CBB's Ultimate Journeyman Zach Lofton Finally Finds His Home

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, IL - DECEMBER 16: Zach Lofton #23 of the New Mexico State Aggies brings the ball up court against the Illinois Fighting Illini at United  Center on December 16, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

New Mexico State's Zach Lofton is running up the sideline with UT Rio Grande Valley's Xavier McDaniel Jr. in pursuit. As soon as Lofton catches the ball about 30 feet from the bucket, he takes one dribble with his right hand to slow his momentum and then quickly dribbles behind his back as McDaniel—bless his heart—loses his balance and falls straight onto his butt. Lofton calmly takes one more dribble with his left hand toward the three-point line and unleashes that picture-perfect jump shot of his. The ball splashes through the net, a sequence that would go viral if it were someone like Trae Young putting his defender on his rump.

On this night, Lofton pours in 34 points and the Aggies win by 23. They've won 11 games in a row and are on the verge of entering the Associated Press Top 25—they received 66 votes this week, putting them at No. 26. They outscore WAC opponents by 19.9 points per game and are the most dominant team in their respective conference in the country, equipped with an unforgiving defense and one of the best bucket-getters in college basketball.

Lofton is listed at 6'4"—his coach says he's actually 6'5"—and he averages 20.0 points per game. This season, he put up 23 points at the United Center in Chicago in a win against Illinois. He also outdueled Miami's Bruce Brown Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV—both considered future first-round picks—in a New Mexico State upset win over the then-No. 6 team in the country. Two nights later, at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, he had 28 points in a close loss to USC in the championship game.

Lofton has terrific handle, especially for a shooting guard, and he's an explosive athlete. It's the prototype for today's NBA 2-guard. "In terms of just raw basketball talent and productivity on the floor, I'd have to say he's the best I've ever coached," New Mexico State coach Chris Jans says, and such a statement carries some weight considering Jans has coached Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors, Ron Baker of the New York Knicks and Richaun Holmes of the Philadelphia 76ers.

But it all comes with an asterisk.

Zach Lofton is at his fifth school in six years.


Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

An explanation was needed.

When Lofton decided he wanted to transfer from Texas Southern after last season—when he won SWAC Player of the Year—Jans was interested and invited Lofton to campus, but the official visit was more so a job interview. Jans and his staff had been busy working the phones to call Lofton's former coaches, and they wanted to make sure they weren't recruiting a cancer.

"The feedback was positive in terms of what type of kid he was," Jans said.

The sixth-year senior graduated high school in 2011, and he's been as well-traveled as any prospect in America since. After graduating, he spent one year at prep school in Iowa, one year at San Jacinto College (a junior college in Texas), one year at Illinois State, one year at Minnesota and then two years at Texas Southern.

Lofton had a justification for each jump. He went the prep school route because he was a non-qualifier for the Division I level and was told he could qualify with one year of prep school. That didn't happen, so he headed to a junior college for a year to become qualified. At Illinois State, he was recruited by then-assistant coach Dana Ford. After Ford left to become the head coach at Tennessee State, Lofton wasn't sure he wanted to be there and got word that Minnesota would be interested if he transferred.

In his ideal world, this was his final destination. Minnesota was his dream school. He grew up nearby in St. Paul and was a fan of the Golden Gophers. He had to sit out a year because he was a transfer, but it was worth it to get to play in his hometown on a bigger stage, at a Big Ten program.

He never got his chance. Lofton was booted from the team on Oct. 29, 2014 for what was deemed "failing to meet the expectations and obligations of the team." Depending on whom you ask, you'll hear a different story. Lofton said it was a combination of little stuff that boiled over, including being late for a couple of practices.

"I think he was just immature," his half-brother Jamie Rutherford says. "All of his friends were there. All of his family was there, and he took advantage of it in a bad way. I just think mentally, at that point in his life, he couldn't handle everything—the partying, being in the Big Ten and a Power Five school, a big school like Minnesota. There's so many distractions, and I think he let that get to him."

On the day Minnesota coach Richard Pitino delivered the news in his office, Lofton was in tears by the time he reached the parking lot. He escaped to his dorm room in solitude. Reality hit him the next day when he finally picked up his phone—he'd been ignoring calls—and he had an alert on his ESPN app: "Gophers dismiss Zach Lofton."

"It was just depressing," Lofton says. "I felt like I let everybody down."

Lofton would not leave his room, and he wasn't eating. He estimates he lost eight to nine pounds. Eventually, he had to return to class and life. He spent the rest of the year at Minnesota as a regular student. Unable to use the team facilities, he went to the school recreation center to work out. He attended Gophers home games and held out hope that he'd be reinstated after the season. That call never came, but one from Texas Southern did.

Former Indiana coach Mike Davis has built the best program in the SWAC by taking on reclamation projects like Lofton. Lofton was grateful to get another chance after fearing he wouldn't be able to stay at the D-I level. He hoped that since he had sat out at Minnesota, he'd be able to play right away. Texas Southern tried to get a waiver, but the NCAA said he had to sit. He was awarded an extra year of eligibility. (Most student-athletes get five years to play four, and Lofton got six.)

GREENVILLE, SC - MARCH 17:  Zach Lofton #2 of the Texas Southern Tigers shoots against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 17, 2017 in Gr
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"That was tough for me to keep him motivated and not drop out of school and try to go overseas," says Brian Sandifer, Lofton's former grassroots coach whom he calls his basketball dad. "That's what he kept calling me about. 'Man, I'm going to go overseas and just skip playing [in college] and try to get a contract overseas.'"

