OREM — Two schools from Utah, both 5 miles apart, were the first to reach out to Evan Cole when he entered the NCAA transfer portal and announced his intentions to leave Georgia Tech as a graduate transfer.
But BYU and Utah Valley University weren’t the only choices the 6-foot-10, 226-pound center had in making a decision to play his final year of college basketball. They just happened to be two of the finalists, along with several Power Five schools.
In the end, Utah won out — Utah Valley, that is.
The talented big man committed to head coach Mark Madsen and the Wolverines, he announced Monday from his home in Powder Springs, Georgia, to complete the second-year head coach's 2020 recruiting class.
"I’m really excited about going to play in the WAC," Cole told KSL.com. "It’s a great group of coaches, and I feel like I can learn a lot. But they gave me a vision where I can come in and play my game. I thought they had a good plan for me and how to make me a part of the team."
Cole averaged 4.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game as a junior, his most productive in a Yellow Jacket uniform after playing in just 18 games due to injury as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-10, 226-pound center shot 47% from the field in his final season at Georgia Tech, helping the Yellow Jackets to a 17-14 record and 11-9 mark for fifth place in the ACC.
But with one season of eligibility remaining, Cole felt like it was time for a change. It’s not something he planned at the last second, either. The business administration major took 19-plus credits for three straight semesters to set himself up for graduation May 1, and he plans to enroll at UVU in time to begin a master’s of public service, a degree with 100% online coursework designed for working students.
"That’s probably one of my proudest achievements so far, to get a college degree," Cole said. "I’m really excited to get my master’s from Utah Valley, too."
A versatile post who can occasionally step outside but prefers to take the ball to the hoop with a big dunk, Cole chose the Wolverines over offers from BYU, Ohio State, Boston College, Washington State, San Diego, Santa Clara, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, East Tennessee State, Boise State and Rhode Island — among others.
UVU coach Mark Madsen understands why his new post player who has already signed a national letter of intent was in high-demand.
"Evan Cole is a special talent," Madsen said. "You could ask Evan to do almost anything on the court and he has the versatility to do it. Evan consistently attacks the rim and punishes people while finishing. He can shoot threes and handle the ball in transition. He can use his power game in the post. Defensively he’s just a monster. He controls the paint yet also has the lateral movement to defend guards on the perimeter.
"As I watched Evan's game film, I was impressed with how many game-winning plays he made — game after game. He’s just a winner. I am excited to welcome him and his family to the UVU community."
Cole won’t be the only Georgia native on the roster in Orem. He’s really excited to play with Colby Leifson, the former BYU guard who played against Cole several times at North Gwinnett High School, a 12-minute drive (without traffic) from Cole’s South Forsyth High.
The two even joked about playing college basketball together.
“Evan’s a super consistent player who rebounds like crazy,” said Leifson, who played AAU basketball with Cole for a year. “I haven’t seen many people with a motor like he has. He brings it every time he steps on the floor.”
A native of Cumming, Georgia, Cole originally signed with UNC Wilmington out of high school but asked for a release when then-coach Kevin Keatts left to coach at North Carolina State. That led to him becoming a cornerstone signee in Josh Pastner’s first recruiting class at Georgia Tech, for which Cole doesn’t harbor a modicum of regret.
But he also knew he could have a larger role on a team. Used as the Yellow Jackets’ primary reserve center, Cole wanted playing time and the chance to compete for a starting role with his final season.
He’ll get that at Utah Valley, which has lost guards Cavit Havsa and Isaiah White and forward Casdon Jardine to the transfer portal, in addition to TJ Washington, Emmanuel Olojakpoke, Bradley Kitchen and center Brandon Morley to graduation following an 11-19 season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
"I want to win a championship, and I think they have that same goal: We have our eyes on that WAC championship," said Cole, one of four transfers to UVU, including former BYU point guard Blaze Nield, and JUCO products Asa McCord, Trey Farrer and LeTre Darthard.
As soon as Cole put his name into the transfer portal, he began hearing from coaches. BYU coach Mark Pope reached out, as did a host of power conference programs.
But none of them stood out quite like Madsen, the second-year head coach and longtime NBA big man who counts Shaquille O’Neal and the late Kobe Bryant among his friends.
"He’s the perfect coach for the job. I don’t think I would’ve given them the same chance if he weren’t there," Cole said. "I’m really excited to play for him. Being in the NBA for so long, I think he can really turn this program around. We’re trying to be the best team in Utah."
But recruiting was different this time around, compared to his high school days — largely because of the novel coronavirus. Restrictions on travel, as well as an NCAA recruiting dead period that prevented coaches from leaving campus or hosting recruits, left Cole to make his decision via phone calls, text messages, social media and virtual tours of campuses across the country.
"You have to do your own research," Cole said. "I’m just building relationships anytime I can with coaches via FaceTime. It’s been a little different from my recruiting in high school. But I feel like I needed to know everything to make my decision."