TULSA, Okla. – Shake Milton has been here before.
Two years and six weeks ago, as an Owasso High School senior, he and his teammates took the floor at Tulsa’s BOK Center for the High School Hoops Showcase. The task: a matchup with fellow top-10 in-state team Broken Arrow High.
Despite Milton’s 24 points, his team lost, 74-62. The reigning state player of the year and then-SMU signee had plenty of media attention at one of the state’s marquee basketball events.
But nothing compared to his return trip to the arena, even before he played a game in it again.
Thursday, he revisited the BOK Center, this time as an SMU Mustang. He also returned to play on college basketball’s biggest stage: the NCAA Tournament. Sixth-seeded SMU, winners of 26 of its last 27 games, is seeking its NCAA Tournament win since 1988. The Mustangs play USC Friday at 2:10 p.m.
Milton sat at his locker Thursday, just as he did two years ago in the same building. As the doors for SMU’s locker room opened, camera crews and reporters from local and national outlets flooded in to talk to him. The largest media crowed formed around him. Camera lights shining on his face, brighter than ever, Milton fielded questions in his usual calm demeanor. The popular topic: his return to his hometown for his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
He won’t deny he’s excited. But not just to play in his hometown. He is finally playing in the tournament, a year after he and his teammates couldn’t. SMU has won 16 games in a row, too.
“Really, if anything, I’m just excited to get on the floor and get my feet wet,” Milton said.
“I just lace my shoes up and try and focus on the game plan.”
The media attention that comes with March Madness isn’t the only attention he’s getting either. Not long after SMU was selected to play in Tulsa, his phone started blowing up with ticket requests. His mother, Lisa, had the same barrage of requests. It’s the blessing and the curse of playing at home in such a big game. Family is on hand, but the attention is even higher.
“I deleted Twitter, all that,” Milton said. said. “I’m just ready to play, really, that’s all.”
Milton’s mother spent much of Thursday’s open practice doing interviews. One after another, she answered them calmly, just like her son. She, Milton’s brother and Milton’s sister will be among the family and friends in attendance tomorrow, just as they were for each of SMU’s road games at Tulsa the last two seasons.
His totals from those two games: 43 points, 10-for-18 from 3-point distance, and two SMU wins. In his first return to Tulsa, in his very first conference road game, he scored a then-career high 24 points.
Shake Milton has been here before, but he has never been here before.
Yet it’s not a concern. Milton, after all, has what SMU head coach Tim Jankovich calls a special talent: Emotional control. It’s obvious when he takes the court. He has yet to encounter an environment or a performance that has tested his emotion one way or the other, besides an occasional yell after a big play.
After his media obligations on Thursday, Milton strolled onto the BOK Center court for SMU’s open practice. He took a look around the arena, then began shooting around. At the end of practice, he and his teammates had an impromptu half-court shooting contest. Milton narrowly missed a shot, shrugging it off with a smile.
At the end of practice, he signed autographs for some of the fans in attendance – many in SMU gear, and even a few in Owasso shirts. He welcomed the requests, unfazed.
The spotlight was already on him, brighter than ever in his hometown, before he even played a game. But amid his excitement, the master of emotional control remains, well, controlled.
“I know there are a lot of distractions,” Milton said. “But at the end of the day it’s just basketball.”
Of course, he’s played that before.