New Mexico State’s Zach Lofton not giving up at his 5th school in 6 years

first_img Published on January 31, 2018 at 11:57 pm Contact Eric: erblack@syr.edu | @esblack34 UPDATED: February 1, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.One suspension, one dismissal, four transfers. Five schools in six years. That’s how Zach Lofton is usually defined.The leading scorer for New Mexico State at 19.8 points per game, Lofton is having the best season of his college career. Averaging career-highs in points and rebounds per game, he also sports career-best percentages from the field and the 3-point line. With all the success he’s having this year, it’s easy to forget the circuitous route he took to get where he is now.“Zach was real immature,” said Brian Sandifer, Lofton’s mentor, coach and self-proclaimed “basketball dad.” Sandifer first met Lofton when the latter was 8. Ever since, he’s been around the Lofton family so much that Lofton’s mom calls him stepdad. After the first meeting, Sandifer’s been intertwined with nearly every decision that his “stepson” has made.Immature was the adjective of choice for Sandifer while describing Lofton’s earlier years in school. It’s part of the reason why, out of high school, Lofton was forced to attend and play basketball at Quakerdale Prep Academy. His grade point average wasn’t high enough to qualify for a Division I scholarship.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textHis plan was to attend a junior college, but his first stop was prep school.“He was hell-bent on, ‘I don’t want to go to junior college, I want to go D-I,’” said Jeff Mailhot, another mentor of Lofton’s and current assistant coach at New Mexico State. “But he had to go to Quakerdale.”The Division I offer Lofton remembers most is Nebraska, where he was recruited by current NMSU assistant coach David Anwar out of high school. He wanted to be a Cornhusker, but he couldn’t. After a semester at Quakerdale, he decided to play at San Jacinto College, a junior college in Pasadena, Texas, where he averaged 16.6 points a game for the Ravens.It wasn’t Division I basketball in the Big Ten, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless. It was a new setting and stage for Lofton, and he responded.“I learned a lot, I learned to be a lot tougher in junior college,” Lofton said. “When I went to San Jac, it was probably the best competition I’d played against.”After leading San Jacinto to a 24-6 record and earning NJCAA All-Region XIV Second-Team honors, the offers came flooding in. Kansas State, West Virginia and Baylor were among the teams calling for Lofton’s talents, but it was a small school in the Missouri Valley Conference that caught his eye.Illinois State didn’t have the reputation of some of the other schools recruiting him, but Lofton was attracted to the one thing the Redbirds had that the others didn’t: Dana Ford.The assistant coach contacted him early on and the two of them “hit it off.” Lofton’s mother, Tonia, liked the school as well, and that was enough to sell Lofton on the commitment.After averaging 10.1 points per game through the first 27 games of the season, Lofton averaged 19 points over his last four, including a then-career high 25 in his last game, a loss in the MVC tournament. The Redbirds were named to the College Basketball Invitational, but Lofton wouldn’t be joining them.His poor grades had become an issue again, to the point that he was suspended. In addition to his grades, Lofton found out that Ford would be leaving the school following the season, making him uncomfortable. Mentally, Lofton checked out. Had Ford stayed, Sandifer said, Lofton would’ve stayed as well.“But Dana left,” Sandifer said. “Zach was ready to go.”During Lofton’s suspension, ISU head coach Dan Muller had a meeting with Lofton about his future.“You’ll probably have more success at another school,” Muller told Lofton. “This may not be the best fit for you.”This time, Lofton’s search for a new school began and ended with Minnesota, his hometown team. Sandifer contacted the Gophers, which said they were interested in Lofton. Two days later, during 2014’s Easter weekend, Minnesota contacted Lofton and confirmed that they’d like him to visit.He visited, worked out for the team and decided to transfer, without considering any other teams. For the St. Paul native, committing to play for Minnesota was a dream come true.“It was a great feeling,” Lofton said. “I felt like I accomplished something I always wanted to do … I wasn’t happy I got kicked out.”He didn’t even last until the regular season, getting dismissed from the program after the team’s opening scrimmage for “failing to meet expectations and obligations of the team,” per a release from the program. He was seen arguing with teammates during the scrimmage, per a report after the scrimmage. Lofton maintains that there was nothing specific he did that prompted the dismissal.Sandifer explained that, besides “missing a few classes,” it was never an issue of “physical altercations or brushes with the law.”Instead, it was just a matter of not being able to transition to college life at the school he’d always wanted to attend. Lofton was having too much fun, he said, and had to grow up.The “dream come true” for the kid who grew up as a Minnesota fan was over, nearly before it even started. After meeting with head coach Richard Pitino about the dismissal, Lofton went to his room – where he stayed for four days. An assistant coach told his closest family members about the news. Others learned through social media.