There is a common thread that permeates the Colgate University’s men’s basketball roster: perseverance — players that never gave up, even after losing seven out of their first eight and 10 of their first 13 games of the season, is why the Raiders can be found atop the Patriot League standings heading into the February home stretch.
That perseverance is a characteristic embodied by senior center Ethan Jacobs, who, despite struggles throughout much of his early career, has emerged as one of the league’s best centers and an irreplaceable part of Colgate’s roster.
Born in tiny Mora, Minn., and raised in an agricultural community in Tipton, Indiana, Jacobs’ journey to Colgate, featuring a layover at Ohio University, was a long and winding road, one that he traveled with a basketball under his arm and a skateboard under his sneakers.
“I was a kid that always skateboarded,” said Jacobs of his childhood in Tipton, a tiny city of about 5,000 residents that sits roughly 36 miles from Indianapolis. Only two an a half square miles in size, life in Tipton is slow, other than the three-day Pork Festival held Thursday through Saturday proceeding every labor day.
Growing up, Jacobs didn’t have any interest in hoops, preferring to spend his time riding around town as opposed to cramped inside a stuffy, sweaty gym. But after a growth spurt pushed him to 6’1” in the sixth grade, he decided to try out for his middle school team.
He was cut.
But the setback ignited a fire in him to get to work on the game, and in the seventh grade he made the team and, according to Jacobs, played pretty well. But then he hit a speed bump, literally, breaking his wrist after a hard fall on his skateboard, and missed almost his entire eighth grade season. But after another growth spurt pushed him past 6-foot-7 as a high school freshman, Jacobs picked himself back up and went back to work on his game. It was at that time that he met a mentor who would be the catalyst for Jacobs’ basketball future.
“Freshman year I was introduced to a guy, Jay Rich, that really showed me what my potential could be and opened the door to basketball and has been my mentor since then through the basketball process.”
Rich’s first order of business: utilizing Jacobs’ big frame and working on his post game and turning him into a threat close to the basket.
Fast-forward another three years and Jacobs had become a beast on the low blocks who could also get out and run the floor despite his size. After two sectional championships, including a 23-3 mark as a senior, all-league and all-area honors and being selected for the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Role Model Award as a senior in 2010, and an ESPN.com scout grade of 86, Jacobs accepted a scholarship to play for Ohio University.
“I think when I was recruited to Ohio, running the floor and being able to space the floor were probably the two best things they saw in me,” said Jacobs.
But upon arrival, Jacobs found himself starting over from square one, buried on the depth chart behind upper classmen. Despite playing just 22 games over his first two seasons of college ball, Jacobs enjoyed his time at Ohio, crediting it as a valuable learning experience and key component of his development.
“My experience at Ohio was very much a learning process,” said Jacobs. “As a freshman, first year in college, you just try and be a sponge and soak up everything you can basketball wise, and academically. We had a great coaching staff, a big group of guys with a lot of talent. Those first two years were very challenging because I had guys in front of me that have been there and learned the stuff and coming you’re behind so you have to catch up and learn everything.”
During his sophomore year, Jacobs enjoyed something that most players can only dream of: A prolonged moment in the NCAA Tournament spotlight as a Cinderella of the 2012 tournament, as 13th seeded Ohio shocked fourth-seed Michigan in the opening round and downed 12 seed University of South Florida to punch through to the Sweet 16. The Bobcats fell in overtime to Fourth-ranked North Carolina. Now three years after the clock struck Midnight on Ohio, Jacobs still savors the experience.
“it was amazing, something that will definitely be with me for the rest of my life.”
After Ohio’s run through March Madness, head coach John Groce and his staff left for national power Illinois, leaving Jacobs to figure out his next step. With a new coaching staff coming in, Jacobs explored his transfer options, but found few Division I teams biting on a raw center who had spent his career on the end of the bench. He did, however, have a nibble from Colgate head coach Matt Langel, who saw untapped potential.
“He came out here on a visit and one thing led to the next and we really felt that his skill ability to shoot the ball and his size would be something that would be able to help us,” said Langel of Jacobs, who up until that point had never made a single 3-pointer in a college game and had just 10 college points to his name.
”With an extra year off to adjust to the academic rigors of Colgate but also the style of basketball and work with our assistant coaches so he can help our team, and he has really done that,” said Langel.
Jacobs spent his first year at Colgate as a spectator, sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules while watching Colgate struggle to a 11-21 record while going 5-9 in league play. But he used that time to completely take apart and rebuild his game.
“For me I just tried to do everything I could to improve, whether it was watching film, being in the gym, skill sessions, 1-on-1 with a coach or other things by myself,” said Jacobs. “But sitting away from it, is different because at Ohio you have the opportunity to play but as a red-shirt you don’t, so it’s a different mentality. But definitely I was able to see those guys improve and want to put the work, which is most important.”
As a red-shirt junior last season, playing the first meaningful basketball of his career, Jacobs made a big impact, averaging 11.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 22.7 minutes per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from behind the arc.
“In college basketball if you can have a big who can score, it really puts pressure on the defense,” said Langel. “And Ethan can do that, he can score with his back to the basket, and he doesn’t have just one move, he’s pretty skilled, he can go both ways, he can shoot from in the post and then it creates some difficulties as to whether you’re gonna help in and leave some of our other shooters open.”
With his burly 240-pound frame and ability to both deliver a brain-rattling screen and knock down a jump shot, Jacobs has excelled at the pick-and-pop.
“In my opinion, the pick and pop is one of the hardest actions to guard defensively for a big man not usually guarding a guy that can shoot,” said Jacobs. Later adding, “If the guards have an advantage then I’ll space out and let them attack and the help may not be there and Austin and my other teammates are great at finding me when that happens defensively, that breakdown.”
Those mismatches and breakdowns have led to Jacobs becoming one of the biggest producers on this year’s Colgate team, averaging 12 points per game, while opening up the floor for fellow senior and Raiders leading scorer Damon Sherman-Newsome. Jacobs also leads the team in rebounds with 4.6 per game.
Jacobs’ physical size and abilities have made him an integral part to Colgate’s game plan, but his growth into a vocal leader has made an equally large impact on a program trying to make their way back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
“I talk about it whenever I can, whenever the conversation is around to just try to explain how great of a feeling it is of accomplishment, togetherness,” said Jacobs. “You put all this work in as a team, you’re together every day, in the weight room, watching film, whatever it may be and to see that all come together and win a championship together is something really special so I try and tell them stories or feelings or whatever I can about that experience.”
With five games left in the regular season, followed by the winner takes all Patriot League Tournament, Jacobs sights are squarely set on getting back to the NCAAs, this time on the court instead of as a sideline spectator. And with the end of his college career in sight, Jacobs has officially traded in his Sketchers and skateboard for high-top Under Armor sneakers and basketball shorts.
“I definitely want to play professional basketball,” said Jacobs. “That’s been my dream since I fell in love with the game early on and I’ve been having several conversations with coach Langel and coach Jordan about their process and kind of what they went through. So we’re just going to try and put a lot of that stuff off to the end of the season.”
Photographs by Chris Dela Rosa