Ryan Woolridge and Gonzaga almost didn’t happen.
The Zags needed an experienced guard and were active in the graduate transfer market, but it was late in the game as the calendar hit June. They had contacted Woolridge early but explored different options.
Meanwhile, Woolridge was focused on Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Arkansas. The former North Texas standout was hearing from Arizona, Texas A&M and UCLA.
“I was kind of leaning a different way,” the soft-spoken point guard said. “If it had been one week later, honestly I’d probably be at Oklahoma State or somewhere closer in Texas.
“It’s crazy how fast everything happened.”
Fast forward to late January and try to imagine the second-ranked Zags (21-1) without Woolridge and his 31.7 minutes, 10.3 points, 46.4% 3-point shooting, 4.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds per game and adhesive defense.
“We have a high standard for point guards and we’ve had some great ones,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He’s in that group with the way he’s performed and what he’s meant. I don’t know where we’d be without him, but thank goodness we don’t have to think about that.”
It required fortuitous timing, something that had been a bit elusive until that point in Woolridge’s career. Name an obstacle and Woolridge has probably faced it, which helps explain why he admittedly plays with a chip on his shoulder on a windy, unpredictable path from his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to Spokane.
Believe it or not, Woolridge described himself as slow as a youngster. He’s one of the fastest players ever to wear a GU uniform, but his speed didn’t arrive until eighth grade when he attended Olympic champion sprinter Michael Johnson’s camp.
“That’s where I got the technique and everything down,” Woolridge said. “Ever since, I’ve been sharper in my movement.”
Woolridge had a strong career at Mansfield Lake Ridge High, but he was a bit of a late bloomer and far more concerned with team success than his stat line.
He didn’t play on a big-name AAU travel team. He had a few bad experiences in AAU, being asked to play in tournaments only to sit on the bench while others got most of the court time.
“I think people just missed on him,” Lake Ridge coach Donte Wilson said. “Ryan was a really unselfish kid, he was a pass-first guy and he ended up growing 3-4 inches before he left here.
“He carried us and he didn’t do it scoring the ball. I think it had to do with us being a new school (opened in 2012) and it wasn’t like we were playing in a bunch of the (marquee) tournaments. Ryan was more concerned about getting better than being seen. I think now most kids want to be seen first.”
The 6-foot-3 Woolridge received plenty of recruiting interest, including several Big 12 programs. He was set to visit Texas with the expectation of committing. Instead, the Longhorns made a coaching change.
He signed with San Diego but never played in a game. Woolridge wasn’t totally sold on being so far from Texas, especially with his mom’s breast cancer diagnosis when he was in high school. He attended summer school and was barely into the fall term when he got a call from home.
Ryan’s dad, Columbus, had prostate cancer.
“Once I found out he had cancer, it all went downhill,” Woolridge said. “I made up my mind to get home.”
Woolridge, who is happy to report his parents are “really healthy now” with positive results after regular checkups, took some time away from school before choosing North Texas, roughly an hour’s drive from Mansfield.
He became eligible in December 2016 and quickly became a team cornerstone. He posted the program’s first triple-double in 25 years and led UNT to a pair of 20-win seasons. In roughly 2 1/2 seasons, he became the first player in school history with 1,000 career points, 400 rebounds, 400 assists and 150 steals.
Woolridge played for months of his junior season with persistent pain in both knees. He was told it was growing pains. His final UNT game ended in agony when he rose for a dunk in the Conference USA Tournament.
“I jumped off my left leg and in midair something popped in my right leg,” he said.
That led to surgery and two screws inserted to repair a stress fracture in his patella (kneecap). The lengthy recovery added a hitch to his next major decision: Leaving North Texas as a grad transfer.
Woolridge always believed he could play at a higher level. He also believed UNT had a ceiling if he had stayed, probably another 20-win season ending in the conference tournament.
Gonzaga wasn’t on his radar until he heard from the staff in June. His visit to Spokane made his decision easy.
“I really believed coach (Mark) Few was going to develop me, which is what he’s doing right now,” Woolridge said. “I watched Gonzaga every year and once I took the visit and had a conversation face-to-face I knew he was a good guy and a straight shooter.”
Woolridge has been a straight shooter, dogged defender and tremendous in transition.
“I can’t follow him; he’s too fast for me,” senior forward Killian Tillie laughed. “He’s really quick. He’s been great for us.”
Woolridge filled the stat sheet at UNT and Gonzaga, but he made just 33% of his 3-pointers and 54% at the foul line for the Mean Green.
He’s been a revelation for the Zags beyond the arc, making 46.4%, which would put him in the top 10 nationally if he had enough attempts to qualify. He’s made 59% at the foul line.
“I don’t think I’ve changed a lot,” he said. “I just feel like I’ve gained a lot more confidence in myself playing for coach Few.”
His defensive acumen comes from his dad.
“He literally programmed me to play like this growing up,” Woolridge said. “He always taught me to never back down from anybody and don’t give anybody a reason to doubt me, which people did all the time.”
The number of doubters continues to shrink as Woolridge impacts games in multiple ways.
“More and more teams at the next level are starting to inquire about him,” Lloyd said. “What he’s meant to us … he’s a winner, that’s a great way to describe him.”
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