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Prep Basketball: Connor to Western Nebraska

SPENCER — Michael Connor’s main goal right now is to make the Dean’s List at Western Nebraska Community College.
He figures if that happens, then everything else will fall into place.
“I’ve got some athletic goals, but I’ve got a lot more academic goals,” Connor said.
Connor graduated recently from North Rowan. That was significant because he was the first in his family to finish high school.
His plan now is to be the first to earn a college degree. He has a chance to get that degree because he’s an exceptional basketball player worthy of a scholarship.
Besides being Rowan County Player of the Year and Central Carolina Conference Player of the Year, the 6-foot-2 guard was 2A All-State and the District 11 Player of the Year. District 11 is a wide area that includes Rowan, Davie, Iredell, Alexander, Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell, Watauga, Surry, Stokes, Yadkin and Wilkes counties.
Connor has gone through some soul-searching and a lot of prayer sessions since basketball season ended. He didn’t focus on academics until relatively late in high school, and that hurt him. Grades limited his college choices to community colleges. The good news was a lot of them wanted him.
He’s wrestled with his where-to-go decision nightly for several months.
Connor actually verbally committed twice to nearby schools — first, Lexington’s Davidson County Community College, and later Hickory’s Catawba Valley Community College, and he was close at one point to choosing Frederick Community College in Maryland.
But those were all fallback plans. The place Connor has wanted to go all along was Western Nebraska, and that dream — in the tangible form of a scholarship offer — became a reality only recently.
Why would a local kid dream about going to Western Nebraska?
Well, Salisbury’s Bobby Jackson went to Western Nebraska in the early 1990s. That was the springboard to his careers at the University of Minnesota and the NBA.
In the late 1990s, Salisbury also sent another really talented player to Western Nebraska. That was Leonard Owens. Owens didn’t play in the NBA, but he had a good college career at UTEP and played pro ball in Mexico and Germany.
Connor talked to Jackson about Western Nebraska and how it changed his life, and that’s a road Connor decided he wanted to follow. Connor contacted Western Nebraska for the first time back in March, modestly asking if they’d have any interest in him.
“Bobby Jackson is the only from Rowan County who’s made it to the NBA,” Connor explained. “I want to model my game after his, and Bobby has told me the things I need to work on.”
Western Nebraska is almost 1,600 miles from Salisbury in the town of Scottsbluff.
Scottsbluff is on the far side of the state, hundreds of miles west of Omaha and Lincoln. It’s a place where people wear cowboy hats. The closest city is actually Cheynne, Wyoming.
While it’s a 24-hour drive from here, Jackson’s name is still golden in Scottsbluff. The 2003 Sixth Man of the Year was one of only two Western Nebraska alumni to make the NBA.
“Bobby Jackson is still a very big name around here,” Western Nebraska head coach Russell Beck confirmed. “His retired game jersey hangs in my office.”
Beck has gone 63-34 in three seasons at WNCC and has sent 11 players to the Division I ranks in that short time. Western has slipped a bit from where it was in Jackson’s time, but it’s still one of the marquee junior college programs nationally.
“We get after it pretty good, average about 90 points and we averaged 2,300 fans for home games last season,” Beck said. “That’s one of the top attendance figures in the country for junior colleges.”
Beck explained why the recruiting of Connor came so late.
“We had some guards returning, so we were focused on recruiting bigs,” he said. “We lost a 7-footer and we lost a 6-10 guy, and there are a lot fewer of those guys on the planet than there are 6-2 guys. Michael actually contacted us first. It was unusual for an All-State kind of kid to be reaching out to us, and I guess I just didn’t look at him as close as I should have.”
But when Beck had a chance to review his Connor tape a second time and a third time, he saw a guy who was proficient at a lot of different things.
“I saw a really versatile kid who could dribble, pass, shoot, score and defend,” Beck said. “We play a lot with three guards, and he looked like he’d fit in well here. Then the more we checked up on him as a person, and the more we talked to the people who knew him, the more we wanted him.”
Connor was thought of mostly as just a good athlete, a slasher-type, until his senior season, but in addition to emerging as North’s best perimeter defender, he showed the ability to knock down 3-pointers in flurries. He buried those wing and corner 3s repeatedly in clutch situations and had tremendous second halves as North charged through a stiff 2A West bracket to reach the state title game.
“I know I still have to work on my ballhandling and my on-the-ball-defense and my shot and a lot of other things,” Connor said. “But I’ll keep working as hard as I can.”
Connor, who finished fifth in North history with 1,135 career points, averaged 16.7 points as a senior and scored 102 points for coach Andrew Mitchell in six pressure-packed playoff games.
While his season stats weren’t earthshaking, you have to remember Connor played on a balanced team with a lot of other college prospects.
“We like getting guys from the winning programs,” Beck said. “You put those guys together and you’re usually going to have success.”
Connor has been hearing about all the Nebraska negatives. He’s talked to Jackson about how high the snow will pile up outside the gym. He’s talked to others about tornadoes sweeping down the plain, how low the temperature is going to drop, and how homesick he’s going to get.
Connor acknowledges there’s going to be nothing to do in Scottsbluff that’s not related to school and basketball. But the steady diet of books, ball and boredom worked wonders for Jackson and Owens, and Connor believes it will work for him.
“I think it will be good for me to get away,” he said. “It will be good for my development as a person, a student and a player. I’ll go to class, I’ll go to church, and I’ll work hard at basketball. It’s like Coach Mitchell told me, “It’s all up to me now.”
Connor is leaving today to start his western adventure, and there will be a lot more butterflies in his stomach than there were when he made all those late 3-pointers in the playoffs.
He’ll get up at early for the drive to Charlotte. Then he’ll fly to Dallas, and then to Denver. Coach Beck is driving from Scottsbluff down to Denver where he will pick up Connor and his other recruits.
“It’ll be seven or eight kids,” Beck said. “The nature of junior college is that you rebuild every year, but this is a really good group. They could get us back to national prominence.”

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