On June 23, former North Texas point guard Ryan Woolridge decided to take his talents to Spokane, Washington, where he will play college basketball for the Gonzaga Bulldogs spring his last year of eligibility. The 6-foot-3-inch guard’s departure left the Mean Green with a sizable hole to fill in terms of leadership and a skillset that specialized in generating high assist numbers.
Woolridge’s desire to transfer ultimately stemmed from wanting to play at a higher level of college basketball. He wanted to pursue national championships and compete in the NCAA Tournament, this was something that he didn’t believe could be achieved with North Texas. Having made his decision to transfer he now joins a team who has made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament in recent years including an appearance in the national championship (2016-17), last season they were eliminated in the elite eight.
“[Woolridge] had given a lot to us, I mean he really had,” head coach Grant McCasland said. “Ultimately you come to a point where you try to decide if there’s more that you can do at a program. I think ultimately he felt like he had done what he wanted to and was excited about the possibility of trying to do it at another level.”
Having been praised as a leader within the men’s basketball program, Woolridge’s impact throughout his three-year career at North Texas has been lauded as Hall of Fame-worthy by head coach Grant McCasland.
“[Woolridge] had a hall of fame career here at North Texas,” McCasland said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity we got to coach him and have him as a part of the program. He’ll always be a UNT men’s basketball alumni for us and [we’re] really proud of what we were able to accomplish with him here.”
It didn’t take long for the Mansfield, Texas native to leave his fingerprints on North Texas’ record book. In his first season he led the team in steals (41) while recording 202 points, 102 rebounds and 67 assists through 20 games (12 starts). Woolridge’s second season (2017-18) saw an uptick in his stats and playing time as it was the first season under McCasland.
“[Woolridge] was somebody that practiced really hard every day and did everything we asked him to do,” McCasland said. “It was really important that we established the competitiveness in our program and Ryan rose to the challenge and we challenged him quite a bit. He was a great leader for others because he led by example, he did it everyday. I mean, not only was he playing 40 minutes in practice but he was practicing hard every day.”
In Woolridge’s first season with McCasland, he helped lead the men’s basketball program to a College Basketball Invitational championship. Woolridge made 45 assists through six games in the CBI, which was tied for the most assists in tournament history. In that same season he broke a similar North Texas record after recording a single-season high in assists with (221). The point guard also played a total of 1,391 minutes, the most in school history.
“[Woolridge] helped me a lot as far as making it easy for me and others to play with him, he made the game simpler,” redshirt sophomore guard Umoja Gibson said. “He was the type of guy to lead by example, he wasn’t really a talkative guy so he was just a guy that would go out there and do it and not do too much talking, so he just led by example.”
Gibson did not play in the CBI due to sustaining a season-ending leg injury at the beginning of the season. He was able to come back and suit up in what would be Woolridge’s final season with the Mean Green. Together they were two of the stat leaders, with Gibson leading in points per game (12.6) and Woolridge close behind with 11.7 per game. Woolridge led the team in almost every other category, including minutes (984), assists (145) and steals (58). Gibson scored a team high 415 points and trailed only Woolridge in minutes (956), assists (63) and steals (46). Now that Gibson has a full season under his belt, he has grown as a player and enhanced his communication with the team on and off the court.
“[Gibson]’s confidence has grown,” McCasland said. “You can tell because he steps on the practice court and communicates really well with his teammates whereas prior to that it was hard to get him to talk. I think the biggest step for us, especially with a guy like Umoja, is his comfort level and playing hard and knowing what we want. Now he can help others understand what we want where before he was just trying to do it himself, much less help anybody.”
As the roster stands right now, the Mean Green have 10 guards, including redshirt senior guard DJ Draper and Gibson. Redshirt junior guard Javion Hamlet, who recently transferred from Northwest Florida State, has been running point on offense so far during practice.
“It’s hard to replace someone like [Woolridge],” Draper said. “I mean I think [McCasland] has done a good job of putting a group of guys who are really good and we’re really deep and [Hamlet] has been running the point right now and he can really handle that thing he’s great at assisting to other guys and getting shots for himself.”
Draper’s comments towards Hamlet’s skillset were even echoed by McCasland, regarding highly the redshirt junior’s leadership capabilities and how it could positively affect the team this season. Junior forward Zachary Simmons will be entering his third season with the Mean Green and hasn’t practiced much recently after accruing a number of injuries. Nevertheless, McCasland views Simmons as a player that could join Gibson, Hamlet and others as catalysts for a strong leadership presence from within the team.
“I think [Hamlet] is going to be a big piece for us in that leadership role because of his competitiveness and his experience,” McCasland said. “[Simmons] is a guy who has experience at this level thats a good leader and a good teammate and knows what we want and really wants to win. That’s what we need, someone that knows what we want as a program and for it to be player driven and thats when you have a great team —players help each other as opposed to just listening to coaches.”
Featured Image: Mean Green junior guard Ryan Woolridge lays the ball against the Blue Raiders on Jan. 26, 2019. File image Trevon McWilliams