Isaiah Speelman needed a season of transition against "grown men" before hitting his stride with the Cedarville University men's basketball team.

The 2018 Hilliard Bradley graduate saw plenty of playing time as a freshman for the Yellow Jackets, making the strides necessary to move into the starting lineup and become a team leader as a sophomore.

This past season, Speelman averaged 11.3 points and 4.1 rebounds and made 48 of 129 3-point attempts (37.2 percent). The 6-foot-6 forward started 11 of Cedarville's 29 games, including the last six, as the Yellow Jackets finished 18-11.

As a freshman, he averaged 6.4 points and 2.4 rebounds.

"Definitely in your freshman year, you're playing against grown men, 23- or 24-year-olds," Speelman said. "In high school, you were the older guy, and you can also save yourself for the end of the game. It's not like that in college.

"The speed of the game is different, and every player was the baddest dude on their high school team. Everyone can play. Also, the shot clock, it takes a little time to get used to that, and you have to go as hard as you can every time you're out there on the floor."

Cedarville coach Pat Estepp has been impressed with the strides made by Speelman in his first two seasons. Speelman played in all 32 games as a freshman but developed into a dependable scorer as a sophomore.

In 2019, the Yellow Jackets defeated Roberts Wesleyan 64-58 to win the National Christian College Athletic Association national championship and finish 21-12.

"At the beginning of the (2019-20) season, Isaiah was one of six players that could start for us, so it came down to the matchup," said Estepp, who completed his 12th season leading the Yellow Jackets. "A guy like Isaiah coming off the bench can be tough on opponents, and we needed him coming off the bench for that reason. He deserved to start, but he was so valuable as a spark off the bench.

"Later in the year, he was even more consistent. We weren't starting out games that great later in the season, and we needed him out there as a starter. He has such an impact on the game other than just scoring."

Speelman said the biggest transformation he's made since beginning his college career doesn't involve his game but rather his physique. He arrived at Cedarville at 210 pounds, but has dropped to 205 while increasing his strength and athleticism.

"I have lost some weight, which was good, and I added some good muscle," Speelman said. "This is as athletic and as strong as I have ever been. Since I came here, the staff has helped me with weight training and has worked with me on my explosiveness. This is the best I have ever been."

Estepp said Speelman's physical maturity has made him a presence on the court.

"Isaiah started to change his body from his senior year of high school until now," Estepp said. "He's leaner and that has made him quicker and a lot more athletic.

"He had a pretty good freshman year, but he made a really big jump in his ability to score in different areas of the floor. He always was capable of doing that, but he grew and learned as a freshman and put that knowledge to use as a sophomore."

Speelman started all four seasons at Bradley, finishing as the program's career scoring leader with 1,509 points. As a senior, he averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 rebounds and was named special mention all-state, second-team all-district and OCC-Cardinal Division Player of the Year for the Jaguars, who lost to Pickerington Central 43-39 in a Division I regional final.

"When I got to college, I wasn't playing as much in the beginning and coach Estepp noticed that I was struggling with that," Speelman said. "He had lunch with me a couple of times during my freshman year. He told me that he had confidence in me and that he knew what kind of player I could be. He has done a really good job of helping me grow as a player and helping me develop leadership."

Estepp pointed to Speelman's versatility as being a major factor in his success.

"Isaiah is a very good 3-point shooter, and he can do a lot more," Estepp said. "Sometimes at this level, the guys who are his size don't have an effective post game or can't put it on the floor, but he can do both. He can post up against smaller guys or guys his size, and he has a high basketball IQ.

"He's a smart defender and he was well-coached in high school, but he's guarding better players and more of them. In high school, you can guard one or two guys and you don't have to worry about all of the guys. It's not like that at this level."

Despite being a sophomore, Speelman was voted as one of the team's captains this past season. It was no surprise to Estepp.

"Isaiah really stepped up as a leader, and he was even a captain as a sophomore," Estepp said. "He's very vocal and brings it every day in practice, and we'll need that next year.

"It's not just the basketball side of it. He's a leader and I expect he will take even more steps next year toward being a leader. I'm excited about the team's future, and he's a big part of it."

shennen@thisweeknews.com

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