For sophomore center Callum McRae, coming from New Zealand to play basketball in the United States didn’t institute as huge of a culture shock as expected, largely due to the already existing culture surrounding him. “There wasn’t a huge culture change because we got a big Australian, New Zealand presence on the team already,” McRae said.
However, despite not needing to adjust much culturally, McRae still found himself struggling on the court at times during his freshman season. Although McRae started 17 out of the 32 games that he played for the Highlanders, he averaged only 7.6 points per game (ppg) and 4.8 rebounds per game. The talent was there but oftentimes, McRae found himself in foul trouble or turning the ball over.
This season, despite only being a sophomore, McRae finds himself as one of the best players on the court for the Highlanders. Currently, McRae is the second leading scorer on the team, only behind junior forward Arinze Chidom. He has displayed a more well-rounded game both offensively and defensively and the numbers behind his improvement reflect that output. But according to McRae himself, most of what was holding him back was his own confidence. “I think most of it is just confidence. My confidence has improved. My teammates have more confidence in me and so do my coaches. Just learning through last year because last year, I played a lot of minutes and I learned a lot,” McRae said.
His numbers on the court have reflected that improved confidence. Offensively, McRae is averaging about two points more than he did last season, going from 7.6 to 9.8 ppg, despite not having a significant minutes increase from his first to second season. On the other side of the court, McRae is developing into a legit defensive threat as his blocks per game have increased from 0.3 to now a block a game.
For junior guard George Willborn III, defense and hustle has always been a staple in his game. That constant effort displayed in his play style was ingrained through his upbringings. “I’m from Chicago and toughness is instilled in us at a young age,” Willborn III said.
As a Chicago native, WIllborn III drew inspiration from many of the NBA players that have come from Chicago. Willborn III stated, “Obviously you’ve got a lot of Chicago players like Pat Bev (Patrick Beverley), D-Rose (Derrick Rose), Jabari (Parker) and a lot of guys that I’ve seen with my own eyes that inspired me to keep playing this game and to play hard.”
That mindset is one of the reasons why Willborn is among the top on the team in terms of steals. Willborn leads the Highlanders in steals per game (spg), swiping the ball from opponents nearly once a game and averaging 0.9 spg.
Beyond their contrasting on-the-court identities is the one they display in the classroom. Although McRae and Willborn III are college athletes who participate in workouts, practices, drills as well as having other athletic responsibilities, they are also college students who study and take midterms too. While it may be a tough task to balance, the two have a system in which they enact to stay on top of their responsibilities.
“It’s probably just organization,” said Willborn III. “Just trying to stay on a routine and our days are kind of mapped out so we know what time we have to be and at certain places so from there, just trying to work in your own schedule within the schedule of the team.”
Additionally, their professors also help the team in terms of ensuring that they are able to fulfill their duties both in the classroom and on the court. “When we have to miss class, our teachers are good at helping us out. We email them and talk to them beforehand at the start of the quarter and they’ll help us out,” McRae stated.
However, despite their focus in the classroom and on the court, they can find themselves in a slump sometimes. One element that keeps them motivated, and the people they turn to when times are tough, is their family. “For me, I talk to my family a lot. I am one of the more fortunate people in my family to go to college and that just motivates me to keep going,” Willborn III said.
Head Coach David Patrick has been a main factor in the changing culture of the men’s basketball program in the way that his players operate on and off the court. “We both came in with him. His first year was our first year so we sort of knew his expectations. I was a freshman so I didn’t really know anything about college basketball so that just made it easier to sort of follow him,” said McRae.
Under Coach Patrick, the men’s basketball team is trending upwards and slowly starting to build a strong culture. The team will look to the future with their bright and young core of McRae and Willborn III in hopes of finding success for years to come, both on and off the court.