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Big Rapids – Zach Hankins has developed into a dominant inside threat at both sides of the court to help make Ferris State a national power.

Hankins, a 6-foot-10, 255-pound junior center, was the nation’s leading shot blocker in Division II last season to lead the Bulldogs to a program-record 28 wins, the GLIAC championship and a run to the NCAA Midwest regional semifinal.

Hankins believes the Bulldogs have the talent to make a run at the national championship this season with the majority of their starters returning in 6-3 senior point guard Drew Cushingberry (Romeo), 6-4 senior small forward Noah King (U-D Jesuit), along with the transfer of former Mr. Basketball award winner in combo guard DeShaun Thrower, who led Muskegon to the Class A state championship in 2014.

Hankins, who played his high school ball at Charlevoix, averaged 14.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and four blocks last season, including a double-double (12 points, 14 rebounds) with six blocks in an 85-79 victory over Detroit-Mercy.

“I had a great season last year, but I’m not going to let that pressure take me out of my own game,” Hankins said. “Really, I’ve been just slowing the game down for myself. I’ve improved a lot just being bigger and stronger. We had a lot of double teams coming at me so I have to be prepared for that.

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“I think we can win the national championship; this is the year to do it. We’ve got tons of guys with postseason experience now, NCAA (tournament) experience, and having almost the entire group back really helps.”

As for his shot-blocking expertise, Hankins said: “It’s just kind of a natural timing thing that I’ve gotten down, and we have a lot of long guys and a lot of athletic talent so other guys can contribute. Our style of basketball helps, too, where we force down to the baseline, which kind of funnels into a trap on the baseline, so that gives us a lot of opportunities to block shots when they put up lay-ups.”

Ferris State showed it could play with the top teams in the country, holding a 38-35 halftime lead over Michigan State Oct. 26 before losing to the Spartans, 80-72 in an exhibition before 14,797 at the Breslin Center.

“We’ve got a lot of experience back, but we’ve got enough new faces that it feels like a brand new team,” said Ferris State coach Andy Bronkema said.

Senior Peter Firlik (10.8 points) has moved from the small forward spot to shooting guard while King (7.4 points, 3.4 rebounds), who was an undersized power forward, moved to small forward. Cushingberry averaged 12.1 points and 3.6 assists.

“He’s an unbelievable basketball player, amazing IQ, really athletic, great shooter and plays so unselfishly and can still score when he needs to,” said Hankins of Cushingberry. “He’s an anchor for our team.”

Said Bronkema: “Cush is the straw that stirs the drink. He is kind of like the quiet assassin, and between him and Noah King, as far as pure leadership and just guys you can coach up and hold accountable, you don’t get better than that.”

Still, Hankins opens things up on the perimeter for the Bulldogs with his solid inside play.

“He has fallen in love with the game of basketball here at Ferris and has made himself into a player,” said Bronkema of Hankins. “It’s nice to have a man in the middle that can protect the rim and has a good touch on his jump hook.”

Cushingberry started at small forward his freshman year and now will be running the offense for the third straight year and can’t wait to get started.

“I grew up a point guard, played the position my whole life, so it’s my natural position and we have a lot of weapons,” he said. “Obviously Hank (Hankins), an All-American who covers the paint, doesn’t let anything in and scores too.”

Cushingberry is also looking forward to playing with Thrower.

“We’ve been working over the summer, playing a lot together. It’s like having two points on the court and it’s awesome since he’s a great player, Mr. Basketball.”

Hankins and Cushingberry each earned spots on the all-tournament team last weekend when the Bulldogs defeated No. 5 St. Thomas Aquinas (84-79) and No. 6 Indiana (Pa.) 86-82 in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Evansville.

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