. Stevens calls him "the best wing-slash-combo guard that I've ever been around who doesn't shoot jump shots." The numbers bear that out. Jones ranks third on the team in scoring at 10.4 points per game, but he leads the team in assists (3.5) and is second in rebounding (5.8) and steals (0.9). That's how Glue Guys roll.
Jones' versatility is especially valuable at the defensive end, where Stevens has used him to guard all five positions. Often times, Stevens will make those adjustments on the fly depending on what the situation calls for. When the Bulldogs were locked in a tight game with Xavier last week, Stevens switched Jones on the Musketeers' 6-8 senior power forward Travis Taylor. Jones used his strength to keep Taylor off the boards, enabling Butler to escape with a 67-62 win. Conversely, when Temple guard Khalif Wyatt torched Butler for 16 first-half points on Jan. 26, Stevens decided at halftime to assign Jones to guard Wyatt in the second half. Wyatt scored just six more points, and Butler won, 83-71.
This is what Stevens hoped for when he recruited Jones out of O'Fallon High in St. Louis. Jones played his summer ball on a team that included two future lottery picks in Ben McLemore and Bradley Beal. Jones couldn't score like those guys, but the team needed him on the court. "He was just a really good facilitator," Stevens says. "He'd guard a big man one game and a little guy the next. You could see he was a jack of all trades."
Over the last two years, Jones has had some big games -- most notably his 16-point, 12-rebound, seven-assists performance in an overtime win over Indiana -- but his true impact is in the standings. His versatility, toughness and love of the big moment has allowed Butler to maintain its winning tradition.
On Jan. 16, Georgetown announced that 6-8 sophomore forward Greg Whittington, the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, was academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Sure, the Hoyas still had Otto Porter, who would end up being the Big East Player of the Year, but John Thompson III's Princeton-style offense doesn't rely on individual stars. It depends on smart, tough, versatile players who are able to excel within a team framework. Losing Whittington had the potential to crush the Hoyas.
Far from being derailed, the Hoyas' season stayed on track, and Lubick was a big reason why. Though he only averages 7.4 points per game, he does so efficiently by converting 59 percent of his shots -- which ranks first in the Big East. Lubick is also tied with junior point guard Markel Starks for the team lead in assists (2.9) and he is the second-leading rebounder behind Porter at 5.4 per game. That shows a remarkable range of skills for someone who stands 6-8, 240 pounds, but his most important contribution cannot be quantified. "He is extremely vocal," Thompson III says. "He has the responsibility of not only being where he should be, but also placing other people. He directs, he talks, he makes sure everyone is where they should be at both ends of the court. He may not be our leading scorer, but our guys know what's up. They know that Nate knows what he's talking about."
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who recruited Lubick out of St. Mark's in Southborough, Mass., has been impressed with Lubick's unselfishness. He notes that sometimes Lubick will be willing to get himself into foul trouble in order to give his team a physical presence. "That's the great thing about Glue Guys. They really know who they are, and they're reliable," Brey says. Lubick's improved low-post moves empower the other strengths of his game, especially his passing. On a team that is lacking any seniors, Lubick has provided critical leadership, which is why the players designated him a co-captain along with junior point guard Markel Starks. "Nate gives us quality statistics, not necessarily quantity statistics," Thompson says. "When we need a basket, he comes up with it. When we need a rebound, he comes up with it. When we need a deflection, he comes up with it. He has consistently done that all year.
Georgetown has also consistently won all year. That is not a coincidence.
Releford made the All-Glue team for the second straight year, which is surprising considering how much he has improved as an outside shooter. He raised his overall field goal percentage to 57.9 (up from 49.8 last year), his three-point percentage to 44 percent (from 32.5) and his free throw percentage to 79.2 percent (from 65.4). The fact that his scoring average has only gone from 8.5 points to 11.9 reveals his mindset. Releford likes being a Glue Guy as opposed to a go-to guy, much to the consternation of his coach. "Travis defers too much," Bill Self says. "He'll pass up a great look so someone else can get what he thinks is a better look. We don't need him to hunt his shot, but he has really improved his stroke, and he's great at driving to the basket. So I'd still like him to be more aggressive."
Releford might not have the Q rating of teammates Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, but the coaches around the Big 12 understand his value. That's why they voted him onto the Big 12's second team all-conference. Releford is a good rebounder (3.7 per game) and passer (2.5 assists per game), but the best thing he does is defend. During the Jayhawks' run to the NCAA championship game last season, Releford guarded players as varied as Purdue forward Robbie Hummel (who is 6-8) as well as all three of Ohio State's primary scorers in the Final Four (6-2 Aaron Craft, 6-7 Deshaun Thomas and 6-8 William Buford). This year, he again harassed Thomas into a 4-for-11 performance during a win over the Buckeyes, and Releford's defense on Kansas State forward Rodney McGruder enabled the Jayhawks to win yet another season sweep over their cross-state rivals.
"Travis is the ultimate Glue Guy," Self says. "He can play the two and he can play the four. He can guard one through four. He's the best at 50-50 balls. He's the best at keeping balls alive on the glass. He's our primary defender, and on offense he's a great ball mover and facilitator."
This was not what many people envisioned for Releford as a highly-touted recruit out of Kansas City's Bishop Miege High. After Releford averaged just seven minutes per game as a freshman, Self suggested that he redshirt a season because of a glut at the guard positions. Self was concerned that Releford might want to transfer, but Releford figured if he was going to to sit out for a year, he might as well do it at the place where wanted to be.
Releford will likely end his career without quite reaching the magical 1,000-point mark, but his legacy in Lawrence will extend well beyond a single statistical category. "Travis is the toughest kid on our team, and he's the coolest guy on our team," Self says. "He's also the best teammate. He is what college is supposed to be about. He sacrificed for the greater good. He's 'we' instead of 'me.' And he's the ultimate winner."