Making the Grade
USC Upstate's Michael Buchanan is averaing over 13 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game this season.
Michael Buchanan grew three inches to 6-foot-9 entering his senior year at Palo Verde HS in Las Vegas. His basketball coach, Jermone Riley, called a former co-worker Kyle Perry, an assistant at USC-Upstate, and told him Buchanan might be worth a flight to the desert.
Perry saw the big man’s potential and offered Buchanan a scholarship, which he accepted. Since making that decision five years ago, it’s been a wild ride for Buchanan. His college journey almost didn’t start. A body part kept popping out of joint. He’s been benched and he’s starred. He’s grown three more inches to 7 feet. And he’s off to a strong start as a senior.
“Playing at this level has always been my goal,” Buchanan said. “I just never knew it would get here so quick.”
Perry, who is now the associate head coach at USC-Upstate, made several trips to Vegas to watch Buchanan play in his senior season at Palo Verde. Buchanan signed a national letter-of-intent to play for the Spartans and coach Eddie Payne in the late period in April. It was his only Division I scholarship offer.
Buchanan put himself in position to be recruited because he sweated into shape under the sweltering Vegas sun while supervised by trainer Troy Brown. After starting his high school career as a 5-11 small forward, he’d developed into a power forward with good touch around the basket, but had lost mobility and agility as he'd grown.
Buchanan met NCAA requirements as an academic qualifier. The state of Nevada, however, has an exit exam all high school seniors must pass to earn a diploma. Buchanan failed the English portion twice. Without a diploma, he couldn’t enroll at USC-Upstate and the clock was ticking. Perry spent much of the summer on the phone with Buchanan, directing him around Las Vegas to the various offices where he could file the various paperwork needed to take the GED. A passing grade would guarantee his admission to USC-Upstate.
“The kid has brothers and sisters, dad is the only parent and he was working in the summer so Michael was helping take care of his brothers and sisters,” Perry said. “It was not an ideal situation.”
Buchanan took the GED in early August. He received the minimum passing score on a Thursday in late August, the day the fall semester started at USC-Upstate. He boarded a plane over the weekend and arrived on campus. The Spartans had a solid team in place for that 2012-13 season, and opted to redshirt Buchanan.
“It was tough being here and watching your teammates play,” Buchanan said
Adjusting to college life took time also.
“He was immature, didn’t understand college, it was his first time away from home and he had a lot to learn about academics and life and a lot of different things,” Perry said.
In 2013-14, Buchanan made his debut, playing 10 minutes a game as the backup center on a team that won 19 games. He was the understudy to Ricardo Glenn, who averaged 13 points and eight rebounds per game.
Buchanan had flashed his potential in a limited role as a freshman, scoring 18 points against Bob Jones University and 11 points in a narrow loss to Charlotte. Poised to become a primary weapon in Payne’s frontcourt, Buchanan dislocated his left shoulder the summer before his sophomore season.
He underwent rehab. Everything appeared to be fine. Then, in a game during his sophomore season, the shoulder popped out of joint during a game. Trainers ushered him to the locker room and popped it back in. It was painful, obviously. It popped out nine or 10 more times during the season. The procedure was repeated each time.
“The doctor had said if that happened once that I should quit playing and have surgery,” Buchanan said. “But I didn’t want my team to play without a center.”
Buchanan, who is righthanded, lost confidence in his left arm. The injury didn’t affect his shooting but it crippled his defense and rebounding. He was afraid to extend his left arm to corral a ball or contest a shot, wary of making another long, painful walk off the court.
With his basketball future uncertain, Buchanan hit his lowest point, he said.
Buchanan underwent surgery after the season, but his conditioning suffered and weight ballooned close to 300 pounds during two months of recovery. He started two of the first three games, but a week later he was relegated to spot duty off the bench. The coaching staff was unhappy with his weight and inability to run the floor.
“It gave me a wakeup call to get in shape,” Buchanan said.
He responded. Buchanan scored in double figures in 13 of the Trojans’ last 17 games. He earned Atlantic Sun Player of the Week honors and became the fourth player in school history named All-Conference, earning second team honors.
Last summer, he worked hard in the weight room to rebuild strength - and trust - in his left arm.
Early in the 2016-17 season, the affable center has picked up where last season ended. He scored 24 points in an overtime upset of Charlotte. He poured in 21 points on 11 shots against Charleston, which boasts one of the CAA’s top three frontcourts.
And, he’s on pace to graduate with a degree interdisciplinary studies in the spring.
“There’s a lot of people on this campus who would say there’s no way this kid is going to make it,” Perry said, looking back at Buchanan’s rocky start on the campus in Spartanburg, S.C.
Buchanan also has professional plans. While the NBA is every college player’s goal, a long run in Europe would also suit him fine. He must improve his free throw shooting (34 percent) and chip rust from his mid-range jump shot.
He has a college degree and a potential career in sight. His story is part of what makes college basketball great. Here’s a kid from Seattle, dropped in Vegas for high school, who hit life’s jackpot when a coach from a school 2,500 miles away risked a scholarship on him.
It was a smart chance for both to take