In the span of nine years, Erik McCree went from playing organized basketball for the very first time to being a strong candidate for Conference USA Player of the Year.
How’d he do it? The answer is very basic but very true – through hard work.
Before Erik’s journey to Bulldog stardom though, he was a kid growing up in the Orlando area playing football. Even so, he still found spare time to go to the park two blocks away from his house to shoot some hoops for fun.
By the time his sophomore year at West Orange High School rolled around, he hit a growth spurt – going from 6-4 to 6-7 – and he also hit upon the fact that he was better with the round ball than the pigskin.
“Basketball came natural to me,” Erik recalled. “I always played it in the park. I used to go out there and shoot and shoot and shoot. It had chain nets, some broken off. I played organized basketball for the first time my sophomore year. I started off on the JV and moved to varsity.
“I thought I was just good at it. The summer before my senior year, I played AAU and started to get offers from colleges. That’s when I thought I could play in college.”
One college that really wanted to pry Erik out of the Sunshine State was Murray State.
There were a lot of solid selling points in going to the little town of Murray, Kentucky. The Racers were coming off their best season in program history – overall record of 31-2, ranked as high as No. 11 in the country, an NCAA Tournament appearance and their All-American Isaiah Cannon was a player helping to recruit Erik.
It proved to be a whole different story though for the 18-year old when he got to the Bluegrass State.
“I was depressed when I was there,” Erik admitted. “I wasn’t playing. It was cold. I was far away from home. I used to wake up sad. When I decided to transfer, it was a big weight lifted off my shoulders. When I told the coaches I was transferring, I was happy again.”
Erik only averaged 8.5 minutes per game as a Racer in 2012-13. His shooting was subpar, going 15-of-44 from the field (34 percent) and 2-of-13 from three-point range (15 percent) for the entire season.
At that time, another small town college – Louisiana Tech – was putting together similar selling points as Murray State did the year prior. The Bulldogs were coming off one of their best seasons in program history – overall record of 27-7, school record 18-game winning streak, ranked in the top 25 for the first time in 28 years and an NIT appearance.
And as fate would have it, LA Tech had a scholarship available late in the spring and wanted to add a transfer.
“We studied film, spoke with several people that had seen him live and received a strong recommendation from [Murray State head coach] Steve Prohm,” said former associate head coach Dusty May who was on staff at the time. “We felt like he would be a good fit and would have an immediate impact after a redshirt year.
“During his redshirt year, he worked relentlessly to improve his skill level. He lived in the gym, watched a lot of film and studied the game. He knew what his strengths were and really wanted to improve his weaknesses. All of his success is a byproduct of the time and energy he has put into the game.”
It was the style of play and the coaches that really sold Erik this time, not necessarily the hype.
He looked at players at his position like Chris Anderson, Cordarius Johnson, Jaron Johnson and thought this is where he could really succeed. He knew he could be really good; he just needed to put in the work. And that’s what he did his off year … hours upon hours upon hours of work.
“That was the hardest I worked in my whole life,” Erik said with confidence. “I would go lift almost every day by myself. I would work out with one of the coaches in the day time and then come back at midnight and shoot all night, just shoot until two or three o’clock in the morning until I got tired. I would get the gun out and shoot.
“Coach May helped me so much. He would work with me so much on my game. He used to tell me that I always had a chance to be really good.”
Erik ended up starting all 36 games as a redshirt sophomore for the Dunkin’ Dogs, averaging 11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. The 2014-15 squad was loaded with the senior trio of Raheem Appleby, Speedy Smith and Michale Kyser.
On a team that won 27 games, including an outright conference regular season title and a trip to the NIT quarterfinals, McCree watched those upperclassmen lead and played his role in the process knowing one day that it would be his time to be the leader.
That time would have to come under the guidance of a new head coach though, a coach that was familiar with Erik and saw a lot of potential in him.
“I had seen Erik play in high school,” said Eric Konkol who had spent the previous four years at the University of Miami before being named LA Tech’s new head coach in 2015. “I remember being at a tournament in Orlando and watching him. At that moment, I was thinking this guy is a good player.
“Then upon arriving here and watching video and looking at stats, I thought here is a guy that can shoot the basketball and score it in a lot of different ways. I was very excited to coach him because he absolutely loved the game of basketball.”
Last season as a junior, Erik’s numbers jumped to an average of 16.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game on a 23-win team playing alongside senior Alex Hamilton who finished his career as the all-time wins leader in program history with almost 2,000 career points.
Then came the offseason. It was Erik’s time to shine as the senior.
“When it was my time, I knew I was going to make the most of it because I had worked too hard,” Erik said. “In the offseason, I would wake up around nine, eat, go lift for about an hour and a half. Then I would go to treatment. Then I would go on the court for about two hours.
“Then at night, I would come back and shoot. I would do about 400 or 500 makes on the gun, work on different finishes, catch and shoot, one-dribble pull up. Just shoot until I could not shoot anymore.”
It is no surprise that his numbers increased again this season after his offseason grind. He is averaging a team-high 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while registering a league-best 12 double-doubles. He is shooting a career high from the field (48 percent), from three-point range (38 percent) and from the free throw line (78 percent).
He is not a guy that is going to lead the rah-rah speech, but he has been a leader by example for the second youngest team in the conference which finished second after being picked seventh in the preseason.
“His example of the time he spends, how hard he plays, the effort in practice, those examples are leadership,” Konkol said. “We talked about it coming into this year, about holding himself accountable to not just every game but every practice. To be able to produce in practice with energy and effort, to lead the young group, that has carried over into the games where he has been a model of consistency.”
The in-season routine is still the same for Erik. Every week, he gets 500 makes in before the weekend games. Ninety minutes before the game, you can find him going through his semi-circle of jump shots and three-pointers.
Everybody has to work hard to be a good player, but through a lot of countless hours in the gym late at night, Erik has simply outworked others to get to where he is now … a C-USA Player of the Year candidate.
“Basketball is what I think about when I go to sleep at night and when I wake up in the morning,” Erik said. “I know I am not the most talented. I am not the biggest or the strongest. I just outwork people and I will keep doing it.”