Alex Gross is Bringing it Big Time for ONU
In today’s world of “positionless” basketball, Olivet Nazarene University’s Alex Gross produces numbers that could make him a throwback at two different positions. He puts up statistics like one of the best post players in the country—and like one of the best point guards in the country, too.
At 6-foot-10, Gross is most definitely a center, and the senior at the school located in Bourbonnais, Ill., just an hour south of Chicago, is as dominating as any big man in the NAIA.
Through mid-February, Gross led the NAIA in rebounding, grabbing 14 boards per game. He ranked second in the country in blocked shots at 3.5 per contest. And, yes, he could score too—13th nationally at 21.8 points per night, including a recent career-high 40-point performance that netted him NAIA National Player of the Week honors. He did all of this shooting better than 62% from the field, and hitting 82.6% of his free throws.
At the same time, Gross is also one of the leading assist men in the NAIA, ranking just outside the top 10 nationally with 5.3 assists per game as of February. He’s an outstanding passer individually from the low post, out of double teams, or in transition after a rebound, throwing it nearly 70 feet ahead to a teammate for an easy layup as he did against Holy Cross (Ind.) on January 22nd.
“I was just trying to make sure I didn’t have to run back down the court,” Gross deadpans about the play.
He probably could shoot the three-pointer more than he does, too (he’s made 11 in his career), but doesn’t really need to. Not on a team that in mid-February was shooting a scintillating 55.3% from the field this season, a number that ranked best of any four-year college in the country playing at the NAIA or NCAA Division I, II or III level. Three-point bomber or not, Gross’s impact is massive, and that doesn’t even get into his intangibles.
“First of all, Alex is a tremendous leader, he comes in ready to work every day,” said his head coach Nick Birkey, an alumnus of Olivet Nazarene and former assistant now in his fourth year in charge at his alma mater. “He’s very focused, he understands we have goals in mind. First and foremost is to be great today. That’s what we talk about all day is taking care of today, tomorrow will take care of itself. I think that’s why we have success, we haven’t looked back, we haven’t wondered, and Alex does a great job of that.
“Obviously from a production standpoint…he’s the leading rebounder in the country, one of top assist guys, one of the top in field goal percentage—probably one of best bigs at the free throw line. His ability to dominate a game; three triple-doubles in his career. He’s a great communicator, a tremendous shot blocker. One thing I don’t think he gets credit for is how conditioned he is. He’s played 40 minutes multiple times this year. Now that’s probably his coach’s fault in not getting him some breaks, but…he’s a hard guy to take off the floor.
“He's just a guy you can count on,” Birkey adds, “and you know he’s going to give you everything every night.”
Photos by Eric Decker
Gross is the undisputed leader on a talented Olivet Nazarene team found once again at the top of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference. The Tigers also moved up in the NAIA top 25 to 13th in the February 9th poll and seem poised for a long-awaited deep NAIA Tournament run. Gross is a huge part of their current success. A two-time NAIA All-American, Gross should be on the short list of contenders for national player of the year.
A native of Hope, Ind., a small town of over 2,000 in southern Indiana, just 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, the Indiana influence is strong in Gross’s game (more on that in a minute). He has been around basketball—and as a big—most of his life. Unlike some stories of hoopers who hit a big growth spurt when younger, Gross says his increase in size was always pretty gradual. His stature fits the trend: his father is also 6-foot-10, his mother is 5-9, and his older sister, Lauren, is 6-2.
“Pretty much my whole career, obviously being the big guy my whole life, playing down low, scoring, rebounding, [I’ve had] those classic big man strengths,” said Gross. “Low post scoring, and something I’ve added, something unique, is just seeing the floor. And then defensively, I’ve kind of got a knack for blocking shots. Though to be honest, in high school, I was not a big shot blocker,” he says, saying that was something he picked up more as a collegian.
Gross is tall, of course, but the passing ability is something that sticks out and something he says has often come naturally for him. It also has roots in his basketball-rich home state.
“I think just because I’ve been exposed to basketball for so long, even in fifth and sixth grade, passing just kind of came natural to me,” he said. “I’ve always just been able to see the floor. When I started playing in third grade, I just dove in right away. And then watching other players. My family are big Purdue fans—watching JaJaun Johnson (2011 Big Ten Player of the Year) back in the day, and obviously Larry Bird, watching hours and hours of Larry Bird videos. I think while I was watching I was developing that ability.”
Gross’s journey to Olivet actually started with his sister—and volleyball.
Alex’s sister Lauren played volleyball at Indiana Wesleyan, transferring to the NAIA school in Marion, Ind., after originally playing at NCAA Division I Ball State. Alex’s parents watched Lauren’s matches at home and on the road. One of her trips took IWU to a tournament at Olivet Nazarene during Alex’s senior year of high school.
Alex and his family were in the process of researching schools in the Midwest, with Alex hoping he could stay within driving distance of his family. His parents took note of the Olivet campus and its facilities, were impressed, and they came back and began researching the school. He sent his info to the coaching staff at the school, and the process snowballed from there.
