When Sam Houston head men’s basketball coach Jason Hooten scouted Bearkat senior center Michael Holyfield as a high school recruit, 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. Mike had both of those things. You watch a young big guy and to see if he runs every time down or if he takes a few plays off. Mike got down the floor every time.”

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.

Fast forward to March, 2015, and Holyfield’s talents and drive have earned the recognition they deserve.

After helping lead Sam Houston to its second consecutive 24-victory regular season, Holyfield has been recognized as the 2015 Southland Conference “Defensive Player of the Year.”

“Michael is very deserving of this honor,” Hooten said. “He’s worked so hard. He’s a self-starter who is willing to put the time and effort in to get results.”

Holyfield also joined fellow seniors Jabari Peters, DeMarcus Gatlin and Kaheem Ransom as selections on the 2015 men’s basketball All-Southland Conference team. In 28 years in the league, Sam Houston has never before placed four players on the all-league honor squad.

Holyfield leads the Southland this year in block shots with 75 and stands No. 4 in the league in rebounds (7.5 per game). His play is a major reason that Sam Houston leads the league in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.

“Michael has blocked a lot of shots this year and, even when he didn’t a hand on other attempts, he’s made players change their shot and miss,” Hooten said. “He definitely is deserving of the honor.”

As runners-up in the 2015 league race, the Bearkats have earned the No. 2 seed and a bye into the semifinals at the Southland Conference Tournament in Katy.

Holyfield goes into the tournament needing five more blocks to set a new school record for most shots blocked in a season. Eddy Fobbs set the current record of 78 during the Kats’ 2003 Southland championship season.

Looking back at his freshman year in 2011-12, Holyfield admits his transition to the college game did not come easily.

“It was 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.”

Holyfield did not begin playing basketball until his sophomore year in high school. Previously he had not played organized basketball or had any formal coaching. But, as a freshman, he learned by experience.

“We had to throw him into the fire quickly,” Hooten said. “He struggled at times, but I saw enough out of him to know, with time, he was going to be really good. He’s put the work in and we’ve gotten the results. 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.”

The kinesiology major has shown steady improvement every years. His scoring, rebounding and shot block totals have increased every year. This season, is in one of seven players on the team who are averaging more than seven points a game in the Bearkats' balanced attack.

Going into the 2015 Southland Conference tournament, Holyfield has totaled 2,081 minutes in 127 games. He has started 105 times. He ranks second in career blocks at Sam Houston with 180. Fobbs holds the record with 267.

Holyfield is one of three seniors who have been part of the program each of the past four years as Sam Houston has rolled up 79 victories.

“We’ve taken every game one at a time to reach this point,” Holyfield said. “Now it’s tournament time.”

The winner of the Southland Conference tournament earns the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Championships. Sam Houston will play in the semifinals on Friday at 7:30 p.m. A victory will put the Kats in Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. championship game at the Merrell Center.

A victory in the semifinals Friday also would earn the 2015 team a tie with the 2010 championship squad for the most victories (25) in an NCAA Division I men’s basketball season at Sam Houston State.

For Holyfield and his Bearkat teammates, the ultimate goal is NCAA post-season play, a goal that can be achieved with a pair of victories this weekend.