It is not often that the Whitworth men’s basketball program brings in a senior transfer.
The time it takes to get to know a program makes it less appealing to take on a player who would only be around for that acclimation period, Pirates coach Damion Jablonski said.
Yet sometimes the situation is right, as it was last offseason, when Jablonski brought in Miguel Lopez as just the second senior transfer during the Whitworth coach’s 10 years with the program.
“Even with transfers, it usually takes a year to get them totally acclimated with the culture and program, but then you have guys who are experienced enough with college basketball that they can pick up things pretty quickly,” Jablonski said. “If we had Miguel for another year he’d be even better, there’s no question about that. But when you’ve been through the wringer, that experience, even in different programs, means your learning curve is way greater.”
“The wringer” in Lopez’ case is a gradual move to the Northwest from his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, starting his senior year of high school when he enrolled at Oviedo High School near Orlando, Florida.
He then spent two years at a Colorado junior college followed by a season at an NAIA program in Nebraska.
Now he’s in Spokane, helping the Pirates to a 2-3 start that has yet to include a game against a fellow Division III team – until Friday and Saturday, when they are scheduled to open Northwest Conference play at Puget Sound.
“Everyone can think their senior year is their year to play their best basketball,” Lopez said. “I can be a leader on the team. The system fits well. It’s easier coming in as a senior, being in different programs.
“Probably my best opportunity is right now.”
The 6-foot-3 Lopez has started all five games for the Pirates, averaging 11.4 points and a team-high 5.4 rebounds per game. He is also 3 for 7 from 3-point range.
“An outstanding basketball player and just a great guy,” junior guard Rowan Anderson said of Lopez. “He gets along with everybody here, and I think that’s a testament to our culture.”
The last senior transfer Whitworth had was Idris Lasisi, who played the 2011-12 season for the Pirates under Matt Logie, who was then in his first season as head coach along with Jablonski as an assistant. Lasisi logged the most minutes and scored the second-most points on Whitworth’s roster that season and helped them to a 26-4 record.
Lopez hasn’t reached those heights, and the Pirates would be glad to play half that many games this season. But they have liked what Lopez has done so far.
Lopez first started playing basketball competitively in high school in St. Croix, where he was a member of the U.S. Virgin Islands junior national team. He also played volleyball, which is something of a national pastime.
“Back home if you’re a good basketball player, they automatically say, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna play some volleyball,’ ” Lopez said. “It’s pretty big back home.”
But what he wanted to do was play basketball in the United States, and so he moved to Florida for his senior year to face better competition and hope to draw more attention.
He played two seasons after that at Otero Junior College under coach Cole Dewey, who happened to play high school ball in North Carolina for Elijah Gurash, who is now an assistant coach for the Pirates.
Jablonski said Whitworth lightly recruited Lopez, but Lopez opted to transfer to Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, for the 2019-20 season. He led the Tigers in rebounding (7.7 per game) while also averaging 9.9 points.
But the fit wasn’t right, Lopez said, and so he was granted release shortly after the pandemic hit the United States.
Then, he and everyone else waited.
His conversations with Gurash restarted in June, but Jablonski said the recruiting process was slower than usual.
“In a normal situation, I would have been a lot more aggressive about getting him in the fold,” Jablonski said. “But I really didn’t wanna oversell it and underdeliver, so that gave us an opportunity to really build a relationship for several months before he finally decided he would commit.”
That commitment came in late August, and on Sept. 9, Lopez arrived in Spokane for the first time.
Since then, his focus has been on school and basketball.
“Not gonna lie, it was very easy. They welcomed me with open arms,” Lopez said of his teammates’ reception. “It was so great to see them wanting me around, interested in getting to know me.”
On the court he has given the Pirates a valuable veteran presence, considering the absences of injured seniors Isaiah Hernandez and Jordan Lester, who have played a combined 109 career games at Whitworth but zero this season.
The Pirates are scheduled to play 12 conference games, four each against Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran and Whitman, provided all teams involved clear COVID-19 testing protocols. The NWC has scheduled a conference tournament for early March to crown a champion, hoping to include its three schools from Oregon that are participating in basketball.
After that, there might still be a Division III tournament, but that is not certain.
Although the Pirates are 2-3, Anderson said they are settling into roles and expect to build on their recent pair of wins over D-II Seattle Pacific.
“Basketball is all about being in a rhythm,” Anderson said. “It was a little hard (at first), but I think we’re in one right now.”
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