KANSAS CITY – A healthy dislike for the University of Arizona turned Royce Woolridge into a Kansas fan a few years back.
Wool- ridge, who is from Phoenix, recalls watching on television as Kansas won one of its many heavyweight- on-heavyweight battles over Arizona, and thinking at the time, “Man, I want to go to Kansas.”
So that’s what he did. Woolridge committed to the Jayhawks and coach Bill Self as a sophomore in high school, but decided to head elsewhere after appearing in only 16 games as a freshman.
Now, he’s Washington State’s starting point guard, and will lead the Cougars against his former team in the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center tonight at 7 p.m. in an attempt to shake off Friday’s disappointing overtime loss to Pepperdine.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be intense, though, because they have a lot of fans and it’s going to be crazy,” Woolridge said. “I still talk to a couple of the dudes on the team.”
He should run into one of them often on the court tonight. Woolridge said Kansas guard Elijah Johnson, the Jayhawks’ second-leading scorer, is still a good friend of his. And his former roommate, walk-on Niko Roberts, is also still on the roster.
And maybe there’s just a little bit of extra motivation for Woolridge, a redshirt sophomore, to prove he could have fit in with the No. 7 Jayhawks.
He didn’t come to Kansas with delusions of grandeur. But the way his freshman season went, Woolridge said, didn’t bode well for his chances of playing much down the road.
“He (Self) had some plans that he wanted to do that I thought should have went differently, I guess,” Woolridge said. “I just wanted to get a little more playing time, so I decided to leave and find somewhere else to go.
“I didn’t expect to start or play big minutes, but I felt like my sophomore year that maybe I should have been able to play a little bit. But from what he was saying, it seemed like I wouldn’t have been able to.”
WSU assistant coach Curtis Allen received an email from a contact on the AAU circuit informing him that Woolridge had been granted his release and was looking to transfer.
Allen was excited. He’d seen Woolridge play at an AAU tourney in Las Vegas a few years back, but hadn’t spoken with him because he’d been committed to Kansas.
“We knew how good he was,” Allen said. “So as soon as we got the release, we were able to pursue him … we were pretty aggressive in trying to get him.”
It was an aggression Woolridge appreciated. He said other teams contacted him, too, but because WSU was the first, “I made them a priority to come out here and check it out.”
“He wanted a place where he knew he could come and play,” Allen said, “and we knew we could provide that for him.”
Woolridge has wound up a bigger part of WSU’s rotation than he might have expected. Starting point guard Reggie Moore’s dismissal from the team before the season thrust Woolridge into the spotlight.
WSU (2-1) coach Ken Bone is cautiously optimistic about Woolridge’s progression. He’ll need time to adjust to playing basketball after sitting out last season as a redshirt.
But the Cougars partially have Kansas to thank for Woolridge’s defensive skills.
“Every day when I was there, I had to play against Elijah and Tyshaun Taylor, and some of the pros would come back and play with us,” Woolridge said. “So I had to play defense or I would get embarrassed.”
Woolridge is averaging 7.7 points and just over three assists per game.
Allen says the 6-foot-3 guard needs to improve his “game management and just running the team. He’s always been kind of a scorer, and he’s wired that way, so when it’s time to run the team it’s a different mindset. It’s one he’s picking up quickly.”