SAN DIEGO — Not long after Arizona Wildcats guard Nick Johnson memorably swatted away a potential San Diego State game-winner last season, Sean Miller and Steve Fisher picked each other’s brain over the telephone.
“We said to each other, ‘What do you like about my team? What can we do to get better?’ ” Fisher said.
With a respectful relationship that goes back decades, the two coaches talked again last April.
But this time it was different. Angelo Chol was transferring.
The departing Arizona sophomore was the same Sudanese big man who, as a record-setting prep shot-blocker in San Diego, had rebuffed Fisher’s recruiting efforts at San Diego State.
Chol eventually signed with the Wildcats but his playing time sank in his second season, and suddenly he was thinking about going to his adopted hometown again.
And Fisher, long a successful recruiter of transfers, was trying to get him back there.
“I said, ‘Sean, we want to recruit him. Tell me about him, give me your thoughts on him,’ ” Fisher said. “So he talked candidly about what his strengths were and what he needed to work on, and he said, ‘I think San Diego State would be a good fit for him.’
“Now, I don’t think he said he should go to San Diego State, but I think he said, ‘It would be good for him.’ ”
So far, Chol says, it’s been great.
Although he won’t be able to play against his former teammates tonight when the Aztecs host the Wildcats — Chol must sit out the redshirt year required of transfers — maybe that’s OK.
Chol has plenty to work, not only on the court, but in the weight room, with Fisher’s system … and, maybe most of all, in his head.
Chol’s playing time shrank from 12.2 to 8.5 minutes as a sophomore last season, and he didn’t play at all in seven games, hovering mostly on the outside of Miller’s rotation.
Toward the end of the season, he said he knew, and that the UA coaches knew, he would leave.
“It was the situation,” Chol said. Miller “was doing what was best for the team. I was going to do what’s best for me by transferring. I didn’t want to be just a role player.”
He had given it two years, after all, longer than many of today’s transfers need before deciding to try something else.
Chol even stuck around last season knowing minutes would be harder to earn with high school All-Americans Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett arriving.
“I didn’t want to run from that,” Chol said.
But ultimately, the lack of playing time in games left a scar. Except for flashes, when his sometimes aggressive play would light up a McKale Center crowd that appeared to appreciate him, Chol was no longer the same hard-charging, sure-of-himself player he was at Hoover High School.
“When you don’t get to play, sometimes you begin to wonder a little bit,” Fisher said. “I’m sure he might have wondered, ‘I might have screwed it up. I’m not as good as I thought I was a year ago. Why am I not playing more?’ Things cross your mind, and it can have an impact.”
It happens. Fisher said it’s not possible for a coach to use all of his 12 or 13 scholarship players and that those stuck on “the cusp,” those with playing time often tied to immediately preceding performances, are in a tough spot.
Chol was there.
“Sometimes he’d get a little dispirited,” former Hoover coach Ollie Goulston said. “I do think it was hard for him to operate like that. Sometimes kids can’t do it.”
There may be more than one reason why Chol couldn’t.
One is personal. A refugee from Sudan who reinvented his life in San Diego at age 6, Chol spent his early years being thankful, staying humble, not disliking anybody or anything.
He was sensitive.
That worked against him on the basketball court.
“Part of it was me,” Chol said Wednesday, after an SDSU practice at Viejas Arena. “Growing up, I was shy. I let things get to me so easy. That’s all I’ve been working on the past couple of months.”
Now, Chol says the confidence, the assertiveness, is coming back, simply because he’s playing against San Diego State’s talented frontcourt in practice every day, guys like Tulane transfer Josh Davis and returning starter J.J. O’Brien.
“It helps my confidence because of the players,” Chol said.
Maybe, it’s more than that.
“He’s very happy,” Goulston said. “He’s really upbeat. I feel like his appetite for the game is coming back.”
Another reason Chol struggled mentally at Arizona came on the floor. He had made an unusual progression in basketball, from being a kid who didn’t play the game until junior high, then quickly rose into stardom at Hoover, then mostly sat in shadows at Arizona.
Fisher, who started watching Chol heavily as a high school sophomore, saw all the phases.
“He was a raw athlete, and Ollie featured him,” Fisher said. “Ollie made him think he was the best player in the United States of America. He was a guy (to whom) they said, ‘Go block every shot that’s thrown up there, and he prided himself on that.’
“He got a lot of touches, too — he was featured in what they did.”
So when Chol and Miller met to discuss playing time during last season, that combination of pride and humility defined Chol. When discussing to reporters how Chol was handling his lack of playing time, Miller said Chol told him not to worry about him, to do what’s best for the team.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Chol said. “I said that, but I didn’t mean that to say ‘Just sit me out.’ That’s not what I meant. I meant, ‘We’re a team. If you want the team to win, you’re the coach, do what you think you should.’ ”
Although Miller declined to answer a question this week about what kind of fit Chol now has at San Diego State — “I’m the coach at Arizona,” he said — Chol says there’s no hard feelings on either side.
There’s some proof in the fact that he receives text messages from UA guard T.J. McConnell and still stays in regular touch with former teammates Gabe York and Brandon Ashley.
More proof: Chol wants the Wildcats to win.
Just not tonight.
McConnell “is a good friend, Gabe, too. And Brandon is cool,” Chol said. “I want to see those guys succeed. After (today), I want them to succeed.”
And why not? Just as the Aztecs’ big men are testing him every day this season, Chol says he helped himself simply by facing those former teammates every day, outside of the games, at Arizona.
“It was a good experience,” Chol said. “I have no regrets. People think I do. But I have no regrets.”