CLEVELAND – Luke Hancock had already shaken off Villanova’s Corey Stokes in the final minute of Friday’s NCAA tournament game. He had space to operate and time to do so effectively.
And then the George Mason guard briefly stopped, surveyed the scene and deposited a 3-pointer through the basket.
“I guess I was kind of thinking about whether it was the best shot to take,” Hancock said less than 24 hours after he shot the Patriots past Villanova to book passage into the round of 32.
Funny. Mason (27-6) paused on Hancock, too.
The sophomore scored 18 points in the Patriots’ tournament opener, securing a date with top-seeded Ohio State (33-2) at Quicken Loans on Sunday. Yet his spectacular postseason play – he was one point shy of his career-high – would never have occurred were it not for some serious cajoling from coach Jim Larranaga’s staff.
Hancock, after all, was a high school graduate with no Division I offers when he opted to attend Hargrave Military Academy. Mason assistant Michael Huger uncovered Hancock by accident, noticing him on a scouting trip to see eventual Oakland signee Ledrick Eackles.
By the time he returned to Fairfax, Huger was already raving about the 6-foot-5 guard.
“He looked great the day I saw him,” Huger said. “I called Coach L and said ‘Hey, they have a kid up there at Hargrave who’s really good and you really need to come out here and see him play. I just think he can help us. He can put it on the floor, he’s really athletic, he can run and shoot – he’s what we need, what we’re looking for.”
So Huger (who played for Larranaga at Bowling Green) and Larranaga hopped in a car a week later to make the four-hour drive to Chatham, Va.
And then … nothing.
“I watched him play for two hours,” Larranaga recalled. “He scored two points in the entire two hours.”
Added Hancock: “I had a terrible game – a terrible day.”
Needless to say, a scholarship offer wasn’t forthcoming, at least not yet. Larranaga promised he would be back, but couldn’t commit to anything beyond that.
Perhaps the only person more anxious about the outing than Hancock was Huger, who still had a four-hour ride home with his boss.
“We go into the gym and they’re warming up and I’m waiting as they start practicing and playing and it’s like ‘Yeah, OK, when are you going to start playing? What is going on?’” Huger said. “He was just running up and down. The one thing he did do was pass; he passed the ball pretty well the day Coach L and I went there to see him. So I said he’s passing the ball pretty well, but he’s not scoring and not shooting. He’s not doing any of things he did when I saw him just a week ago.”
Huger was mystified, but still certain of himself. He knew what he witnessed just a few days earlier. He knew how well a multifaceted player who could run when Mason got to push the pace and also defend would fit as the Patriots found their next generation of crucial pieces.
And so the sales job continued, even if the initial demonstration didn’t work quite right.
“If you don’t listen to me about any other player, please listen to me about this kid,” Huger implored Larranaga. “He can play. I’ve seen a lot of basketball, this kid can play. We have to offer him a scholarship.”
Larranaga had another idea. He dispatched assistants Chris Caputo and Eric Konkol to see Hancock again a week later.
Very quickly, Huger had company in promoting an unheralded player who boasted offers from the Big South and Southern conferences and little else.
“We were there probably 20 minutes and [we said] ‘Hey, we have to offer this guy. He’s what we need,’” Caputo said. “We had six scholarships, and we need a guy like this. And that was that. There was no recruiting.”
The next time Larranaga saw Hancock was on campus, when the Roanoke, Va., native quietly committed to the Patriots.
His impact since then, though, is substantial.
Hancock made the CAA’s all-rookie team a year ago, then secured third-team all-conference honors as a sophomore. He enters Sunday averaging 10.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Oh, and the biggest shot of Mason’s season to his credit.
“I really think he’s a guy who has an incredible confidence,” Caputo said. “It takes confidence to not have a Division I scholarship and decide, “You know what, I’m going to go to prep school for a year.’ It takes confidence for that guy to go to a place like Hargrave that’s got so many players and really go at all those guys. And it takes confidence to play the way he’s played. He’s very sure of himself and he’s a guy we want with the ball in his hands.”
Never mind the pause. Huger said Hancock is often deliberate, making sure he takes his time to ensure he attempts the right shot. Teammate Mike Morrison said he was sure Hancock was try to sink Villanova – but only after it was clear the space was there.
As for Hancock? Less than 24 hours, he wasn’t entirely sure himself.
“I can’t even describe what was really going through my head,” Hancock said. “It was a good open look to start, so I just kind of shot it.”
It was his initial instinct, and it was correct.
Just like gut feeling of the assistant coach who found him in the first place.
“It was kind of ‘He might not listen to me ever again. This might be the last kid I ever try to get over here,’” Huger said of his trip home with Larranaga from Hargrave. “It wasn’t bad because we had time to talk basketball and talk about other things, and he wasn’t upset. That was the good thing. But after getting him on campus and now playing for us, I’ve never heard anything about that again.”