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Keenon Cole leads Division I newbie Lindenwood

Cole made stops at Northern Illinois and Polk State Junior prior to being the focal point at Lindenwood

NCAA Basketball: Lindenwood at Illinois
Keenon Cole averaged 12.9 points per game last season for Lindenwood.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Lindenwood Lions made their inaugural appearance in Division I in the year of 2022-23. Keenon Cole, a 6-foot-7-inch nightmare matchup for opponents, was in the center of the action as he finished the season averaging 12.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and shooting 46.3% from 3-point territory.

Cole has been competing ever since a young age with growing as the youngest of seven siblings.

“All my siblings were super competitive,” he said. “I’d always have battles with my brother, who’s just a little older than me. It drove me to fall in love with basketball.”

Cole’s first time playing basketball was in eighth grade, when his friend’s dad was running a club team, who was looking for players.

“My two favorite things to do were to block shots and score,” he said. “Still to this day, those are my favorite things.”

Cole played high school ball at Streamwood (IL).

“Streamwood isn’t known as the biggest place as far as basketball is concerned, but the program allowed me to grow, work through mistakes and ultimately help me become a better basketball player,” Cole said.

During his senior season, Cole averaged over 24 points and 10 rebounds. He was named to the Champaign News-Gazette All-State Second Team, the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Class 4A All-State Third Team and Illinois Associated Press Class 4A All-State honorable mention.

“I couldn’t believe the player I was turning into,” he said. “I love to remind myself where I am now versus where I used to be.”

Cole attributes some of his success to people around him and pushing him to become the strongest and most sound player he could become.

He decided to stay close to home and play Division I ball for Northern Illinois.

“Northern Illinois was in my backyard,” he said. “It felt like home. I was really comfortable, and it felt like the right place.”

When Cole began his freshman year at NIU in 2019, he didn’t play too much. He only played 6.7 minutes per game in 10 appearances.

“It was a good introduction to college basketball,” he said. “I definitely learned a lot. I played behind some good bigs.”

Cole figured his minutes would increase and that he would play a larger role on future teams. But for a second straight year, Cole’s minutes were limited. During the 2020-21 season, his minutes only jumped to 7.6 per game in only nine games. The two seasons were disappointing for Cole.

“For a lot of people it would discourage and disconnect them from the game of basketball, but for me, it didn’t do that,” he said. “I knew all along what I was capable of. I just couldn’t wait for another opportunity to come and show what I could do.”

Cole decided to go to junior college and transferred to Polk State Juco for the 2021-22 season.

“I knew ultimately I needed a fresh start,” he said. “It definitely crept into my mind if I was ever going to go back to the Division I level... I went into the transfer portal, and I had no looks other than junior college. I ended up at Polk State and wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”

Cole excelled at Polk State. He averaged 11.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 40.7% from three in 28 games. He remained a threat inside, but with his ability to stretch the defense and shoot from three, he showed his versatility.

Looking back on his Junior College experience, Cole credits a game against a highly successful Northwest Florida State in which he gained his confidence back.

“I had over 20 points against a team who then ended up winning the Juco National Championship,” Cole said. “The team was full of DI players, and I knew I could hold my ground.”

Cole attributes junior college as a positive, where there are vital and worthy takeaways to keep.

Following one year with Polk State, Cole was headed back to DI. Ironically, he joined a program that had less DI experience than he did as he chose Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Mo.

“The coaches at Lindenwood had a really good plan for me,” he said. “Their style of coaching, really fit my style of play. My biggest thing was going to a place where I was wanted. It was another really good decision that came out of my life.”

Lindenwood’s inaugural year at the DI level revolved around Cole spearheading the program. Prior to making the transition to the Ohio Valley Conference, Lindenwood had appeared in the NCAA Division II tournament two times. Cole was ready to kick off Lindenwood’s success at the DI-level instantly.

“It was really exciting being a part of a team transitioning to the DI level,” Cole said. “I knew there would be a lot of attention and support. I was really excited to get on campus and get things going.”

Cole hit the ground running. He posted 10 points against Dayton in the first game of the year, and 12 against Missouri. On Nov. 15 in Champaign, Ill., Cole had his breakout game. Against then ranked No. 16 Illinois, Cole posted 20 points while shooting 8-for-11.

“I just looked around and had a big smile on my face,” he said. “It was my first time being in the University of Illinois’s gym.”

In the blink of an eye, Cole had appeared in 32 games, averaged 25.4 minutes per contest, 12.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and shot 46.3% from 3-point land. As Cole always knew, he liked to score and block shots.

“My biggest fuel this season was revenge,” he said. “I called it my revenge season. A lot of people wrote me out, and doubted me. I was able to tell myself I bet the odds and I could prove people wrong.”

In the regular-season finale against Little Rock, Cole made a 3-pointer to bring the Lions within two points in regulation as they went on to win by one in overtime and secure a spot in the OVC Tournament as the No. 8 seed. Cole finished with 19 points in the win.

“We couldn’t lose that game,” Cole said. “It was Senior Night. Whoever wins, gets in. All I could think about were the fans, the people that supported us all year. We didn’t want to let them down.”

Lindenwood ended up losing the ensuing game to SEMO, but their heads were held high, and Cole was named All-OVC second team honors and named to the All-Newcomer team.

Shortly after, with the success that Cole had, in the middle of March, he entered his name into the transfer portal, to ponder his options.

Cole garnered interest from programs across the nation. According to Recruits Zone, he heard from Tennessee State, Tulsa, South Alabama, UC Davis, along with other programs. But, Lindenwood was always there.

Nearly a month later, Cole announced he’d return to Lindenwood.

“They had the best opportunity for me,” Cole said. “What they’ve done for me in giving me the opportunity to play at the DI level after everything I’ve been through, I couldn’t let it go.”