Published Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 10:05 pm / Updated at 11:11 pm
BASKETBALL
Barfknecht: The long squiggly road to success for Pitchford

LINCOLN — Since his sophomore year of high school, Walter Pitchford has been basketball’s version of a rolling stone.

A year at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.

Time at New Creations (Ind.) School.

A signed letter of intent to DePaul in his native Chicago, then a coaching change before he enrolled.

The school refused to release him from the letter, so he left for a postgraduate year at East Lansing (Mich.) Summit Christian Academy before signing with Florida.

After one year of mostly bench time with the Gators, Pitchford moved again. Family matters led him to seek a place in Big Ten country closer to his Grand Rapids, Mich., home.

A chance recommendation got the 6-foot-10, 230-pounder a look from Nebraska, a scholarship and finally a place to call home.

“That’s what it has felt like since Day One,” Pitchford said. “I love this place.”

What he likes even more is what his 15 months under Husker coach Tim Miles have done to his outlook on life, basketball and how to be a teammate.

“The biggest thing I learned in my first year here was loyalty,” said Pitchford, who has three years to play after sitting out as a transfer. “My whole life, I thought it was all about me. Being on AAU teams, high school teams, prep school teams, it’s always been that way.

“Playing for Coach Miles has really put it in perspective. You have to play your role.”

Pitchford’s growth in maturity hasn’t muted his confidence.

“I think I am the man I need to be to play at this level,” he said, “and dominate at this level.”

Pitchford’s forthright comments, outgoing personality and physical skill set — an explosive dunker who also steps out to shoot 3s — make me think of a left-handed Tony Farmer.

The 6-10 Farmer transferred from San Jose State and spent just one year on the court for NU before turning pro. But that year was the best in school history (26-8 in 1990-91), with Farmer — arguably the most underrated Husker in the modern era — contributing 12.4 points, 7.4 rebounds a game and great game savvy.

Any such help from Pitchford on that level remains to be seen. It wouldn’t be likely this season anyway because Nebraska needs the sophomore to spend as much time at center as at his natural forward spot.

He says that’s OK.

“Would you rather be the guy who gets 20 and 10 in a game and loses,” Pitchford asked, “or the guy who gets four points and wins?”

The answer a year ago would have been 20 and 10.

“Because it was all about me,” he said. “Now, I want four and a win. I want to help my teammates and the coaches and the program and the state of Nebraska. I want people to buy in around here.”

Pitchford will make long-suffering Husker hoops fans — sorry for the redundancy — want to believe.

His averages as a prep school postgraduate (17.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocked shots) and subsequent AAU work got him interest from Kentucky, Indiana and most other Big Ten schools before he picked Florida.

“My postgrad year was crazy,” Pitchford said. “SLAM magazine ranked me 38th in the nation. I was No. 9 in the nation of postgrad players.

“But you know what that all means to me now? Zero. That stuff might tell you you’re good at that moment. But once you set foot in college, it’s a whole different world.”

Upon leaving Florida, Pitchford was under consideration from Michigan and Illinois before a former AAU coach suggested he check out Nebraska.

“I saw the facilities and it was crazy,” he said. “If all this can’t get us better, then I don’t know what will. And the way we pay the price every day — nothing is easy under Coach Miles — we will get better.”

It wasn’t unusual last year in practice to see Miles and Pitchford butt heads. Pitchford smiled and shook his head when asked how bumpy the road was from “all about me” to “good teammate.”

“If you had to draw it out, there would be squiggly lines all over the place,” he said, laughing. “That year was about understanding why stuff happens and that it’s not always going to be fair and easy.”

Pitchford’s transfer year wasn’t all about basketball. His list of campus friends and connections qualify him for the title “Ambassador Pitchford.” He even jumped in to lead tours during the Pinnacle Bank Arena open house.

“I love interacting with everybody, especially with people who don’t play sports,” he said. “One of my majors is ethnic studies, so I want to learn about people from all walks of life.”

He has the same philosophy in mingling with athletes.

“I interact with all the sports,” Pitchford said. “I have friends on the golf team, the tennis team. I even know a few bowlers.”

For all the conversation over the past 15 months, Pitchford knows it’s time for action.

“If I say something,” he said, “I want to come through with it. I want people to know I made the right choice and the smart choice to come to Nebraska.”

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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