George Fant doesn’t have to look far for a basketball role model — he needs only to glance to the rafters of Diddle Arena.
In the top corner of the arena, behind the stadium’s upper deck, stands a poster of Jim McDaniels. In the poster, the 7-footer is driving to the basket, poised to score two of the 2,238 points he tallied in his WKU career.
Dangling from the ceiling is a banner reading “Jim McDaniels, 44, 1969-70-71,” signifying the retired jersey of the Toppers’ all-time leading scorer.
When McDaniels’ and four other players’ jerseys were retired during the 1999-2000 season, it was assumed no one at WKU would wear No. 44 again.
But 11 years later came along a player named George Fant who had a similar background to McDaniels — a star high school forward from the Bowling Green area whose goal was to play at WKU.
The fact that the two were cousins inspired McDaniels to pass on his legendary No. 44 jersey.
McDaniels sat down with Fant when the latter was a prep star at Warren Central High School and had a conversation about the possibility of sharing not only family ties, but also the No. 44 at WKU.
“I told him in high school if you do go to Western, and I hope you will, I hope you wear No. 44,” McDaniels said.
“(Fant) said, ‘That’s retired. That’s your number.’
“I said, ‘Yeah it is, but it’s your family and I’d be proud if you wore that if you decided to go to Western.’”
Fant, who wore No. 4 while at WCHS, complied with his cousin’s request when he came to WKU.
Now Fant, the Toppers’ starting power forward, wears the same number as McDaniels — a cousin he didn’t know until he was a teenager.
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound big man had an immediate impact during his freshman season. Fant was second on the team last year in points per game (10.4), and rebounds per game (6.1).
He saved his best for last, earning Sun Belt Conference Tournament “Most Outstanding Player” honors during WKU’s four-game march to the title.
Fant’s performance in taking over the Sun Belt Tournament validated much of the hype that came with his signing to WKU. It was also a clutch moment performance reminiscent of his cousin, McDaniels.
Fant accepts the comparisons but also wants to make a name for himself outside of his cousin’s shadow.
“I’m not Jim McDaniels,” Fant said. “I want to follow in his footprints, but I’m my own player.”
High school superstar
Jim McDaniels and George Fant didn’t meet until after the latter had moved from Cincinnati to Bowling Green before he started seventh grade.
Fant and his family moved into Warren East High School’s district but transferred to Warren Central High School soon after moving to Kentucky.
It was at WCHS that the teenage forward had the chance to learn from a man that became one of his mentors, coach Tim Riley.
By the time Fant started his freshman season in 2007-08, Riley was already one of most decorated coaches in Dragons’ history.
Riley took over WCHS in 1998 and began a 14-year run that included one state title, one second-place finish and more than 300 wins.
But when he first started coaching Fant, Riley realized he could be teaching one of his most talented students.
“I remember telling (then-WKU coach) Darrin Horn that I felt like I had the kid that was going to be the best player I’d ever coached," Riley said. "He kind of laughed at me… I don’t know that Darrin agreed with me at the time but I thought George had the chance to be the best kid I’d coached.”
Riley was busy trying to help Fant make his promising basketball future a reality. But he also provided Fant a link to his heritage by bringing McDaniels around to watch him.
Riley had seen McDaniels play while he was growing up, and called him one of his favorite players.
McDaniels was one of the top high school players in the country when he came out of Allen County High School in the late-1960s. He chose coach John Oldham and WKU over a scholarship over from coach John Wooden and UCLA, wanting to stay close to his hometown of Scottsville so his family could see him play.
The 6-foot-11, 228-pound center became a dominant big man, setting WKU’s scoring record with 2,238 points (later matched by Courtney Lee) and pulling down 1,118 career rebounds in a college career that spanned from 1968-71.
McDaniels said he enjoyed watching his younger cousin, not just during practice, but afterwards when Fant would stay on the court to put in some extra work.
“It’s so easy to get in the shower and be out of there in 10 minutes,” McDaniels said. “But the ones who really want to be players, they just do their own things and work on how good they could be.
“George had a kindred spirit with me in that way. I recognized that right away.”
While McDaniels got to know Fant, the younger cousin began picking McDaniels’ brain about the sport they shared.
Fant asked McDaniels both about certain situations on the basketball court and how to handle success off of the court.
“He tells me how ‘you need to work on this,’” Fant said, “or ‘you need to get on this person, I noticed something, you need to watch for it and let them know… He’s always been one of those kind of guys that observes.”
Fant had a great deal of success at Warren Central, leading the Dragons to KHSAA Sweet Sixteen berths after the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.
As Fant became one of the state’s best prep players, his recruiting profile rose. Rivals.com listed him as the 150th best senior in the country.