Sandifer convinced him to stay, and his patience paid off. In his debut for Texas Southern in a week that he had missed practice because of injury, he dropped 35 points in a loss to UT Arlington. He helped the Tigers make the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the opening round to eventual champion North Carolina.

Lofton graduated in the spring and decided to make one more move in hopes of playing on a bigger stage. (The Southwestern Athletic Conference has ranked as the worst league in college basketball in seven of the last eight years, according to KenPom.com's metrics.)

"He had several high-major schools that still wanted him," Sandifer says. "He couldn't get into Gonzaga last minute, because they couldn't get him into the grad program because of his grades."

New Mexico State emerged as a perfect alternative. Jans knew of Lofton's talent from going against him when he was at Illinois State and Jans was an assistant at Wichita State. Among his understudies, Jans had Jeff Mailhot, who knew Lofton because he, too, was from the Minneapolis area and had been an assistant coach at San Jacinto. Also joining Jans' staff was David Anwar, who recruited Lofton when he was an assistant at Nebraska.

"I came out here with my mom," Lofton says. "She liked it and we liked what the coaches were about."


CHAMPAIGN, IL - DECEMBER 16: Zach Lofton #23 of the New Mexico State Aggies is seen during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at United  Center on December 16, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

When Lofton arrived in Las Cruces, it was quickly apparent he was the most talented player in the program. "When he played pickup when we first got here, it looked like he was supposed to be in the NBA with the shots he made and moves he made," sophomore guard Shunn Buchanan says.

But once practice started, Lofton turned into something else entirely. He could blurt out as many expletives as buckets, an issue that has followed him for years.

"He wouldn't be yelling at anybody but himself," Sandifer says. "But if you're a referee or a booster or a fan and see that, you could take that many different ways."

It wasn't just the language that bothered Jans, but also what Lofton's tirades did to his game. "He'd let one bad play or, in his mind, one bad call just completely wreck his mindset," Jans says. "If things didn't go the exact way that he anticipated them going, he would go south in a hurry and he had a hard time settling in and being positive the rest of the day in practice or in some of our early games. It just really befuddled me how one negative thing could completely take him off the rails."

Jans let Lofton know in front of the team and in private that his outbursts were not tolerated. He explained that when he struggled, it was self-inflicted. When he started to get frustrated, his coaches encouraged him to use self-talk to calm down.

"I just think that Jans has done a great job with him as a young man," Sandifer says. "I think he's shown more of a maturity level with Jans than any coach he's had. They understand Zach. Jans has taken the time to really get to know Zach and understand him, and I think on the court, off the court, it's been hands down the best situation for the kid."

Jans says Lofton has come a long way. He still has the occasional mood swing, but the coaches address it immediately.

Lofton also has the luxury of Rutherford in his ear echoing similar sentiments to the coaches. Rutherford, who also played last season at Texas Southern, is sitting out this year rehabbing from a stress fracture in his leg and then plans to play his final year of eligibility at Arkansas Tech. He's living with Lofton and constantly reminds his brother that people are now watching after a year of relative obscurity at Texas Southern.

"We only had a couple televised conference games," Rutherford says. "Here every night they're on ESPN3, and ESPN is ESPN. I don't care if it's ESPN10. It's still ESPN, and everybody's watching worldwide."

Excited to play on the bigger stage, Lofton started the year strong. Through the first five games, he averaged 23.8 points and shot 71.8 percent inside the arc and 46.7 percent from three-point range.

"He was on a heater," Jans said. "They were video-game numbers. His percentages were off the charts."

It's the first time Lofton has ever been an efficient scorer in his career. He entered this season a 27.8 percent three-point shooter at the D-I level, and he's shooting 39 percent this season. His offensive rating of 116.6 ranks 39th nationally among players who use at least 24 percent of their team's possessions. He uses 27 percent of the Aggies' possessions, and if he were in the 28 percent-plus usage rate category, he'd rank fifth in offensive rating among that group.

If it were up to his teammates, he'd probably be there. Jans was encouraged in Hawaii when he heard his players barking at Lofton that he wasn't shooting enough.

"We want him to shoot a lot," Buchanan says. "Nobody gets mad when he shoots, because we expect most of his shots to go in. When we see Zach hitting shots, it makes us want to defend more so we can get it right back to Zach so he can hit another shot."

Juan Antonio Labreche/Associated Press

Defenses, especially in conference play, have built their schemes around him. He's often face-guarded and has seen double-teams and box-and-ones to try to limit his looks. It typically doesn't matter, because Lofton can score from all three levels off the catch or the bounce. At 24 years old, he's also stronger than the guys guarding him. His upper body is something Jans noticed as soon as Lofton stepped off the plane.

"When we were that age, you start to pick up man weight," Jans says.

Plus, Lofton has some playground wizardry that leaves defenders helpless.

"He's got an uncanny ability to alter his release point at times," Jans says. "He makes some shots in games, I raise my eyebrows, like wow, I've never seen that. He's like a pitcher almost. He can alter his shots depending on how the defense is playing him, and that's not what you teach in terms of how to shoot the ball. You want to shoot it the same way all the time. But he can adjust how he shoots the ball and do it at high percentage. It's a nightmare for other teams to match up with him."

Lofton is enjoying the ride and looking forward to returning to the NCAA tournament—this time with a team that could actually win a game.

Once his college journey is finally complete, he's thinking about writing a book about his experience.

He knows he's carried that asterisk next to his name, and he's not the only one. But there's always more to the story.

"I want people to know, what I stuck through, what was self-inflicted, what wasn't self-inflicted," he says. "I want to help kids that have felt like giving up, because I could have gave up going to five schools in six years."

     

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.

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