From walk-on to MAC's biggest star, Akron's Enrique Freeman takes amazing journey to March Madness

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Enrique Freeman's trip from obscurity to college stardom is so unique, so unconventional, even Akron's senior center finds it unbelievable.

“Sometimes, it's unreal," Freeman said Wednesday. "It's amazing.”

There isn't another player in this year's NCAA Tournament with a backstory quite like Freeman's. He's rare, special. One of one.

“The unicorn,” Akron coach John Groce said.

Freeman arrived at the school on an academic scholarship with no intention of playing basketball. But at the urging of family and friends, he attended an open-campus tryout that didn't begin well.

He threw up into a trash can.

But conditioning issues aside, Freeman caught the attention of Akron's coaches, who marveled at the 19-year-old's motor. He made the Zips' roster, and now four inches taller and nearly 30 pounds heavier than as a freshman, Freeman is the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year and an AP honorable mention All-American after leading the nation in rebounding.

From walk-on to legend in five years.

Before the MAC champion Zips (24-10) took the floor inside PPG Paints Arena to practice before Thursday’s matchup against Creighton (23-9), Freeman smiled while sitting on the dais as Akron guard Greg Tribble recalled his first impressions of his teammate.

Inside James Rhodes Arena on a fall morning in 2019, Freeman gave a glimpse of what was to come.

“I just remember a skinny kid just flying around, blocking shots,” Tribble said with a laugh.

The day started out like so many others for Groce, who settled in at the JAR to watch players scrimmage.

“I came in with my cup of coffee, sat down,” said Groce, who has the Zips in the NCAA field for the second time in three years. “We have a student-body-wide tryout every year and you noticed his size right away. He was about 6-foot-7-ish at that time, long, gangly, motor moving, blocking shots. Instincts were there.

“But at that time he was about a buck 80 (180 pounds) dripping wet.”

Still, Groce was taken with Freeman's skillset and untapped potential and felt he and his coaches could develop him into something — never dreaming he'd blossom into one the best players in Akron's history.

What Groce didn't know at the time was Freeman's fierce determination and self-drive.

One of seven children, Freeman's mom, Tania, who is a Cleveland police officer, helped instill his strong work ethic. He graduated from St. Martin de Porres, a small Catholic high school with a unique program that combines academics with real-world experience. During his last year, Freeman worked at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Freeman played basketball, but he didn't get any scholarship offers. Not one.

That's hard to imagine when you consider that this season Freeman recorded 30 double-doubles, one shy of matching David Robinson's Division I record, and averaged 18.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.

Freeman's already earned his bachelor's degree and he'll have his MBA in two months. He's relentless on the court and off.

While Groce could talk all day about Freeman's uncanny ability to box out, how quickly he jumps, uses both hands and the steady improvement in his outside shot, Akron's coach would rather discuss the person, not the player.

“His humility, coachability, work capacity,” Groce said, rattling off some Freeman's best traits. "It’s not only the story that is unicorn-like. I always tell people that he's the unicorn because of who he is as a person, what he’s done as a student, and obviously whatever he’s been able to accomplish as a player.

"But to go from a walk-on tryout to Defensive Player of the Year two years ago to All-League to MAC Tournament MVP twice to MAC regular conference MVP this year to an All-American is nothing short of amazing.”

He's won over opposing coaches as well. After Freeman was named MVP of the MAC tournament following last week's win over Kent State in the title game, Golden Flashes coach Rob Senderoff paid him the highest praise.

It meant even more coming from a rival.

“Enrique Freeman, in my opinion, is the most dominant player in the MAC that I’ve ever seen,” Senderoff said. “He’s an unbelievable competitor, an unbelievable winner. You compete against him, but you also watch how he interacts and how he acts on the court. Just an unbelievable dude.”

Since the pairings were announced, Creighton coach Doug McDermott has had to do some quick scouting on Freeman.

He's seen enough to have concerns.

“If he gets you on an angle, it’s over,” McDermott said, “and he’s got an incredible second jump. So he gets back to the rim the second time very quickly, which obviously makes him a very effective offensive rebounder. Just a terrific player."

A player who seemingly fell into Akron's lap.

McDermott laughed that he's never been so lucky.

"That's an incredible story,” McDermott said. "I’ve heard these stories over and over that you go through recruiting and some parents will tell you that they went to the doctor and their son’s growth plates haven’t closed yet and they got two or three inches of growth left.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody grow in my 35 years of doing this.”


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