With five months passing between the announcement of his transfer to Northern Arizona and the approval of his appeal for immediate eligibility to the NCAA, Gino Littles struggled with the wait.
“I can't even put words to it,” Littles said of the August clearance. “It was so stressful for not only Coach (Jack) Murphy and his staff, but my mom, my family, my stepdad, my dad, everyone involved. When I got that call, it was just a huge relief, you know. It was big for everyone.”
After three years at UTSA, starting 60 of 76 games played and earning a scholarship, Littles elected to wrap up his career closer to his home due to family reasons. Playing at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale before moving out to San Antonio as a walk-on, Littles decided to move after his season ended with the Roadrunners in March.
Announcing his departure in mid-April, and electing to move to Northern Arizona about a week later, Littles said the Lumberjacks ended up as an obvious option.
“It was definitely one of my main targets. I knew Arizona State and UofA were pretty high schools in the Pac-12. Not that I can't play at that level, but I know they are building guards already,” Littles said. “Flagstaff and NAU was probably one of the best decisions I could make. I miss Texas a lot, but it is nice being only two hours away from home, and now my family can come see me play.”
Murphy, the Lumberjacks head coach, said the team became aware of Littles’ availability through one of the state’s scouting services. Northern Arizona played against UTSA in Littles’ freshman year, one of his final games before taking on a major role with the team, giving Northern Arizona some sort of familiarity with whom the guard was.
“Once that happened, I had heard about his family situation and figured that he would want to be closer to home. We got the release from UTSA and I gave Gino a call,” Murphy said. “In terms of what he was looking for and what we were looking for, it was a perfect match.”
LANDING IN TEXAS
Listed at 6-foot-1, 165 pounds on Northern Arizona’s roster, size has always been a hindrance for Littles. UTSA listed Littles at 6-foot, 150 pounds as a freshman in 2014, with 10 pounds added as a sophomore and nothing changing for his junior year.
“When I was coming out of high school, I didn’t have a lot of offers obviously. I was small and I am still small,” said Littles, who was listed at 5-foot-9, 132 as a high school junior and 5-foot-11, 145 as a senior as a slow growth rate hindered him as a teenager.
The son of Gene Littles, a former ABA player with the Carolina Cougars and Kentucky Colonels and coach of three NBA teams, and Loredana Fitzpatrick, a former college basketball player, Littles knew basketball would be his future regardless of the challenges.
UTSA’s head coach at the time of his arrival, Brooks Thompson, was a former NBA player who Gene Littles knew. While Littles would have to walk on to the Roadrunners, an unofficial visit to campus left him confident he found a place he could succeed.
“I loved the school and my mom was comfortable with the staff,” Littles said. “(Thompson) said if I go in there and work, he would give me a chance and he held his word.”
After seven games of seeing limited time in his freshman season, Littles entered the starting lineup and remained there for the rest of the season. The run of starts continued into his sophomore season before a knee injury ended his season midway through before new head coach Steve Henson started Littles in 23 of 33 games last season.
Averaging 27.9 minutes per game last year, Littles scored 6.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as a junior, Littles' assent from walk-on to consistent rotation player in Conference USA is a point of pride for the guard.
“My whole motto is, I got it from Zay Jones, is ‘Never Needed Hype,’” Littles said of his close friend and current Buffalo Bills rookie receiver. “That’s just my motto. I never was a five-star or four-star or two-star recruit. I just went in and just did what I had to do to work. I was never averaging 20 or 30 points a game, but I was doing stuff that was going to help the team win.”
A VETERAN ROLE
Needing to appeal to the NCAA to move from one Division I school to another without sitting out, Littles said he would have sat out the season and played at Northern Arizona next year if needed. However, the purpose of his transfer was a desire to play close to home quickly, allowing his family to easily attend games this year.
“That was the whole purpose coming in,” Littles said. “Also more than basketball, it put me in a good situation to graduate. I can still graduate on time. If I had to sit out, I was going to do my best to help the team in any way I can, but it is nice that I don't have to.”
Northern Arizona will have just three seniors on the roster this season, and with Littles joined by fellow transfer Malcolm Allen and Kye de Laveaga, the guard’s expected role this season spans farther than just adding to a depleted backcourt.
“You have Malcolm, Gino and Karl (Harris), three guys that have Division I experience at different universities,” Murphy said, "that have really helped the young guys and helped the returners realize, ‘Hey, look, it is hard everywhere, it is not just hard here, it is hard everywhere’. We have to be ready to go and we have to be locked in, and they have raised the intensity of practices.”
With Mike Green and Marcus DeBerry transferring out of town, and Jaleni Neely graduated, the Lumberjacks were left looking for experience at guard and hoping to move away from the consistent reliance on freshmen in recent years.
“I was pretty comfortable, I talked to Murph and he said that's definitely a role they needed to fill,” Littles said of the veteran presence he and the other two transfers bring. “Us three being older and coming from bigger universities can fill that and I feel like the team allowed us to do that.”