“I was torn up. I lost a lot of weight, I wasn’t eating,” Lofton said. “It definitely hit me hard, I let people down. I felt like I just had to turn it around.”Sandifer immediately began contacting schools to see if they’d be interested in Lofton. With the baggage of a suspension and a dismissal in the span of just over six months, offers were harder to come by. As time went on, the possibility of Lofton having to play at the Division II level became increasingly realistic.Sandifer stayed positive and told Lofton to do the same, maintaining that he couldn’t give up.“There’s many times he’s talked about saying, ‘Hey coach, I want to go overseas,’” Sandifer said. “I’ve said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to have some film, you’ve gotta have a resume, you gotta reinvent your legacy. You gotta show coaches that a lot of the things that’s out there about you are not true.’”On July 20, 2015, Lofton signed a national letter of intent with Texas Southern. Despite being intimidated at first by head coach Mike Davis, Lofton eventually bought into his plan. The two discussed ways that Lofton could get his career back on track, first and foremost of which was being on and around a team he was comfortable with.First, though, Lofton would have to sit out a year before becoming eligible to play for TSU. The last game he had played in was on Mar. 3, 2014, his final game with Illinois State. In his first game with Texas Southern, in November of 2016, Lofton scored 35 points in a loss to the University of Texas at Arlington.“Once I played that first season game at Texas Southern, all that stuff went out the window,” Lofton said. “Just moving forward. I didn’t even remember those two years out.”More than three years after being dismissed from ISU, Lofton won the SWAC championship with the Tigers. He was named the conference player of the year and was on his way to accomplishing one of his goals – playing in the NCAA tournament.In the first round of the tournament, Lofton was on the losing end of a 103-64 drubbing by eventual-national champion North Carolina. He scored nine points, the eighth time all season he was held to single digits and made just two of his 11 field goal attempts.With one year of eligibility left, Lofton weighed his options. He declared for the NBA draft but, after not liking the feedback that he heard, withdrew his name in May. Had Lofton scored 30 points against the Tar Heels, Sandifer said, he may have stayed in the draft.Lofton instead set his sights on two final four teams, South Carolina and Gonzaga. The Gamecocks eventually fell off his radar, but the Zags gained steam. Lofton nearly signed to play for Mark Few and the national runners-up, but his grades became a factor again.“When Gonzaga called me they said the only reason they couldn’t get him in was his core GPA wasn’t high enough,” Sandifer said. “If Gonzaga wanted him last spring, then you know damn well he’d be there.”After missing out on Gonzaga, Lofton looked to New Mexico State. Head coach Chris Jans and the Aggies recruited Lofton as soon as word got out that he was pursuing a graduate transfer, and invited him to come on an official visit.New Mexico State had a secret weapon of its own in brand-new assistant coach Jeff Mailhot, who was getting recruited by the Aggies in his own right. Mailhot had known Lofton since he was in eighth grade through the Howard Pulley AAU basketball program in Minnesota. The hometown connection and the comfort Lofton and his mom found with the coaches convinced Lofton to sign, but not without the NMSU coaching staff doing their due diligence.“When someone has a history, is well traveled, you’re a little bit leery as to why he’s bounced around so much,” Jans said.In the past, after negative plays during practice or games, Lofton would pout, affecting his play and demeanor. Jans worried that Lofton would take too much control of the ball and force up shots, but it’s been the other way around.His Aggie teammates have gotten on him in recent games for passing up open shots. From the bench, Jans says, chirps of encouragement ring out in support of Lofton to be more aggressive. Having friends on the team and receiving support from them is new for him, and has changed the way he’s played.“At Illinois State he might miss one three and yell ‘f*ck!’ at the top of his voice,” Sandifer said. “Everybody in the stadium would hear. … He’s proven he’s more mature, he’s coachable.”Earlier this season on Dec. 23, the Aggies took down then-No. 6 Miami in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic. With 55 seconds left and NMSU up by one point, Lofton received a pass from a teammate more than five feet behind the three-point line and drained the deep fadeaway to put the Aggies up four. Forty seconds later, his team winning by seven, Lofton grabbed his team-high ninth rebound off an errant Hurricane jumper.He paused, looking toward the baseline before realizing that he needed to advance the ball past half court. As his teammates on the bench jumped up and waved towels in celebration, Lofton sprinted up court and accentuated the victory with a two-handed dunk.On the court or off, Lofton has proven at least one thing about himself: he won’t stop.“Never give up,” Lofton said. “You have a right to dream every day, regardless of mistakes you’ve made in the past. I never quit or gave up.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+last_img