When Sam Houston head men’s basketball coach Jason Hooten scouted now junior center Michael Holyfield, the vision of what the 6’11, 270 pound big-man could become in the Southland Conference was immediate.
“From the first time I saw him I saw a lot in him,” Hooten said. “The biggest thing about inside players are their heart and their want-to and Mike had both of those things. You watch a young big guy and see if he runs every time down or if he takes a few plays off and Mike never did.”
As a product of Manzano High School in Albuquerque, N.M., Holyfield’s significant size-advantage and will to win powered the Monarchs to a No. 4 ranking in the state and 22-9 record his senior season. His transition to the college game, however, did not come so easily.
“It was really tough,” Holyfield said. “The toughest thing was just knowing the kind of confidence you have to have on the court. It’s a lot different from high school because guys are six or seven inches taller. I think a lot of times I took [my height] for granted. In college you really have to go out every day and play your best.”
During his freshman campaign, Holyfield struggled to adjust to the new league. Problematic matchups and early foul trouble prevented more playing time and as a result, the newcomer would finish the season averaging just four points and 15.1 minutes per game.
“Teams in our league don’t quite have the size of him therefore there wasn’t someone for him to matchup with and guard,” Hooten said. “A lot of it had to do with him just playing better and coming into his own so that we could leave him out there – and just staying out of foul trouble.”
As Holyfield and the Bearkats progressed through the early portion of conference his sophomore season, the expectations were higher but the inconsistencies remained.
“There were flashes here and there,” Hooten said. “The problem last year was that he would have a couple good flashes then some bad ones. You just never knew where you were at with it. I remember we went to Eastern Washington and he didn’t play well at all. I went home really disappointed. Between there and the conference tournament something just started to click a little bit.”
As the Kats headed to Katy for the Southland Conference Tournament, the same physically gifted big-man began to play with a confidence as towering as his size.
“We were playing Northwestern State,” Holyfield said. “The worst thing that would happen is they beat us and we go home. Before the game I had this mindset, whatever stats I put up, I’m going my hardest. If things don’t work out, things don’t work out but I’m going to give myself the chance to be good and to be great.”
Holyfield put up seven points that game – his second-highest total of the season – and would record 14 rebounds over the course of the three days. Even in the season-ending loss for Sam Houston, it was a turning point for New Mexico native.
“When we got to Katy, he was amazing,” Hooten said. “As a coach, I was telling myself ‘he’s starting to get this figured out.’ I remember sitting in the hotel lobby talking to the team after that heartbreak loss and calling Mike out in front of everybody. I said, ‘that’s how you can play every time and that’s what we can expect from you’ and he kind of got a sheepish grin like he always does.”
Four games into the 2013-2014 season, Holyfield recorded his first double-digit scoring game against Jarvis Christian finishing with 12 points. When the Kats opened the New Year on Jan. 2 against the same Northwestern State team that sent the Kats packing the season prior, the junior went off tallying 20 points and nine rebounds in a 107-104 win.
“I think we’ve all been waiting on that,” Hooten said of the game. “There’s probably some guys at Arizona and Kentucky that would like that too. He’s just doing what we think he can. We’re putting him in a position to score baskets that he should score. The difference now is now, he’ll go up and dunk it.”
Down the stretch this season, the Kats have relied heavily on Holyfield and the still soft-spoken but ever-confident big man has delivered, tallying six double-digit point performances in conference play while leading the team in rebounds.
The Sam Houston upperclassman’s sheepish grin still make appearances – just don’t expect Holyfield to be bashful about his play on the hardwood.
“The other night, after his first really big breakout game I gave him a shootout in the locker room,” Hooten said. “He didn’t really smile, he just kind of said, ‘I’m going to keep doing that coach’.”