Texas center Cam Ridley (55) dunks over Appalachian State forward Tyrell Johnson (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Ridley eager for at least one more shining moment

Posted March 16th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Ridley has worked out, responded well and could play without a time limit, unlike the Big 12 Tournament
  • He still gets reminded of his left-handed bank shot for the buzzer-beating game-winner against Arizona State in the 2014 NCAAs
  • Senior says he won't be reckless in his return, believing he has a future in the NBA.
Texas center Cam Ridley (55) dunks over Appalachian State forward Tyrell Johnson (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas center Cam Ridley dunks over Appalachian State forward Tyrell Johnson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Dec. 15, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Cam Ridley still hears about the shot.

You know, the one in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The dramatic, last-second put-back against Arizona State that came in an opening-round in Milwaukee, back when he was in the right place at the right time, a place he hasn’t frequented lately. That bucket moved Texas into a second-round matchup against Michigan before a too-soon exit spurred by the Wolverines’ 14 threes.

Ridley was mobbed on the floor. His teammates then initially mauled guard Martez Walker in the locker room to prank Ridley, all part of a joyful celebration that has been all too rare in March for Longhorns basketball players. When the media were allowed to enter the dressing room, Ridley was playfully hiding in walk-on Danny Newsome’s cramped locker before emerging. He later received 70 congratulatory texts. Good times.

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Just the other day, Ridley was approached by someone who reminded him of the fond memory.

“Yeah, I was eating one day,” he said meekly, “and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Weren’t you the guy that had that tip-in in the tournament?’ I think he was an Arizona State guy.”

Ridley smiles when he re-tells the episode. That turned out to be his 15 minutes of fame. Truly his one shining moment.

He’s had a few others, though. Like his near triple-double against Appalachian State this season, when he had 19 points, 11 boards and nine blocks. Now the senior’s hoping for another, and here’s hoping he gets the chance.

This 6-foot-9-inch giant who can never suppress a smile and almost speaks in whispers is approaching the end of a bittersweet college career that has flirted with his getting up to speed, only to hit bumps in the road, be they weight-related, a coaching change or an injury.

The latest — a broken foot — sidetracked him from a spectacular senior season because he was playing at an All-America level, averaging a double-double. For a guy who used to average double cheeseburgers, this was a profound development.

There was little doubt Ridley was coming into his own. He was on his way to perhaps cracking the top five of all-time Longhorns centers and joining the likes of Chris Mihm, LaSalle Thompson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tristan Thompson and James Thomas. Ridley has averaged just eight points and six rebounds a game at UT, but he ranks third all-time in career blocks with 220.

Because of an agonizingly slow recovery after he was injured while trying to catch a pass and falling awkwardly during a practice, though, he’s at risk of becoming a footnote. A very large footnote. And that would be a shame for a player who has come so far and worked so hard. The McDonald’s All-American from Houston was finally rounding into form and had become a legitimate force at both ends of the court.

Then he got hurt in that practice two days after Christmas. He assumed it was a sprain and figured he would be back on the court in no time. X-rays told a different story.

“It was the first injury of my career,” Ridley said. “God works in mysterious ways.”

The setback tested his faith and challenged his teammates even more, but they stood strong.

In Ridley’s place, Prince Ibeh came up big, blocking shots, protecting the rim and for the first time playing a pivotal role. He became the Big 12’s defensive player of the year and has been projected as a second-round NBA pick by one site, Draft Express.

Ridley, on the other hand, isn’t listed in any mock drafts. He’ll more than likely have to prove himself in the D League. Nonetheless, he won’t be reckless in his comeback and shouldn’t be, but he has looked good while practicing without any pain. He had a five-minute restriction on his playing time at the Big 12 Tournament last week, but no limits have been placed on him this week.

“I want to play after college and don’t want to hurt myself again,” he said. “I’ll be smart about it. I feel I can play in the NBA. I feel I’m good enough. I definitely opened some eyes.”

He certainly has.

If he didn’t get back on the court and his college career had ended, he said, he would “feel terrible, but I don’t say what-ifs.”

Ridley played a scant two minutes against Baylor at the Big 12 Tournament, but they weren’t meaningless minutes. He scored only two points, but he broke apart some mental scar tissue, something essential before possibly playing additional and more productive minutes Friday during Texas’ first-round NCAA Tournament game against Northern Iowa. “When I see him running up and down the floor,” point guard Isaiah Taylor said, “it puts a smile on my face.”

Cam’s eager to make some new March memories, better than those from last year’s NCAA cameo appearance, when he scored just two points in 25 frustrating minutes against Butler. Rick Barnes was fired as Texas’ coach a week later.

A year later, Ridley’s new coach is hoping for 10 to 15 minutes against Northern Iowa from his center, anything to relieve the pressure in the paint on Ibeh and the emerging Shaq Cleare. Stronger play by the front court will free up open looks for the guards.

“He’s responded pretty well,” Shaka Smart said of Ridley. “If we can get him out there for double-figure minutes, that’d give us a big lift.”

So Ridley plans to play a lot Friday?

“That’s the plan,” he said. “I’ve only played a second game of the (NCAA) tournament once in my career. My confidence is at its highest point. The coaching staff believes in me. I don’t have any doubts.”

Or regrets. He’s come too far to cling to those.

“I think it was a journey,” he said. “It took a lot to get to this point. I’m happy with how I’ve represented myself over the years.”

He’d just like to represent himself on the actual floor.

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