“Michael Carey is a grown man,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason tells me, peppering our conversation a few weeks ago with effusive praise for the junior forward.
Carey’s interview is supposed to follow Mason’s, but he is nowhere in sight. “He is typically on top of his stuff, but right now he is late, which makes me look like a liar,” says Mason.
But it is only fitting that Carey, the team’s 6’5” do-it-all junior, who was recently named to the All-NEC second team, is a bit delayed. If all had gone according to schedule, Carey would have showcased his innate rebounding skill set and ability to drive the lane and absorb consistent contact (while finishing) four years ago in the Big 12. “It’s been a roller coaster,” says Carey, when we finally connect. “But God had a plan for me. God wants you to end up where you’re supposed to end up. I don’t think it was a mistake.”
Carey has grabbed double-digit rebounds in six of the Seahawks’ games in February, including 14 during the team’s quarterfinal victory against Robert Morris (and 10 in the semifinal win versus LIU). During that win over LIU this past weekend, Carey scored a career-high 28 points, a performance that only served to highlight his importance — Wagner likely doesn’t win the NEC regular season title and earn the tournament’s top seed without Carey’s contributions. “Since conference play began, his confidence started to grow,” says Mason.
A top 100 high school recruit, Carey had a bevy of high-major programs advocating for his commitment — according to Carey, “Auburn, the south schools, Baylor, Arkansas, and Kansas were interested in me” — but the Bahamas native, who left the island because “either you go to school or end up in the wrong place” decided Texas Tech was the right fit. Billy Gillispie was the coach in Lubbock at that point, but Carey suffered a setback a week before he was supposed to enroll in summer school.
“A grade of mine fell through in the NCAA clearinghouse,” says Carey, who missed the subsequent removal of Gillispie from the Big 12 program. Carey could have gone to several prep schools across the country, but he wanted a break from the craziness that had been his recruitment. “I didn’t want to go to Huntington Prep or Findlay Prep,” he says. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could really step away from everything.” That meant leaving the United States and trekking to the African coast and the Canary Islands.
The Canarias Basketball Academy has sent scores of players to the college ranks, but much of that talent comes to the school from Europe before traveling state-side. Relatively few players, like Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin and Carey, have made the reverse trip. “I had to reevaluate myself, and find out why I had come to America,” he says. “I was told I had to get good grades, which I did, but now I can’t go to the school I wanted to. At CBA, they didn’t care who I was recruited by.”
He continues, “It was a fresh start, and it gave me back the killer in me that I needed. I had to cherish the times I got to play in a gym with air conditioning or having constant access to a facility.”
After a year spent abroad, though, Carey still didn’t have the requisite grades for Division I: “I went to prep school to get a chance, but then I just decided to go to junior college.” Carey settled on San Jacinto College, and began to work on, in his words, “how to get mean again.” “In the Canary Islands, it was more of a thinking game, which helped me learn how to score the basketball, but it is soft ball,” he says. “JUCO, man, you’re either going to get it or you not. Either you are going to survive or you are not. Kill or be killed.”
He continues, “One of my teammates told me, ‘I already knew who you were before you stepped [on the floor]. I Google’d you.’ So I got went at every single time during my first practice.”
Mason first heard of Carey at the end of his sophomore season. San Jacinto was playing in the national junior college tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, and Carey, with a roster full of sophomores in 2016, needed some experience. “It was my first time recruiting a JUCO kid thoroughly,” Mason says, “and when I first saw his team, I thought they could have beaten us by ten points. What our staff kept saying was that if Michael averaged 10 points for these guys, he’ll definitely get more than that if he plays for Wagner.”
After taking visits to both Abilene Christian and the Staten Island-based school, Carey made his third college commitment. Like most JUCO transfers, his adjustment period was slow. “I had to figure out how to fit in,” says Carey. “I had to learn what the deficiencies we lacked as a team that I know I have the ability of doing. Some games that means scoring, other games I need to rebound, and sometimes I just need to dive on the floor to get a loose ball.”
Not many players in the NEC can attack the hoop with Carey’s level of athletic ferocity. He leads the team in free throws attempted, and grabs 12.2 percent of the Seahawks’ misses, a skill that has only been augmented by the team’s practices. (“There is a lot of fouling, and lot of fighting going on [in the paint],” says Mason.) He is also the team’s best finisher at the rim. Should Wagner need a bucket, Carey makes more than 55 percent of his attempts on the interior.
Mason has the luxury of utilizing Carey in a variety of lineups. He naturally can play the wing, but Carey is also a mismatch 4, and spent much of the win against LIU’s power forwards, using his quickness to attack the Blackbird bigs off the dribble.
In short, Carey is the type of physical presence a team like Wagner needs to win the NEC and get to the NCAA tournament, which, could happen Tuesday night versus Fairleigh Dickinson.
According to Mason, “He’s been a workhorse. He shows up, does his job, and then goes home. He is very low maintenance.”
Perhaps that is because Carey has finally found a place that fits: “People forget Wagner is not low key, and I wanted to be a piece of that puzzle.”