Zak Irvin ready to build own legacy in Ann Arbor

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Zak Irvin should be going to Indiana next season.

The lanky 6-foot-6 athletic sharpshooter from Fishers should be on the fast track to playing significant minutes for one of college basketball’s most storied programs. After all, Irvin is an Indiana kid, born and raised. His prodigious talent has been evident almost his whole life. His father, Jimmy Irvin, said he first noticed it when Zak was in sixth grade, but Zak got his first letter – from Valparaiso – just after his freshman year at Hamilton Southeastern High School.

That same summer, Irvin was offered by the Hoosiers. A basketball-obsessed Indiana kid, he was taken with them initially – the candy-striped pants, the illustrious history, all of it.

“”Indiana was the first school to offer me,” Irvin said. “So with them being the first to offer me, of course at the beginning I had a lot of interest in Indiana.”

Indiana wanted Irvin, Irvin wanted Indiana. At least initially. But his family preached patience and rational decision-making. Irvin’s parents wanted their son to take his time before committing to a school.

“The way we went about the process, we took our time,” Jimmy Irvin said. “We really went through the process with the different schools that had interest in him early on and as interest picked up, we did the same thing all the way through, with every school that had contacted Zak at that time.”

Zak Irvin didn’t get caught up in the prestige of Indiana. Instead, he explored his options. Those options seemed to grow exponentially with each basketball season, as more and more coaches got to see the young swingman go to work against some of the best players in his state. One major benefit Irvin had was playing alongside one of the best players in the country one year ahead of him in high school – former Hamilton Southeastern star and current Michigan State freshman Gary Harris.

Playing with Harris had its advantages. Opposing defenses were forced to focus on Harris, while Irvin would take advantage of scoring opportunities that resulted. Irvin also quickly got used to playing in front of college coaches. Coaches were hanging around Southeastern to watch Harris, and they couldn’t help taking notice of the 2-guard’s rail-thin counterpart with the smooth jumpshot who was just one year younger.

“Playing with Gary (Harris) helped me a lot. When he was a sophomore I was a freshman, so when coaches saw him they saw me.”

One significant added benefit of playing on the same team as Harris, articulated by Irvin’s high school coach Brian Satterfield, was going against him in practice every night. Satterfield said the duo fed off of each other during their battles in Southeastern’s practice gym.

“You can’t beat it. The value of that is unbelievable,” Satterfield said. “Just being able to be out there and be able to compete against the best player in the state day-in and day-out, the value of that, just being able to see how he works, how he gets himself better, how he goes out there and competes — I mean, I think that’s rubbed off on Zak.”

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The result of those practices with Harris was a constant uptick in Irvin’s skills. With this came attention, and lots of it. College coaches were even more persistent once Irvin took those skills to the AAU circuit with his loaded Eric Gordon All-Stars team. Irvin teamed up with some incredible talent – his team included the Indiana-bound duo Collin Hartman and Devin Davis, Purdue commit Basil Smotherman as well as Notre Dame commit VJ Beachem.

College coaches filled the stands to watch Irvin and his teammates play. Hartman and Davis committed to Indiana in November before their sophomore seasons and Smotherman would choose Purdue shortly thereafter. But Irvin stuck to the plan, avoiding the in-state pressure to commit early and heeding his parents advice to be patient and make a smart decision. Irvin took his visits and continued to process.

One school he visited, and was particularly taken with, was the University of Michigan. On his first visit, Jimmy Irvin recalled how Zak “fell in love” with the coaching staff for the Wolverines.

“And then he also liked the campus itself,” Jimmy Irvin said. “We just felt that his game fit Beilein’s system.”

It was after his visit to Michigan that Irvin began to feel his affections switch from Indiana to Michigan.

“Once I took my visit up to Michigan I just felt like that was the place to be and that was the school for me,” Irvin said. “So I started losing interest in Indiana and getting more interested in Michigan.”

The Michigan coaching staff is clearly what impressed Irvin. In football, players generally commit to a school, a program, a tradition. In basketball, the decidedly smaller amount of players on a team leads to a generally closer relationship with coaches, especially assistants. In short, players commit to coaches, not schools. It’s a generalization, but it makes sense. The coaching staff at Michigan made a huge impact on Irvin and heavily influenced his college search.

When Irvin received his offer from Michigan on June 15th the summer before his junior year, he knew he had a decision to make. At this point he had offers from Indiana, Illinois, Florida, Xavier, Butler, Tennessee and Cincinnati. But everything always came back to Michigan and the relationship he had with the John Beilein and his assistants LaVall Jordan, Jeff Meyer and Bacari Alexander.

“Definitely a huge thing that made Michigan stand out from the other schools I liked was Michigan’s coaching staff,” Irvin said. “I liked every single one of the coaches on there. You know, I had a great relationship with every single one of them. Not just the coach that recruited me, I had a good relationship with all the coaches.”

Irvin committed to Michigan a month and a half after receiving his offer on July 31st.

There is still work to do. Without Harris by his side this high school season, the burden will be on him to take over the main scoring duties for his Southeastern team. There is reason to believe Irvin will step effortlessly into this role. During this past AAU season, a funny thing happened to the Eric Gordon All-Stars team. Among a team of high-major wing players, Irvin emerged as the team’s clear go-to scorer.  The versatile wing can drive the lane, handle the ball like a point guard and abuse teams from the perimeter.

Satterfield agreed that playing without Harris may provide a learning curve at first, but he sees Irvin as being able to make the adjustment quickly.

“A lot of defenses were geared toward keying on Gary as the main option last year and then looking at other options to try and shut us down this year, of course that going to be geared toward Zak, and that’s going to be a little different perspective for him and a big challenge for him,” Satterfield said. “But at the same time, I think he is one that’s put in a lot of time and a lot of effort into his game. If you watched him over the summer and this fall, you can see that his game has taken that step to the next level. He’s spent time in the weight room, which has made him stronger – he’s going to have to definitely be prepared for that because people will probably try to be very physical with him and try and wear him down.”

Indiana’s Mr. Basketball is squarely in Irvin’s sights, though Jimmy Irvin said that is far from his son’s number one priority – that would be having a good senior season for his Southeastern squad.

Irvin could have picked Indiana but his father articulated a deeper reason for his decision to spurn his home-state school.

“He wanted to go off on his own and go to a place where he can build something himself rather than going to a school where a lot of his friends would have gone to,” Jimmy Irvin said. “He just wanted to break away and do something different.”

Irvin could be going to the school in his home state. The one with an iconic basketball arena and a ready-made tradition. The one many of his friends from the Indiana high school basketball scene (including two of his AAU teammates) chose to go to. Instead, Irvin has chosen to blaze his own trail at a school with a burgeoning tradition, with chapters in its history books yet to be written. He has chosen to build something, rather than contribute to something already built.

Zak Irvin should be going to Indiana, but he’s not. He’s going to Michigan.

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