CLEVELAND -- In 2014-15, a native son of Akron, having spent four years taking his basketball talents to the wider world, returned to northeast Ohio to play in Quicken Loans Arena in front of his hometown friends, family and fans.
That player's name, of course, is Darius Carter, and -- wait, you thought we were talking about someone else?
It's an understandable mistake. Cleveland Cavaliers uberstar LeBron James looms over basketball in this part of the country -- and most parts of the country, frankly -- like a colossus. He is the first thing one thinks of when one hears the words "Cleveland" and "basketball" in the same sentence. But the mentions of James at Thursday's NCAA tournament Midwest Regional news conference weren't gratuitous. Instead, they were the product of Carter's connection to the best NBA player of the past 20 years -- a connection more direct than even geography.
Yes, Carter is an Akron native. One reporter even asked what his go-to order is from Swenson's, a local burger spot -- Carter said he'd "take a Galley Boy, probably some Potato Teezers." But the Wichita State forward is also the second cousin of Maverick Carter, James' childhood friend-turned-business manager, a man at least partially responsible for both "The Decision" and the subtle marketing coup of Beats by Dre headphones. Maverick Carter -- Shockers coach Gregg Marshall referred to him Wednesday as "Mav" -- has occasionally taken in Wichita State home games. Darius Carter has played with and against James in pickup games and individual workouts and, when he was still a junior college forward at Vincennes (Indiana) University, even visited James' home in Miami.
"I know LeBron pretty well," Carter said. "He's influenced me just from seeing how hard he works, you know, showing that good things can come out of Akron, Ohio. He's just a role model."
Fittingly, LeBron's friend-of-a-friend might be the most important player in Marshall's lineup Thursday. While Wichita State's trio of veteran guards -- Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton -- will lead the way, Carter represents what may be the Shockers' best advantage against No. 3 seed Notre Dame: rebounding.
The Irish don't place much stock on offensive rebounding as a rule. Coach Mike Brey prefers his team get back on defense to prevent fast breaks, and in any case his team shoots the ball so well -- a nation's-best 58.1 percent from 2 and a top-20 38.9 percent from 3 -- it doesn't much need second chances. But defensive rebounds are always a must. And although the Irish improved on the defensive end late in the season, they still allow opponents to grab 32 percent of available offensive rebounds, more than any other Sweet 16 team.
On a team that lacks the size of previous incarnations, Carter is by far the Shockers' best and most consistent interior presence. He grabs more than 10 percent of offensive rebounds while in the game, and more than 20 percent on the defensive end. And his interior scoring -- Carter averages nearly 29 percent of his team's shots on the court, highest on the team -- has come to balance Wichita State's guard-heavy attack.
Carter's four-year path back to northeast Ohio may have taken him to Vincennes and Wichita, not Miami and London, and he lacks the marketing juice of his second cousin's extremely famous friend. But the Shockers forward has a chance to make his own memorable return Thursday -- to show once more what good things can come out of Akron, Ohio.