Hofstra's Upshaw makes huge leap thanks to graduate transfer rule

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Zeke Upshaw has reached double digits in scoring in 20 of Hofstra's 22 games this season. (Jim Cowsert/USA Today)

Zeke Upshaw

A bad Monday night ended at about 2 a.m. Tuesday for Hofstra, when the team pulled back into campus after an 18-point loss at Towson. In Zeke Upshaw’s mind, the feeling that the Pride somehow should have won or could have won had not been defused. It was one to sleep off, for sure, except that the senior forward couldn’t quite fall asleep.

So a bad Monday night didn’t really end for Upshaw until about seven or eight hours after it ended for everyone else. By then, Hofstra’s leading scorer was in the gym, alone, shooting. Pride coach Joe Mihalich spied him after a staff meeting. With a degree in hand and one year left to play, Upshaw transferred to Hofstra to make something out of an ordinary career. Looking through an office window, his coach beamed at the lengths Upshaw took to do so.

“We had a plan, the two of us, where it was like, ‘Hey, let’s make this the best year of your life,’” Mihalich said. “That’s been the battle cry: Let’s make this the best year of your life.”

It has become that and more for a previously unremarkable player enjoying arguably the greatest season-to-season leap in the country. Upshaw averages 19.2 points per game to lead Hofstra, a 16.7-point improvement on his average in his final season for Illinois State -- the largest year-to-year scoring jump for anyone in the nation.

The byproduct is the 6-foot-6 forward becoming the retort to anyone who would do away with or modify the graduate transfer rule, which enables a player with a degree to switch schools and play immediately. Some coaches who benefit from the rule would alter it nonetheless. They’d find an unsympathetic audience in a Chicago native who expectantly waited for a chance that never came, before he ventured out and seized another.

“There are a lot of guys in the country that are probably in my same shoes, not playing a lot,” Upshaw said. “But I’m able to get a year in grad school, and be able to play now, and get some minutes, and help a team win, and be a leader on a team and be a guy that people look up to. There’s a lot of guys in the country that need that opportunity and want that opportunity.”

This is no crusade. Upshaw merely wanted a chance to play and make a statement on the court, not in some arcane debate over transfer rules. By accident, he has embodied the argument to maintain the rule, even if others in his predicament haven’t convinced their own coaches.

Tarik Black left Memphis for Kansas as a graduate transfer and has provided interior toughness and depth for a national title contender. But Self might have preferred that he didn't. Self advocated that the mandatory year to sit out apply to any transfer, including those with degrees.

“It’s a bad rule. I strongly believe that,” Self said. “If you’re so concerned about academics, if that’s the reason why you’re supposedly transferring, then why wouldn’t you want to get two years out of it, too?”

The primary counterpoints are simple: The player in question clearly has tended to academics already, earning a degree while playing a sport, which more or less satisfies the mission statement of the entire NCAA. And if there is no dispute between the programs – if a school would rather give a scholarship and time to a developmental player than a veteran it considers expendable – then what’s the harm?

Before Upshaw walked into his office shortly after the 2012-13 season ended, Illinois State coach Dan Muller was well aware of the player’s dissatisfaction. Upshaw had practices where he hit every shot he took, but it never translated consistently to games. When Upshaw declared his desire to transfer and finish his career elsewhere, it was no surprise.

Muller assured Upshaw he could use the study center as he finished out his academic requirements. He told Upshaw he could work out with the team if he wanted. Upshaw wanted a clean start, and Muller asked how he could help with that.

“I wanted him to have success,” Muller said. “I wasn’t positive he’d have success this year or not. Obviously, I’d love to have him playing the way he is right now. I wanted to have him have great final year, and if he could go somewhere else and have that, I’m happy for him.”

Upshaw’s path to Long Island was not as serpentine as one might expect. Mihalich had a longstanding connection to Joe Henricksen, the editor and publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report in Chicago. One night in April, Henricksen caught Mihalich on the way out of the office late at night to offer a tip on a Chicago kid looking for a new home. The new Hofstra coach had four players, total, when he took over after 15 years at Niagara. He needed bodies. Of course he’d take a look.

Mihalich watched film of Upshaw scoring 13 points against Creighton and had Illinois assistant Paris Parham, a former Illinois State aide, vouch for Upshaw’s character. He was sold on Upshaw as a contributor. In September, the Hofstra coaches wrote their players’ names on a board and asked: OK, how many points are we going to get this year?

From Upshaw, they hoped for maybe a dozen points a night.

In the fourth game of the season, Upshaw dropped 37 on Richmond.

Whoo boy, Mihalich thought.

“I’d be lying if I said I figured he’d do something like this,” the Hofstra coach said. “Absolutely lying. But we did know we liked the way he played.”

Upshaw has 20 double-digit scoring efforts in 22 games. He has scored 81 percent of his career points in a Hofstra uniform. The validation of how he viewed himself as a player has been invaluable. But so, too, has been the opportunity to assume a central, leading role and the challenge to adjust to the pressures of it.

After one particularly stinging loss, Mihalich had sit-down conversations with each player. The coach had promised to stay on Upshaw to ensure neither side had any regrets. But as Mihalich unleashed his screed, he paused when Upshaw looked at him and said, Coach, I’m not used to this.

“It’s been completely different,” Upshaw said. “Obviously I’m not perfect at it, because I’m not used to it, I didn’t have this role last year. But I’ve been working hard and I’ve been staying in the gym and for us to be successful I have to do continue to do what I’ve been doing, and even more. It’s been fun, though. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Upshaw will get his Master’s degree. He earned a degree in apparel, merchandising and design at Illinois State, per his official bio, and as a bonus to matriculating at Hofstra got a chance to hobnob at least with a few shoe store owners in New York. The primary objective, though, has been to renew his basketball career and earn a chance to play overseas.

Hofstra has struggled, sitting at just 7-15 overall and now 3-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association after a loss to Drexel on Wednesday. But Upshaw feels sheer enjoyment anyway. This sense of contentment, the losing notwithstanding, is a powerful argument against those looking to restrict the rules. “We won a couple the other day and I texted him and I said, ‘Man, this is fun, isn’t it?’” Mihalich said. “And he texted me back, ‘It sure is.’”

As with any rule, it can be exploited and can help some more than others. Though comfortable with Upshaw’s decision, Muller believes other, smaller programs could be devastated by a veteran unexpectedly seeking greener pastures if there was no plan in place to replace him.

Likewise, as a former Vanderbilt assistant, Muller notes that not all graduate programs are created equal. And therefore not every team is equipped to welcome graduate transfers. “If you graduate with a 2.5 (grade-point average) from school and try to get into Vanderbilt business school, you’re not getting in,” Muller said. “So it’s not completely fair.”

It’s a point well taken, though Muller said such cases might not amount to epidemic inequality. And the counterpoint again is a player who waits and waits, convinced of himself and his talent and sure his time will come, taking care of his responsibilities for four years and realizing at the end that his chance would not come after all.

Maybe no one is arguing Zeke Upshaw shouldn’t ultimately be at Hofstra at 9:30 a.m. earlier this week, shooting away one of the rare bad nights he has encountered in these last few months. But he’d done enough waiting already.