Tommy Kuhse didn’t have colleges knocking down his door during his Mesa Mountain View High School basketball career.
“When he was a freshman, he was a very average player,” Mountain View coach Gary Ernst said. “But I never had anybody work harder to become a player.”
Kuhse, 6-foot-2, who graduated from Mountain View in 2016, is now a red-shirt sophomore starting point guard at Saint Mary’s College headed to the NCAA Tournament to play defending national champion Villanova, the Big East champion, on Thursday in the first round in Hartford, Con.
The Gaels (22-11) only got there by knocking off No.1 Gonzaga 60-47 for the West Coast Conference tournament title. In that game, Kuhse, who made his way to Moraga, Calif., by walking on, logged all 40 minutes, scoring eight points with three assists.
In the WCC semifinal win over San Diego, Kuhse played all but one minute and had 15 points, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
“It’s a testimony to hard work,” Ernst said. “If a kid has the desire to put in the time… They have to get in the right system. I think Saint Mary’s was the right system.”
Kuhse, who declined to do an interview before the first round of the NCAA tournament, turned into a very good player by the time he was a senior at Mountain View.
But he never played club basketball and went to the big AAU spring and summer showcases, where college coaches evaluated talent, because he also played baseball.
He had interest from junior colleges, but he wanted to see if he could play at a higher level. His father, Craig Kuhse, knew Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett from their high school days together at Mesa Westwood where they were friends.
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Bennett had good fortune with another former high school point guard from Mesa, Arizona in ex-Dobson standout Mickey McConnell, who was the WCC Player of the Year in 2011. During his junior season, in 2010, McConnell helped the Gaels reach the Sweet 16 that included a second-round upset of Villanova.
Kuhse went to Saint Mary’s with academic scholarship that has helped. He played little last year, when he was relegated to a mop-up role in blowouts. Injuries paved the way f or Kuhse to get his chance this season.
About seven games into the season, Bennett inserted Kuhse into the starting lineup. He has started every game since. He leads the team with 95 assists in 33 games and averages 6.2 points.
Kuhse didn’t mind flying under the radar through high school. He didn’t get a lot of attention.
“He doesn’t worry about who is talking about him and who is promoting him,” Craig Kuhse said. “He does his thing. That’s his personality. You can’t tell if he is 20 points ahead or 20 points behind. He’s pretty even keel. It seems to serve him well in the world he’s in as a walk-on.”
Family members had fun recalling Kuhse’s high school days after Saint Mary’s shocked Gonzaga for the WCC tournament title.
Kuhse saw a former high school foe, Phoenix Desert Vista forward Brandon Clarke, with Gonzaga. Kuhse and Mountain View lost the Clarke and Desert Vista 49-41 in the 2015 state semifinals when Kuhse was a junior.
So much has happened since then and nobody saw Kuhse being on the winning end this time against Clarke and Gonzaga.
“To the average kid, if you have a desire, there’s a place for you,” Craig said. “I’d like to give Tommy credit for everything. It’s not about the parents. It’s his deal. It’s been his deal since Day One.”
To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at [email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.