In an era where transferring is common, North Florida senior Garrett Sams’ story stands out.
Not only did the 6’7 senior battle homesickness, illnesses and self-doubt, but the Tennessee native also battled lofty expectations to a former program great from the get-go.
Sams grew up in Martin, Tennessee, and you don’t have to know much about geography to know that it isn’t really close to Jacksonville, Florida and the University of North Florida. Since Sams wanted to stay close to his family, he tried reaching out to in-state schools about playing college basketball. When no schools came back calling, he took an opportunity to play for North Florida instead.
Before playing a game for North Florida, Sams drew comparisons to former Osprey great Beau Beech (2012-16), who was a big piece to the puzzle in the Osprey’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015. Beech still ranks as UNF’s second all-time leading scorer, with 1,557-career points — bested only by his teammate Dallas Moore’s 2,437-career points. Like Beech, Sams is another sharpshooter; when he committed, some fans viewed Sams as the player to fill Beech’s shoes.
“It seemed like if we had a good game everyone was praising me and encouraging me,” Sams said. “If we didn’t do so well, I didn’t get punished or anything, but I was so hard on myself and that made it really tough along with being homesick. Looking back on it, the easy thing to do then was transfer because I had my mind in other places and wasn’t really focused on what I needed to do at North Florida.”
It took some time for Sams to adjust to a different basketball environment in which he knew few people outside his teammates and coaches — and one where hometown friends wouldn’t be able to watch him play. To make matters worse: Before his freshman year, Sams was sidelined for nearly two months because of mono. Although he became healthy before official practices started in the fall, Sams was unsure about how effective he would be once he returned.
“I really didn’t know how much I would play right off the bat,” Sams said. “I was coming into a good team and a team that had established itself, but I would do whatever I needed to do to help the team and I would work hard and do whatever was asked of me — if it was make shots or whatever, I would do it. It all ended up happening quicker than I thought it would, and I ended up starting my freshman year.”
Sams ended up averaging 10.4 PPG and 4.2 RPG during his freshman season, garnering All-Atlantic Sun honors. But something was off. The enjoyment and excitement he thought he would have as a starter wasn’t there.
“I was homesick,” Sams said. “I wanted to be back home with my brothers and go to school where I am from, but we ended up making the [A-Sun] championship game. After that year I had gotten to be really good friends with Dallas [Moore] and Aaron [Bodager] and Chris [Davenport] a couple of other guys who ended up transferring.”
Sams had his eyes set on UT-Martin, which had his high school friend Parker Stewart on the roster. When Sams told North Florida head coach Matthew Driscoll about his decision to transfer closer to home, Driscoll allowed him to do so. Despite committing to UT Martin for around a month, Sams realized after playing pickup ball with some of the Skyhawks that something about his’ fit at UT-Martin seemed amiss. Yet Driscoll and the North Florida staff still allowed Sams to use the program’s facilities until Sams determined his next destination.
“The whole staff was really kind to me,” Sams said. “I could tell they cared even though I was transferring, it was still like I was part of the family, which they didn’t have to be like that, but I am so glad they were. It never made me think I should transfer back at first, but at the same time I said to myself, ‘Wow this guy still loves me as a person and he’s not just using me for his own gain.’”
Interestingly enough, during this time where Sams’ future was uncertain, he crossed paths with the one player drew comparisons to: Beau Beech. Following his first season in the NBA’s G-League, Beech had torn his ACL in his first season and was back in Jacksonville for rehab. Unbeknownst to both of them, Beech’s return led to Sams eventually returning to UNF for the remainder of his basketball career.
“Beau and I ended up bonding through working out with stationary shots and stuff like that,” Sams said. “It really helped me sort of start reconsidering things.”
With his newfound pledge to North Florida and a relationship with the program’s living legend, Sams started all 28 games for the Ospreys in his sophomore campaign and posted double-digit scoring performances in 19 games, finishing the season averaging 12.7 PPG and 4.3 RPG. In the postseason, Sams was voted as a member of the Atlantic Sun All-Tournament team. He helped the Ospreys finish 15-19 overall and 8-6 in Atlantic Sun play, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the league standings.
This past season, Sams and the Ospreys claimed a 75-70 win over Liberty in Jacksonville. However, the Flames would eventually bring an end to UNF’s season in the A-SUN Tournament; the Ospreys finished with a 16-17 record (including a 9-7 record in league play) — good enough for a third-place finish once again.
Individually, Sams had a solid season by averaging in double figures, averaging 12.5 PPG and 4.9 RPG and had 23 double-figure scoring games — including scoring 20 or more points for the Ospreys in three out of his final four games with a career-high 23 points in a 77-67 win over Stetson.
But Sams believes the 2019-20 season has a chance to be a special one for the Ospreys — specifically, he hopes to lead the Ospreys to a second NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019-20.
“I want to have the best year I can possibly have,” Sams said. “I know as a team if we all try to challenge ourselves to have the best seasons we can all have and just have fun, I know we can take our game to another level. What a great opportunity we have before us and one that God has blessed us to be able to have. At the end of the day, that’s what its about: It’s about the fun and enjoying this experience. I believe the wins will take care of themselves.”