OMAHA, Neb. — Manny Suarez always believed he was capable of playing Division I basketball, and he did for one season before unforeseen circumstances led him to the Division II ranks for a couple of years.
Once he graduated from Adelphi University in New York, he knew he would regret it if he didn't try to return to Division I for his final year of eligibility.
Creighton, it turned out, was looking for someone just like him — a big man with a nice shot who could help cushion the blow of losing underclassman Justin Patton to the NBA.
At fellow Big East program DePaul, the Blue Demons might be getting more than they bargained for from their Division II transfer from Lewis University near Chicago. Guard Max Strus is averaging a team-best 15.6 points and shooting 92 percent on free throws while playing 34 minutes a game.
"The fact they are jumping to power conference programs and a guy like Max Strus is the go-to guy for DePaul, that is a giant leap and it kind of speaks volumes about that kid as a ballplayer in general. It has to be a special, unique case for it to happen," Rivals national recruiting analyst Corey Evans said.
According to the NCAA, only 11 of the 768 players who transferred this year moved from Division II to Division I; 189 went from D1 to D2. A player going from D2 to D1 must sit out one season before becoming eligible unless he's a graduate transfer; a D1 transfer is immediately eligible in D2.
One of the biggest D2-to-D1 success stories is Derrick White. He transferred from Colorado-Colorado Springs to Colorado, where he was the Buffaloes' leading scorer last season and was a first-round draft pick by the San Antonio Spurs.
This season, fewer than 10 active players in Division I came from a lower NCAA division. That includes Michigan's Duncan Robinson, who transferred from Division III Williams College three years ago.
Creighton's Suarez began his career at Fordham of the mid-major Atlantic 10. The 6-foot-10, 250-pounder from Cliffside Park, New Jersey, redshirted his first season, got limited minutes his second and saw no future for himself after the Rams made a coaching change. Adelphi was a natural landing spot for Suarez because the coach, Dave Duke, previously was an assistant at Fordham and had recruited Suarez.
Suarez averaged 15 points and 8.6 rebounds over two seasons for Adelphi, but he wasn't satisfied.
"People doubted I could play in Division I," he said. "After my old coach got fired, I went down to Division II, so some people felt as if they were proven right even though they didn't understand the full story. Making this transition, a lot of people think I cannot compete at this level. I might be a fluke. I don't know yet. But I'm going to play hard and I'm going to give it my all because it's all I can do."
Creighton coach Greg McDermott said he didn't remember how Suarez's name came across his desk, but he watched video and liked what he saw: big body, scrappy under the basket, ability to shoot the 3-pointer. Suarez played a season-high 18 minutes off the bench in a win over UCLA and is averaging 11 minutes, 4.6 points and 2.9 rebounds.
"He's certainly impacted us winning some games already," McDermott said, "and hopefully he continues to improve and helps us in the future."
DePaul's Strus already has established himself as a rising star in the Big East. Coming out of high school he was undersized and had one Division I offer, from Chicago State. His brother had played at Lewis, near the Strus' home in Hickory Hills, Illinois, and he figured he would be happy there. He scored 1,000 points in two seasons, earned All-America honors and began looking for a new challenge in the spring of 2016. He told Lewis coach Scott Trost that he would leave only if he could transfer to a program in the Big East, Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference.
Five finished in double-figures as @depaulhoops led start to finish en route to an 89-73 win over Youngstown State. Strus led DePaul with 20 pts while McCallum, Maric, Cain & Cyrus finished with 17, 17, 15 and 12 respectively.— DePaul Athletics (@DePaulAthletics) December 2, 2017
: https://t.co/DlFoX5VEmM pic.twitter.com/3ARJH9S4Pp
"He thought he needed a little more exposure," Trost said. "I think he may have thought he accomplished whatever he could here. He decided to do what was best for him. No hard feelings. Glad to see he's doing well."
Strus used the year he sat out to acclimate himself to the faster tempo and more physical players in Division I, and now he's filling the minutes played by Billy Garrett Jr. last season.
Strus, who has scored in double figures in all seven games, is happy with his move but has no regrets about his experience at Lewis.
"People think Division II is kind of a joke," he said. "It's really good basketball. The guys are still skilled, and there are a bunch of Division I transfers who come down and play right away. If I was playing that well at that level, I knew I could make the jump to this one and be competitive still. I believed in myself and knew I could do it."