State Colleges

On the brink of quitting basketball, Southwestern senior blossoms into best player in NAIA

Southwestern senior Cam Hunt has become arguably the nation’s best basketball player at the NAIA level. He’s led Southwestern to the NAIA tournament with averages of 31.7 points and 6.9 assists.
Southwestern senior Cam Hunt has become arguably the nation’s best basketball player at the NAIA level. He’s led Southwestern to the NAIA tournament with averages of 31.7 points and 6.9 assists. Courtesy

These days Cameron Hunt is at the top of his basketball world.

A senior at Southwestern College, the 6-foot-5 guard has a legitimate claim of being the best player in the country at the NAIA level. He not only has the numbers (31.7 points and 6.9 assists, both second nationally) to back it up, but also the team success.

After losing in the finals the last three years, Hunt helped guide Southwestern to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship last week. Southwestern finished 27-4, is ranked sixth in the country and earned a No. 2 seed in its NAIA Division II Tournament bracket. Southwestern’s opening game is noon Thursday in Sioux Falls, S.D. against Ave Maria (Fla.) (23-8).

But life wasn’t always this good for Hunt. He was a guard for a powerhouse Duncanville (Texas) team in high school, but received no college offers. The lack of interest took such a toll on Hunt that he was actually preparing to end his career to just focus on school.

“That was really hard, not feeling wanted,” Hunt said. “I have to give my mom a lot of thanks because I was ready to just about quit. She told me to stay patient and the right thing will come. And sure enough, Southwestern came.”

It was the summer after his senior season and Hunt, then only 6 feet tall, was desperate to be seen, so he attended a showcase event in Texas. Little did he know that a Southwestern alumnus tipped off assistant coach Tim Miser about Hunt.

Miser saw potential in Hunt. Not best-player-in-the-country potential, but an eventual all-KCAC player as a junior or senior. After meeting with Hunt and his family, Miser was sold and went back to head coach Matt O’Brien with his approval to offer a scholarship.

“After talking with Cam and his mother and his grandma, I found out that not only was he a player we wanted, but he was the type of guy we wanted in our program,” Miser said.

When Hunt arrived at Southwestern, he had grown to 6-2. He was a rotation player his freshman season and averaged 6.9 points. But when he came back for his sophomore season, Hunt had sprung to 6-5. Suddenly moves Hunt had been making his entire life became even more effective because he had the taller frame. He could now throw passes at angles he never could before, making him even more dangerous.

Throw in the chip on the shoulder created by the doubt surrounding his recruiting and a work ethic that was learned under the tutelage of former Southwestern All-American Cameron Clark and Hunt was equipped with what he needed to transform himself into an elite player.

“I’m a very loyal guy, so if someone gives me a chance then I’m going to do everything I can to give them my all,” Hunt said. “Cameron Clark was the guy that showed me hard work will get you places and I really stuck with that. I finally understood the value of hard work.”

The results have been stunning. Hunt took off as a sophomore, averaging 24.4 points, then followed it up with 23.3 points his junior year. But nothing compares to the senior season Hunt has pieced together.

Not only is he averaging a career-high 31.7 points, but he’s doing so on rare efficiency for such a heavy usage. Hunt is shooting 51.7 percent from the field, 43.9 percent on three-pointers and 88.4 percent on free throws. On top of that, Hunt, who has never averaged more than four assists per game, has upped his play-making ability for others and is averaging a career-best 6.9 assists.

“When you’re that good at scoring, it would be easy to just want to score,” Southwestern coach Matt O’Brien said. “But he’s making a winning play every time. I have total trust he’s trying to make the right play. Whatever shot he takes, I trust. Whatever pass he makes, I trust. Now I don’t trust very many kids, but we do trust him and it’s easier to trust him because we know how much work he puts in.”

Sometimes playing with a ball-dominant player can be alienating to teammates. They stand around, almost out of the star player’s way, to make room for him to go to work. But Hunt is not that type of star.

In fact, he’s the opposite.

“He works so hard that he actually inspired me to work harder to get better,” Southwestern senior Brent Smith said. “I wasn’t the best coming in, but watching him work inspired me to put in the work.”

Despite being every opponent’s top target, Hunt’s feel for the game allows him to operate at such high efficiency. He uses the start of games to diagnose defenses. If a defense is a string, then he looks for where he can pull at the threads to make it fall apart. Once he identifies the weakness, Hunt proceeds with a ruthlessness.

“He can score it at all three levels,” O’Brien said. “He can shoot the three, pull-up for two and get to the rack. He has a really nice layup package around the rim and that makes him pretty hard to guard.”

Oh yeah and if defenses run help his way, Hunt has the anticipation and vision to find shooters dotting the perimeter like Andrew Hamm, Simpson Anderson, Jarehn White, Ahmad Pratt and Unwana Ekiko or dump off to a big like Smith or Troy Baker.

“If we get open, we know we’re getting the ball from Cam,” Smith said.

Hunt led Southwestern to its first win at the national tournament last season. But this time around, in his final season, Hunt wants more. Southwestern showed it can beat any team in the field after knocking off then-No. 1 Oklahoma Wesleyan in the KCAC tournament championship.

From nearly giving up the sport to believing he can deliver a championship, Hunt admits he’s had a crazy path here the last four years.

“I do try to look around and take it all in because it is like, ‘Wow, look at what you’re doing,’” Hunter said. “You really don’t realize it when you’re so locked in on the path of where you’re trying to go, so sometimes it’s refreshing to step back and realize how truly special this ride has been.”

Friends also in field

No. 23 Friends (22-9) received an at-large berth as the third team from the KCAC in the tournament field. The Falcons are the sixth seed in the Cramer bracket and will play No. 12 Cornerstone (Mich.), a No. 3 seed with a 25-8 record, at 8:30 a.m. Thursday The game can be streamed on the NAIA website for $9.95.

Friends is loaded with local talent, as Jordan Murdock (Southeast), James Conley (Derby), Atir Cherne (Kapaun Mount Carmel), Zion Fralin (East) and Luke Evans (Bishop Carroll) all play key roles. Murdock has blossomed into a star for Friends, averaging 27.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists, while Conley (14.2), Cherne (11.1) and Fralin (10.0) are all double-digit scorers.

Friends and Cornerstone do have recent history, as the Falcons won a first-round meeting at the NAIA tournament in 2014 en route to a quarterfinal appearance that year. Friends has two wins at the national tournament in program history.