Graham Ike’s ‘special journey’ is just getting started
LARAMIE -- Sundance Wicks is a sucker for a good story.
Here's one he's particularly fond of.
It's about a former All-State basketball player who was fielding offers from some of the bigger programs in the country before a torn ACL nearly derailed it all. Some coaches stayed in contact, others moved on. Would this guy ever be the same? Were his best days on the court behind him?
Recruiting is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.
The prep star sulk. In fact, he used this setback as motivation and pushed through the long, painful rehab sessions. Under the radar, he reinvented himself both mentally and physically. The surgery actually helped an injury that had nagged him throughout his high school playing days.
Through that trial, one coach stayed in touch. One man believed.
Now, we've all begun to see the payoff of that persistence.
That's just a very small part of why Wicks doesn't hesitate for a second to heap praise on Wyoming big man, Graham Ike.
"He can't have a testimony without a test," Wyoming's second-year assistant coach said about the Cowboys' 6-foot-9, 252-pound freshman. "So, for Graham, that has been a part of him becoming special. Most anything that comes out great in life has been put through the fire. His journey is special. His story is special."
Jeff Linder is the head coach that never waivered in his recruitment of Ike.
Then at Northern Colorado, Linder said he knew Ike could eventually be a difference maker for his Bears' teams, which had already made a habit of winning 20-plus games a season.
When he got the job at Wyoming in the spring of 2020, Linder's first order of business was to re-recruit valuable players on the current roster and sell his vision. His next call was a no brainer.
Linder wanted Ike to head north with him.
"I just feel like we had a really close connection," Ike said of Linder. "On one of my unofficial visits to Northern Colorado I was only supposed to stay for one day and ended up staying three nights. So, it really just meant a lot to see how much he cared and how much he really believed in me.
"I'm just grateful for the opportunity that he allowed me to have, especially by keeping my offer and still bringing me here."
Before Ike (eek-a) ever stepped foot on the court in Laramie -- and still sporting a black brace on his right leg -- Linder said he could be one of the "best big men he's ever coached."
The praise didn't stop there.
"I think he could end up being one of the best post players in college basketball, sooner than later," Linder said in early October. "I just look forward to having him out there and for the fans to see, because he's a guy that you don't see very often in college basketball.
"... As good as people maybe thought he was last year, I mean, they have no idea what they're about to see this year."
Ike watched the Cowboys' first 13 games of the 2020 season from the bench, each week making more progress toward his highly anticipated debut inside the Arena-Auditorium.
That moment finally came in late January with Nevada in town for a two-game series. Ike played just nine minutes and was held off the score sheet. Despite the lack of production that night, it became quickly apparent Wyoming has a new presence in the paint.
In just seven starts -- 12 total games -- the former three-star player from Overland High School netted more than 11 points per game. Ike also added nearly 5.5 rebounds per outing. In five of those regular season contests Ike finished in double digits, including an 18-point performance in a 93-88 victory over the Wolf Pack in his second career game.
Ike's best outing came in the opening round matchup with San Jose State in the Mountain West tournament. That day in Las Vegas, the freshman scored a game-high 32 points in an 111-80 rout of the Spartans. That was the best performance from a rookie in tourney history.
Linder and Wicks have reiterated that if one positive -- the only positive -- thing came from this COVID-19 pandemic it's the fact that Ike essentially received a year of on-the-job training and it won't cost him a season thanks to the NCAA ruling that gives every player an additional year of eligibility.
"That's an amazing gift, right?" Wicks said.
Ike sure thinks so.
"Oh, it's given me a lot of confidence," he said. "If I wouldn't have played last year I'd be a freshman essentially -- no Mountain West playing time at all. So, honestly, I know what the Mountain West looks like a little bit now. I'm just happy that I got to play and am grateful, that's what it really is."
For being such an imposing figure, Ike is soft spoken and is quick to flash his bright grin. Wicks says if you're ever looking for the big man, you are sure to find him at 6 a.m. nearly every morning sinking buckets alone inside the cavernous A-A.
Ike said he finds peace in those morning shooting sessions. A self-proclaimed early bird, he says his day starts by slipping on his headphones and taking a stroll.
That lonely shootaround comes before Ike hits the weight room. Then comes a team practice, a rehab session and a full slate of classes.
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The proof of all that work is obvious in one glance.
The 19-year-old dropped from 22% body fat to 12 in the offseason. A year of offseason conditioning, plus plenty of 5-on-5 scrimmages, has aided in that drastic change. Ike said he stopped easting red meat for five weeks and doesn't touch soda anymore, either.
"It's all those things that you talk about when you want a high-level individual -- a high achiever," Wicks said of Ike. "They have higher expectations for themselves than the program does."
That saying something.
Linder expects the lefty to be a dominant force under the hoop on both ends of the floor, featuring his 7-foot-5 wingspan. That's not all. Linder also says Ike has the rare skillset to handle the ball on the perimeter and make plays for his teammates.
Xavier DuSell has already witnessed that firsthand.
"It makes my job a whole lot easier," UW's freshman guard said of Ike. "He takes a lot of pressure off of me with just all the attention he brings and his scoring presence. Even on the defensive end he takes a lot of pressure off of me just being a rim protector and making sure he has my back on ball screens.
"He does a lot and it definitely makes my job easier as a shooter."
Ike said he doesn't feel pressure when he hears the things his coaches and teammates say about him. He wants to validate the believers.
Ike said he doesn't make a personal list of goals. He shares the same one with the guys in his locker room -- a Mountain West championship.
Is that really realistic with the youth and inexperience that litters this roster?
Remember, this guy doesn't take no for an answer.
"For me to do that, I have to -- we have to -- have the right habits every single day," Ike said. "You know, we have to build every day, we have to win the day. We can't waste days in order to win a Mountain West championship.
"That's my goal. That is the goal."