If the night is darkest just before the dawn, then Grambling State would've seen a dramatic turnaround following its 0-28 season four years ago. But college basketball doesn't work like that, and the Tigers' program was in as rough shape as ever when Shawn Walker took over two years later.
"I don't know what the outcome is going to be next year," Walker told the Monroe, La.-based News Star last summer following an inaugural 2-27 season in 2014-15. "You'll have a story that says Shawn Walker is foolish or what this man was really selling is starting to come to fruition. One of them two things is going to happen."
So, is Walker foolish or not? The Tigers won just four games against Division I teams last year, and slogged through an 11-game SWAC losing streak. But don't rush to put the dunce cap on him. There were positives for the wayward program. Grambling State snapped a 36-game losing streak against D-I opponents, and won its most SWAC games in five years. Most importantly, Walker might have found a young player to headline his immense rebuilding effort.
Nigel Ribeiro had big plans when he signed with Walker and the Tigers. Before the season, he told the News Star that he and fellow commits Mike Bethea and Javier Roper would be the ones to lead the program to unseen places.
"We kind of just got each other hyped up about next year and how we're going to come in and change everything," Ribeiro said. "It's just like a challenge to turn everything around. I feel like we're good enough to do that."
One year later, Bethea and Roper are transferring out of the program, but Ribeiro kept up his end of the bargain. He played more minutes and scored more points than any other Tiger, and posted the seventh-best assist percentage (18.7) in a league dominated by older players. He was rewarded with being named the SWAC Freshman of the Year.
He should have help next year as Grambling State tries to move Walker's plan forward. The Tigers will have a trio of seniors that played significant minutes last season, including the undersized-but-effective rebounder Deonte Hearns (6.9 rebounds per game, 17.9 defensive rebounding percentage). The other two, Ervin Mitchell and Remond Brown, have experience, but need to improve their shooting efficiency for the Tigers' offense to get better. There's also reason for excitement in the form of incoming freshman Ivy Smith, Jr., who looks to be a dynamic distributor that could create interesting possibilities when paired with Ribeiro.
But there's still plenty of work to be done. The Tigers turned it over at an alarming rate and were dreadful from beyond the arc (27.4 percent) last year. Unsurprisingly, they had the fourth-worst offensive efficiency rating in the country according to KenPom. If Walker is going to engineer the turnaround he believes is possible, Ribeiro will be a key cog in proving that Walker, in his own words, is no fool.