Gross got to Olivet Nazarene and was a starter from day one as a freshman. He didn’t start out as an offensive focal point, not with high-scoring junior Nic Reed lighting it up for 27.3 points per game. Gross averaged 9.0 points and 5.6 rebounds a game but showed signs of his potential, shooting 59.3% from the field for a team that won 23 games and advanced to the NAIA Division II Tournament.
“’Al’ came in, and like a typical [taller] high school player, he got away with being big a lot of times,” said Birkey. “From a physical makeup, he was probably not where he needed to be in conditioning.”
“Physically, I was definitely a late bloomer,” said Gross. “In high school it didn’t matter how much I went to the weight room, I just wasn’t physically there yet. That didn’t really change until my freshman year at Olivet. I kind of turned the corner in that aspect.”
Gross’s sophomore season also saw Reed back for his senior season—a year in which the veteran started to share top billing. Gross averaged 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, shooting 64.3% and a superb 86.0% from the free throw line. He also became a major factor defensively, blocking 118 shots.
“After his freshman year, [when] he started every game, he was thrown into the fire early. His sophomore year, he knew what was expected, and he got in much better condition, got much stronger,” said Birkey. “Al was really big in allowing Nic to be who he was, because [opponents] couldn’t just guard one, they had to guard both.”
Led by Reed and Gross, Olivet had a magnificent 2019-20 season, finishing 30-3 and as one of four top seeds in the 32-team bracket for the NAIA Division II Tournament. The Tigers had a real shot at their first national championship and were on site in Sioux Falls, S.D., Thursday, March 12, preparing for their first game of the championship. Ten games had been played in the tourney, and Olivet Nazarene was set to take on Lincoln (Ill.) in the eleventh.
The Tigers never got their chance.
The COVID-19 virus was raging, and the sports world was collapsing under its weight. It was the same day many NCAA Division I conference tournaments were canceled with the NCAA Tournament canceling a few hours later, too. Olivet was getting ready for warmups when the team was called off the court. The game was off. The remainder of the tournament was canceled.
“Something I’ll never forget,” said Gross. “We tried to run out there and they stopped us. We didn’t know what was going on. Definitely disappointing.”
Gross’s junior season was abbreviated but not fully shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. In ONU’s 20 games, he averaged 21.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 4.1 blocks per game.
The Tigers posted the best regular season record in the Chicagoland Conference but were edged out by a single point by Indiana-South Bend in the CCAC Tournament final. Olivet still received a bid to the NAIA Tournament, but its season ended quickly with a loss to Indiana Tech in the first round.
This year, the Tigers look ready for one more stab at the NAIA Tournament after some impressive early wins and dominance in the CCAC. ONU was 24-3 after a win over Judson (Ill.) February 10th, the team’s 12th straight win, and a game in which Gross finished with a massive triple-double with 37 points, 17 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
Olivet posted an early win over perennial power Morningside (Iowa), but Birkey said the team’s real turning point came on a trip to Florida just before Christmas. The Tigers won at Southeastern (Fla.), a team that less than a week earlier knocked off No. 1 St. Francis (Ind.) and would move up the NAIA rankings in January. The next day ONU won a shootout over a strong Florida College team that also has run up a gaudy 23-3 record.
“We were without a starter in that game, and we stepped up, on the road, playing against a team that plays multiple games a year [at Southeastern],” said Birkey. “That weekend in a lot of ways propelled us into the second semester. It was huge for us and our belief in how good we are.”
Gross is part of a talented team that includes six of the eight players in the regular rotation shooting at least 52.5%, and the way he once supported Nic Reed, he now also has a supporting star in sophomore Tyler Schmidt (19.6 ppg, over 60% from the field). Sharpshooters like Schmidt mean Gross doesn’t have to venture outside.
“Honestly, I’ve been so effective down low, I don’t really need to shoot threes to help the team,” Gross said. “I leave the outside shooting to the other guys. I just need to do whatever’s needed to win.”
Gross has continued to improve and grow the last two years, obviously statistically, but in other ways too.
“The last two years, obviously he was a focal point, and we knew he had to be dominant, and he became that,” said Birkey. “Sometimes experience is the best teacher, and the more he played, the more dominant he became, the better rebounder he became, the better passer, the better shot blocker.
“He’s become more of a vocal leader [too]. When you’re 6-10, it’s hard to hide, but he’s such a relatable teammate, teammates love him, know they can count on him. He’s a natural leader in many ways, and then this last year he’s developed that killer instinct. I’m not going to be stopped, not going to be kept from this rebound…typically it takes time to acquire that, and he has.”
On top of all that, Gross is an outstanding student. He was named a second team CoSIDA Academic All-American last year with a 3.68 GPA in sport management. He also was named to the NABC Honors Court and was an NAIA Scholar-Athlete.
Gross will graduate this spring and hopes to work in the sports world someday, perhaps in sales or administration. Before that, though, the first step is to pursue playing professionally, and he will do that—after the season.
“Obviously that’s our main goal [advancing to Kansas City in the NAIA Tournament], but you can’t look too far ahead,” Gross said. “We’re looking at it in steps, win the regular season first…then conference tournament, and then get into nationals. We’re trying to win out, but we’re taking it one game at a time.”
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