Luke Hancock: Small-School Transfer Proves He Can Play with the Big Boys

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  Luke Hancock #11 of the Louisville Cardinals reacts in the secon dhalf against the Michigan Wolverines during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at the Georgia Dome on April 8, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There's a stigma, fair or not, about the competitive chasm between high-major schools and mid-majors. Though recruiting databases have proven responsible for oversight after oversight in the past, the mass-adopted thinking remains prevalent: "If this guy was so good, he would have been recruited to a big-name school. Since he wasn't, he probably isn't."

So on the also not-infrequent occasion that a successful mid-major player transfers to an esteemed high-major program, the move is often met with trepidation. As if the speed and the size and the skill of the guy's new conference will be too much to overcome. That it will galvanize a regression to the mean. That the cream around him will rise, while the milk within him will sink.

Enter Luke Hancock. 

One quick scan of reveals how he was viewed as a prospect. Hancock received a rating of zero stars and received only two scholarship offers to play ball—one from Toledo and one from George Mason. Piqued by their surprising Final Four run in 2006, he joined the Patriots in 2009-10.

But Hancock never stopped believing that he belonged. He's neither the biggest nor the strongest nor the most physically gifted, but he always believed he could hang. At 6'8'', he's certainly no shrimp, and with one genuinely threatening skill—his shooting—he proved he could compete for two years in the CAA.

He improved from 7.7 to 10.9 points per game in his sophomore season, and in the 2011 NCAA tournament, he enjoyed what most realistically assumed would be his career-defining highlight. With 20 seconds remaining in a second-round game against No. 8 Villanova, No. 9 George Mason found themselves trailing by one. But a cold-blooded second-year player by the name of Luke Hancock wasn't worried. He stepped in, knocked down a three and eventually helped his Pats move on with an impressive comeback victory.

That was the last game he ever played in Green and Gold. The Patriots got bounced by Ohio State in the following round (a game Hancock missed with an illness), and Hancock found himself on the radar of Rick Pitino and his staff at Louisville. Finally, some affirmation. Hancock couldn't turn it down—especially with his beloved coach, Jim Larranaga, heading to Miami at the same time. He was Big East bound the next year.

Here's everything you need to know about Luke Hancock is one, tidy sentence: Despite the transfer, and despite the perceived inferiority of talent, Luke Hancock was voted Louisville's captain before this season...before he ever checked into an official game. He was also the only Louisville player who could contain himself in the face of Kevin Ware's injury. Despite not being one of Louisville's "best players" or "most well-known players," he always found a way to be among its most important.

Which brings us to the weekend that spawned this piece, the one we just watched transpire. The weekend during which Louisville needed a savior. Lord knows they weren't wanting for blue-chip options, though. Peyton Siva was a top-40 recruit coming out of high school. Russ Smith was just named a third-team All-American. Gorgui Dieng wasn't that far off from joining him there.

But with Louisville's back pinned against the wall, on multiple occasions, during their time in Atlanta, an unlikely fourth option emerged. Neither Siva nor Smith nor Dieng seized the moment quite like their less-heralded captain. Not against Wichita, where Hancock scored 20 points on 5-of-7 three-point shooting, and certainly not against Michigan when, in the face of a legendary performance from freshman Spike Albrecht, Hancock scored 14 straight points to erase a double-digit first-half deficit.

When the game was over, and nothing but a colorful cloudburst of confetti remained on the court, many assumed the Most Outstanding Player award would go to one of the starters. Chane Behanan dominated the glass, and Peyton Siva dictated the tempo. Plus, there was always the chance Russ Smith, who finished 3-for-16 from the field, could be awarded some sort of season-achievement award. (God knows weirder things have happened.)

But when Jim Nantz got the announcement in his ear, just like when Louisville was in its most desperate need of help, neither Siva nor Smith nor Behanan was the one in the spotlight. For the first time in his life, though there's no way he'll admit he deserves it, Luke Hancock finally received recognition on a big, national stage.

Where does Hancock's future go from here? Nobody really knows. All we can say for sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that he won't soon be underestimated again.