Big break: Fate made Zach Hankins ‘best-ever’ at Ferris
When is one foot fracture ever a good thing, let alone a second?
Just ask Zach Hankins, like we did.
“I’m extremely thankful,” he was saying the other day. “This has been an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Hankins is coming off a historic season at Ferris State, which just won the Division II national championship — thanks, in large part, to the play of the big man from Charlevoix, Mich., who is the NABC Division II player of the year. With that award comes a special trip later this week to San Antonio and the Division I Final Four, where he’ll pick up his trophy, along with his coach, Andy Bronkema, who this week was named Division II coach of the year.
And in all likelihood, none of that — not a 38-1 season; not cutting down the nets in Sioux Falls, S.D., last week; not all the hardware; and not the trip (he flies out Friday) — happens had Hankins not broken his right foot during an open-gym session the fall before his senior season at Charlevoix High, at the very tip of the Northern Peninsula.
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A healthy Hankins, after all, probably would’ve gone Division I out of high school.
“This was the only Division II school that offered me,” said Hankins, who had a solid junior year — averaging 12 points and eight rebounds a game, while shooting 71 percent — but only played two games his senior season, at the end of the year, because of the injury, or more accurately, injuries, plural.
“I had some other looks. I visited Lake Superior State, I visited Grand Valley, I had a lot of interest from NAIA and DIII schools.
“If I did go crazy my senior year, there would’ve been a lot of different looks, especially from mid-majors.”
Mid-major coaches agree.
Even though, most didn’t have a clue who he was coming out out of high school.
“I know who he is now,” Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said.
You have company there, coach.
FROM ‘PROJECT’ TO ‘BEST-EVER’
Ferris State first got a look at Hankins at a camp on the Big Rapids campus in the summer of 2013, before Hankins’ senior year. It was Bronkema’s early days as head coach, before he even coached his first game.
“They saw a 6-9 kid that can run without tripping too much,” said Hankins, “so they offered me a $3,000 scholarship, with the opportunity to earn more.”
They also saw a 6-9 kid who went up against a 6-11 kid from Muskegon named Deyonta Davis, who would win Mr. Basketball in 2015, play one season at Michigan State (2015-16) and then go on to the NBA Draft. Davis was a second-round pick, 31st overall, and is averaging 5.6 points this season for the Memphis Grizzlies.
And, surprisingly, the Davis-Hankins machup was a fair fight.
“He did really well against him,” Bronkema said. “Then he broke his foot, and didn’t get a lot of evaluation after that.”
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The broken foot, there was no great story there. It came in the fall of 2013, a few months after the Ferris camp, and he was simply running up the court and stopped abruptly, and he felt it “immediately.” Big kids often have leg soreness growing up — the strain is immense — and Hankins was no different. Stress fractures were common growing up. But he knew this was worse.
He got diagnosed right away, and then in a follow-up appointment at a clinic three months later with a specialist, he was given the all-clear to resume playing.
There was a big problem there: Due to scheduling conflicts at the doctor’s that day, the specialist recommending that return was, umm, a hand specialist.
“And I ended up breaking it further. It was way too early,” Hankins said, with a chuckle thinking back at the absurdity of it all. “I have no idea why (I saw a hand specialist),. I’ve never been back there again, as you can imagine.”
Just like that, his senior year was basically over. He got in the last two games the spring of 2014, and he was grateful for that, but that was it.
Through it all, Ferris State and Bronkema stuck with the kid from 2 hours north of campus; 6-9, 255-pound kids don’t just fall off trees, after all.
Hankins redshirted his first year at Ferris, played 34 games off the bench his second, and became a starter and a star his third. He led the team to three more NCAA Tournament appearances, for a streak that’s now at four. As a redshirt sophomore, he averaged 14.6 points and 10.5 rebounds as Ferris was 28-5, at the time its best season ever. This year, as a redshirt junior, he averaged 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds. He had 128 blocks, or 3.3 a game, in leading the nation in that category for a second consecutive season.
During the three games in South Dakota last week — the Elite Eight, Final Four and championship game — he had 47 points, 27 rebounds and seven blocks.
“He would’ve been considered a project,” Bronkema said of Hankins’ early days on campus. “But, you know, he was loaded with tools and he fell in love with basketball while at Ferris.
“He’s the most-decorated player in the history of the program. You could just end your article there, boom, one sentence.
“Zach’s the best-ever, period.”
‘IT’S BEEN UNREAL’
There’s a little secret to having team success in Division II. You need Division I-caliber talent.
And Ferris has it, not just in Hankins, who could probably transfer to Division I right now if he wanted (there’s no indication that’s what he wants), but also in point guard DeShaun Thrower, a former Mr. Michigan Basketball who transferred over from Stony Brook, and TyQuone Greer, who transferred from Hofstra. Drew Cushingberry (Romeo) and Noah King (U-D Jesuit) have plenty of moments where they look like DI players.
That’s why it wasn’t much of a surprise to any college-hoops insider to see Ferris State hang with Michigan State in a narrow exhibition loss last fall, even though most tunnel-visioned Spartans fans were confused by the close game.
Ferris State started 12-0, dropped a 79-74 game at Lake Superior State on Dec. 16, then never lost again, closing the season with 26 consecutive victories.
Bronkema saw the championship potential early in the season. Hankins, 21 and a plenty-confident fella, still needed more convincing,.
“I’d probably say when we got into the Elite Eight. Our goal all year was to get into the Elite Eight — then, beyond that, we all wanted to win the national championship,” he said. “We won the regional, for the first time since 1988, and only the second time in school history.
“That’s when I said, ‘You know what? This is doable. All of this is doable.’”
In South Dakota last week, Ferris State clearly was the class of the field, never trailing in the first two games, even if things to a little hairy at the end of both wins. Then, the Bulldogs got behind early to Northern State in the final before winning in a thriller, 71-69.
It was Ferris State’s first national championship in any sport, and the state of Michigan’s first Division II men’s title.
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And in a cool overlap, Bronkema (from Memphis, Tenn., where he’s visiting in-laws) and Hankins (from Grand Rapids) now get to head to the Final Four, yes, for their awards — the ceremony is at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in San Antonio — but they also get to see if Michigan can join Ferris State in the champion’s club. Only one other time has the same state held both the DI and DII men’s trophies at the same time. That was Ohio, in 1961, with Cincinnati and Wittenberg.
“I mean, it’s been unreal,” Hankins said Sunday, as the team arrived back in Michigan following Saturday afternoon’s victory — and Saturday night’s long, into-Sunday-morning celebration. “Since the buzzer went off, it’s just been like a dream.”
You might’ve thought, a broken foot would’ve been more of a nightmare.
ZACH HANKINS’ ACCOLADES
■2018 NABC Division II player of the year
■All-time leader in blocks at Ferris State (319)
■All-time leader in field-goal percentage at Ferris (.666)
■Single-season record-holder in rebounds at Ferris (380; 2017-18)
■Single-season record-holder in field-goal percentage at Ferris (71.1; 2017-18)
■Single-season record-holder in blocks at Ferris (130; 2016-17)
■Single-game record-holder in blocks at Ferris (10; 2016-17)