Eventually WKU and Penn State remained on his short list of destinations.
Fant had plenty of family connections to WKU. In addition to his cousin McDaniels, his mother Kim had played basketball for the Lady Toppers under the program’s most successful coach, Paul Sanderford. His father, George, was also a men’s basketball manager in the 1980s.
Riley said he encouraged Fant to consider the Toppers as much as any team from a bigger conference.
“I’d seen (former WKU players) Courtney Lee and Jeremy Evans make the (NBA) and in the last few years I’d seen a ton of other guys play overseas,” said Riley, a WKU alum. “If you’re good enough, you can be good enough at Western just like you can at a Big Ten school or an SEC school. I thought it was important for George to play and I saw that Western had a real need for him.”
McDaniels also encouraged Fant to give WKU a hard look.
“I told him I dreamed about playing for Western Kentucky,” McDaniels said. “I loved that red towel and I loved watching (former coach Ed) Diddle and Oldham and the history of Western, and in my heart I wanted to be a part of that…
“I said ‘George, one day when you come on the scene, and you’re playing like the way I know you’re capable of playing, there’s going to be college scouts all over the country out for you.’ His eyes lit up, he was like ‘you think so?’ I said I know so… I said I hope you keep WKU on that list.”
In the fall of 2010, before his senior year at Warren Central, Fant committed to WKU. He became part of a heralded recruiting class that included Derrick Gordon, T.J. Price and others.
His love for Bowling Green was one of the primary reasons he chose to play for the hometown Toppers, Fant said.
“This town means a whole lot to me,” Fant said. “I don’t even claim Cincinnati as my hometown because this place showed me so much love over the years.”
Living life as a Topper
Things weren’t easy for Fant at the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
He didn’t play the team’s first four games after the NCAA determined he and Price accepted money over the summer from LifeSkills, Inc., for work they didn’t do.
But WKU, Fant and Price appealed the suspensions, claiming Fant and Price had been misled as part of a larger scam. Eventually the NCAA allowed the two to play.
It took Fant awhile to adjust to the faster and stronger pace of the college game. Chastity Gooch, a forward on the women’s basketball team and Fant’s fiancée, said “it probably wasn’t easy” for him when he started play at WKU, but that she knew it was just a matter of time before he picked up on the collegiate game.
As the season wore on, he became one of the Sun Belt’s best frontcourt players. He put up a 20-point, 10-rebound performance against Florida Atlantic on Feb. 16. Fant scored 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting in a Feb. 23 win against Arkansas State.
“He grew in confidence,” McDaniels said. “He saw he could do it, that he could play with anybody at the college level.”
Fant dominated the Sun Belt Tournament, averaging 14.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game during WKU’s march to the title. He became the first freshman since 2004 to take home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honors.
“I feel like when we were in the tournament or just in general in this conference,” Fant said, “guys were scouting me and saying, ‘Man we’ve got to play this guy, he’s physical.’”
Fant is working on another good year for the Toppers.
He’s averaged 11.8 points per game, which ranks third on the team behind only Price and Jamal Crook. He also pulls down 6.2 rebounds per game, second only to Brandon Harris.
Fant and the Toppers (12-11, 6-6 Sun Belt) play their next game at 7 p.m. Thursday in Denton, Texas against North Texas.
He’s had an emphasis so far this year on improving his jump shooting, something for which McDaniels was famous.
“The only thing that’s he’s way better than me by far, and the thing that I’m striving to get to is his shooting ability” Fant said. “As far as scoring under the basket and working hard down there, that’s who I’m learning from. I watch film on him all the time.”
Fant has also become a big man on campus, both literally and figuratively.
When the Toppers Café opened for the fall semester, Fant’s profile was one of the blown-up pictures on the restaurant’s façade.
“When I first saw that I said ‘oh my God, his head’s going to get a little bigger,’” Gooch said laughing. “It’s bad enough when we go everywhere, he’s always stopping and talking to people. I’ve got to keep his head from getting too big. I talk trash to him.”
But McDaniels went through much of the same when he was a star at WKU four decades ago. His advice to Fant: engage the other students, rather than act like you’re above them.
“Like a politician, you’ve got to relate to students,” McDaniels said. “That’s what fills the arena.”
Fant is on track to do many of the same accomplishments as his cousin. He'll likely join the 1,000-point club sometimes next season. The 1,000-rebound club isn’t much farther away.
After his playing days are over, Fant said he wants to follow in the footsteps of Riley and become a coach.
Whatever he does after basketball, McDaniels wants him to cherish what he’s got going for him right now.
“I’m so proud to have him wear that jersey,” McDaniels said. “He’s family and he’s carried on the legacy extremely well. He’s doing a great job.”