If NBA Doesn’t Want Connor Vanover, Then This Quasi-Blueblood Program May Take Him Instead

Connor Vanover
Credit: Vanover_Conor

The only season that matters for college sports fans is this season.  Particularly for college basketball fans.  Maybe this is more acute if your coach has been called the maestro of the transfer portal, but all college fans now live in world where there is no tomorrow.  The team is whoever is on your team when the season starts.  Devo was around forever, or three years.  If you are excited about watching a player develop over multiple seasons, you must accept the high probability said development will occur with the player wearing a different uniform.  Connor Vanover is a prime example of this new era.

In his first season since leaving the Razorbacks, Vanover had a breakout year at his third school, Oral Roberts University.   He averaged nearly 13 points and 8 rebounds a game while throwing back over 3 blocks to boot.  His team dominated the Summit League, finishing the year undefeated in conference play. 

Imagining Connor Vanover on ’22-23 Razorbacks

The previously 7’3″ center played so well down the stretch, I wondered if this new apparently better version of Connor Vanover would have broken into the rotation for the 2022-23 Hogs after Trevon Brazile went down.  My gut instinct was “no.”  Despite the blocks, I just couldn’t see Musselman playing him over either of the Mitchell brothers, or even Kamani Johnson.  Nonetheless I was rooting for him in the NCAA tournament.  I actually picked Oral Roberts to make the Final Four in my initial, gut-instinct bracket.  Needless to say, that bracket like pretty much everyone else’s proved worthless.   

The recent news that Vanover has entered the NBA Draft while retaining college eligibility as a grad transfer surprised me a bit given how much he’d already bounced around schools. He had found a coach, Paul Mills, that let him shoot threes on offense, roll to the basket for lobs and post up the much shorter Summit League defenders.  I then realized Mills is now the head coach of the Wichita State Shockers. There, hopefully, he will find a way to clone my favorite player as a child – the X-Man, Xavier McDaniel.  The X-Man was known for his dunks, a sweet poster and choking a Laker: 

Sideline Sources - (1987) Xavier McDaniel chokes Wes ...
Homer Simpson had nothing on this guy.
XAVIER McDANIEL / X-MAN poster Vintage Reproduction METAL SIGN 8 x 12

It was a simpler, better time.  

But back to Vanover.  I don’t think he will end up back in the SEC for his next school. When you watch the highlights, it is clear he is very effective at a slightly lower level.  There is no shame in that, and I don’t think it means he has no chance of playing professionally one day even though getting drafted into the NBA this year feels like a big stretch at this point. 

I just don’t see him being as much of a focal point in a major conference.  Or perhaps he just needs a conference other than the SEC.  In general, the coaches in the SEC seem to prefer defense to offense, with the exception of maybe Missouri and Alabama.  And Georgia, which prefers neither.  (Side note: In watching Vanover’s highlights I am pretty sure Jalen Graham would average forty points a game in the Summit League if his free throw shooting improved.)

Personally, I would love to see Connor return home to UALR and play for Darrel Walker.  Walker is friendly with Michael Jordan.  So maybe he could have the GOAT put in a recruiting phone call.  Everyone wins.  Or perhaps he could reunite with his former ORU teammate Max Abmas at the University of Texas.  I understand they are looking for players.  

Gonzaga Basketball and Connor Vanover

In last year’s Sweet 16 matchup between Arkansas and Gonzaga, Eric Musselman pretty much rode Jaylin Williams as the Hogs’ sole big man the whole way through in knocking off the No. 1 Zags. Kamani Johnson played 4 minutes; Vanover sat the whole game.

Now, however, some Gonzaga basketball insiders feel Vanover would be a good fit for the borderline powerhouse Gonzaga basketball program that went to consecutive Sweet Sixteens from 2013 through 2022 including two national runner-up finishes.

The Locked on Zags’ Andy Patton sees in Vanover someone whose shot-blocking abilities would translate much better to the Gonzaga’s league, the West Coast Conference, than the SEC. “Adding a player who can protect the rim the way he can, I think is one of the missing links on this roster right now,” he said in the below episode.

But Patton is under no delusions of Vanover getting heavy minutes for Gonzaga basketball. Instead, Patton sees him playing 15 to 20 minutes per game, “whether that’s as a starter who just doesn’t play all that much, whether that’s at the reserve kind of up in the air at this point. But with Graham Ike, with Anton Watson, with Ben Gregg, I think you have your four big men.”

“If Vanover were to come in, I think he would be the one who would play the least out of that group. He would have to be okay with that.”

Huff added: “I also think that this would have a trickle-down effect on players like Kaden Perry, on players like Braden Huff. Would they want to stick around? I don’t know that either of them have really good abilities to enter the transfer portal right now. Perry because of health. Huff because he just hasn’t really done anything yet after redshirting last year. So I think those players might kind of be, for lack of a better word, stuck, and adding a player over them might cause some problems there.”

Arkansas Basketball Return?

Jimmy Whitt Jr. transferred away from the Razorbacks but later returned to show out in his last collegiate season.

It’s unlikely Musselman would not seek out Vanover to do the same, but stranger things have happened. If Vanover could stay healthy (he got sick before the 2021-22 season) and deliver his best college season yet, then he would warrant situational playing time behind Makhi Mitchell and Trevon Brazile. The Little Rock native’s presence would take the pressure of freshman Baye Fall to develop as quickly early in the season and against certain opponents a floor stretcher with an outside shot like Vanover would be preferable to Makhi Mitchell.

Even if Musselman did want Vanover to return, how would Vanover feel about returning after sitting so much down the stretch of last season?

Don’t expect the Jimmy Whittification of Connor Vanover any time soon, but if Vanover has something to prove there would be no place better than home to do it.

“His skill level is off the charts, just like his height,” Brian Ross, Vanover’s coach at Arkansas Baptist Prep, told Best of Arkansas Sports. “I’ve never coached any other big man nearly as skilled as him regardless of his height. He could make 3’s, catch everything, shoot with either hand inside of 10 feet, and was just an incredible passer.”

Ross has watched Vanover’s college journey from afar when he had free time from his own current coaching duties at Little Rock Central High, and thinks he is still searching for the right fit in a school.

“He’s so unique, so he needs to be somewhere that will utilize that skill set,” Ross said. “He found a great fit in ORU but I guess he wanted to either try to get back to a Power 5 school where he can do the same or start his professional career now. He could also return to ORU if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for in the portal. He’s a great person and a great player so I’m sure he’ll continue to succeed.”

Looking Beyond Gonzaga Basketball

If not Gonzaga or Arkansas, other potential destinations for Connor Vanover are places that need a shot blocker off the bench and have recently lost a big man through the transfer portal.

Syracuse seems like a viable possibility after losing Jesse Edwards, who had also been a Razorback target. Other potential landing spots include Florida State after losing Naheem McLeod, Oklahoma State after losing Moousa Cisse and Auburn after the graduation of Johni Broome (although it does stretch the imagination rather far to envision Vanover in a Bruce Pearl offense).

On top of that, “Arizona State needs a lot of help in the front court given Warren Washington, their starting center, is in the transfer portal,” says Huff. Then, rather cheekily, he adds: “He’s a huge white center, so I think we have to talk about Purdue if we’re being honest. That seems to be the type of player that they collect.”

Vanover’s no Zach Edey, but he could definitely help somebody in spot situations. More on him here:

YouTube video

*Evin Demirel contributed to this column

More on Arkansas basketball from BoAS here:

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