Men’s basketball head coach Keno Davis saw something in sophomore forward Austin Stewart that slipped by most recruiters looking at the small central Illinois town called Normal.
Despite becoming Normal High School’s all-time career leader in points and steals, most Division I college scouts saw him as just a normal basketball player.
“He is a player that was a little bit overlooked going into his senior year,” Davis said. “We decided to make the move really quickly, because we felt like not only would he be a good addition for us, he could develop in our program.”
When Davis became the first Division I coach to offer Stewart a scholarship, he accepted.
“When I took my visit here, coach told me his philosophy on the game,” Stewart said. “He told me the process and how he runs things, I just thought it was a good fit and I liked the facilities. I thought it would be right for me.”
It’s been a long journey for Stewart, who finds himself in the starting line-up. Stewart’s first love was football and he admits that while he thinks he’s better at it, basketball is his true love.
Normal’s basketball program reflected the very name it bears. The team ended his freshman season with a .500 record but, by the time he graduated, the program transformed into a winning one that earned a conference title and regional championship.
Now the guard once again finds himself in another program transformation. CMU is in a rebuilding stage and Davis believes Stewart is just the type of player to help turn it around because he has been there before.
“I think it gives him an advantage in one respect,” Davis said. “He better understands what’s at the end of the road better than some players that have come from very successful programs that haven’t gone through tough seasons. Those players, you don’t know how they will react. You know he has been through it and he will develop as a player and help develop our program. I think you will see him improve as much as anyone.”
Stewart has already gone through one transformation at CMU, as a bench player to a starter. Last season, he didn’t receive playing time during the last 10 games of the season. Instead of pouting, he did something.
“In the offseason, I just tried to work on every part of my game,” Stewart said. “I tried to just go back to step one – I tried to be as versatile as possible from inside out. I also wanted to become an energy guy. I wanted to do things like rebound and hustle. I want to be one of the best players I can be. I want to be a key contributor to this team.”
A continuing effort
While talented recruits continue to come to CMU, Stewart has not given up his starting spot.
“We have had higher recruited guys,” Davis said. “(Stewart) has come in here and guys haven’t beat him out. They continue to try, but they haven’t done it. He is a guy that will be important to our program.”
Stewart doesn’t hold a grudge against the teams that didn’t recruit him. Instead he focuses on the program that did, and the coaches that saw his talent when others did not.
“I think I look at it more as I want to prove this coaching staff right,” Stewart said. “I want to prove that they made the right choice. I want to come out and give the game and the team all I can give. I want to play as hard as I can.”
He hustles, plays defense, rebounds, block shots and dives on the floor for loose balls. Most players do not find glory in that. Stewart does.
He constantly takes pride in the dirty work.
“I do take a lot of pride in that,” Stewart said. “That’s where I try and pride myself in. I want to be that guy that the team can look to. I want to do that stuff for the team.”