XULA's Rayshawn Mart - As Good As Gold
For so many college athletes, the COVID-19 pandemic has given and taken away, and Rayshawn Mart’s experience over the last year and a half has been no exception.
Like many of his peers, Mart took advantage of the opportunity to play an extra year of college basketball, returning to Xavier University of Louisiana for a fifth season after the NAIA voted to not charge fall and winter student-athletes for a season of competition in the 2020-21 academic year. Part of that extra season for Mart and his Gold Rush teammates was supposed to be a trip to Hawaii in December, one highly anticipated by all with the team.
Unfortunately, Xavier withdrew from the tourney and its trip to Hawaii was canceled one day before the team was to leave; the chance for some sun, fun and basketball lost as a result of a Covid spike on campus.
Even with that disappointment (“I was supposed to be laying on the beach right now,” lamented Mart with a laugh two days later), both Mart and Xavier still have plenty to be thankful for in 2021-22, including the chance to be together for one more year.
“These years [at Xavier], my game has gotten better and better,” said Mart, “[and] I’ve grown, not only as a basketball player, but as a young man, too. God has blessed me to be around some very successful people, people who have my best interests in mind, and are doing their best to lead me in the right direction.”
Deep in the south, some distance away from the NAIA’s midwestern core of membership, one of the most decorated current players in NAIA men’s basketball plays at Xavier, a historically Black, Catholic university in New Orleans.
A resident of Houma, La., an hour southwest of New Orleans, Mart has had a collegiate career that started out strong and just kept getting better. His arrival also coincided with the Xavier program returning to prominence in the NAIA, to the point where the Gold Rush are a national title contender.
Returning to Xavier allowed Mart the chance to further entrench his legacy as one of Xavier’s all-time greats. In a program with a deep tradition whose past stars include early NBA pioneer Nathaniel (Sweetwater) Clifton and later NBA pro Slick Watts, Mart will go down as one of the most prolific and decorated Xavier players of all.
Mart has been named conference freshman of the year, conference player of the year, is a three-time NAIA All-American, and last year was just the second Gold Rush player to receive first team All-American honors and the first in 47 years. He is the only player in school history to rank in the top 10 in points, rebounds, steals and blocks, and is on pace to become Xavier’s all-time leading scorer—the latter not bad for a player known more as a defender when he came to the school.
“He’s a very elite defender,” said head coach Alfred Williams about Mart’s game. “He came into college as a really great on-ball defender and a really good slasher who can attack and get easy baskets. He’s developed as a better mid-range shooter, better jump shooter, but his calling card is defense, being a ‘dog’ defensively, and then attacking in transition. He’s also a really, really good on-ball defender. He led our team and our conference in steals, and he's also a solid rebounder for his position. He’ll get five to seven rebounds from a guard spot, it’s very rare to get a guy who rebounds the ball like that.”
[Photos by Yamlak Tsega]
Mart came to Xavier in 2017, joining a program coming off an uncharacteristic down year. Williams came back to his alma mater to take over the head coaching reins the year before, but his first Gold Rush team finished 10-20 in 2016-17, snapping a string of six straight NAIA National Tournament appearances.
Mart was part of a talent infusion the next year that brought big results: a 14-win improvement to 24-9, a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference regular season co-championship, and a return to the NAIA tourney. Mart started his collegiate debut and 27 games in all, averaging 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds on his way to GCAC Freshman of the Year honors.
“He wasn’t really highly recruited [at first],” said Williams. “He had some interest from Division I schools [late]. We were able to establish a relationship early, able to secure him, and it started our process of having success, getting him as freshman. Since then, he’s just been all-defensive team, all-conference, last year player of the year, All-American. He’s an unbelievable young man, loves basketball, continues to work and get better.”
Mart’s second season at Xavier resulted in second team all-GCAC honors and also NAIA honorable mention All-American recognition. He scored the winning points in the closing seconds in three different games, including a pair of wins over top-10 teams. His third year saw another climb, to first team all-conference honors, a second straight NAIA All-America honorable mention award, and also huge team success. The Gold Rush finished 27-6, were ranked 10th in the final NAIA Division I coaches poll, and were aiming for a run in the national tournament until it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mart’s career arc might make it look easy, but he says it was anything but at first.
“It was really tough [at first], a major adjustment,” Mart said. “I had to find my niche too. That summer [before his freshman year] was the hardest summer I had in my life. Offseason training, it was a major adjustment, my body was broken down…I had to get used to a level of training and the intensity of the training, and learn how to work on my game. Coming into that season I started moving up the depth chart, and at that point, what got me on the floor honestly was defense. I saw what the team needed, saw what the guys ahead of me weren’t doing, and I emphasized those things.”
Mart naturally enjoyed the challenge and reward of being a major contributor early on at Xavier, but he also appreciated the freedom his coaches allowed him academically. It’s well-known that college athletes at some schools can face challenges accessing majors that might be deemed to conflict too much with their sport. Mart had no such issues at Xavier.
“That’s another thing, the program in general, my coaches, coach A.J. [Williams], [assistant] coach [Tyrone] Mitchell...a lot of schools wanted me to major in something, but they let me spread my wings, major in what I wanted,” said Mart. “I majored in chemistry/pre-pharmacy, changed to just chemistry…it’s been a tough road, me being a student-athlete, choosing chemistry which is not easy. But it’s just a blessing to have them support me through that decision.”
Mart’s growth took another step in 2020-21, when he averaged 21.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game on his way to GCAC Player of the Year honors. He also gave Xavier a first team NAIA All-American for the first time since Bruce Seals in 1973, and led the Gold Rush to the conference tournament championship, plus a win in the opening round of the NAIA Tournament, their first win in the tourney since 2007.
“It was very special, just knowing that was a goal that I set previously before the year started,” said Mart of his high national honors. “But, honestly the biggest accolade I had last year was winning the conference title again. That was more so my main focus, and the rest I just left in God’s hands. That’s a blessing, seeing the results of your work and seeing it pay off.”
Mart already had a terrific four-year career, but the coronavirus pandemic allowed him the chance to extend the good times one more year. The decision to return wasn’t a hard one, and he said he started thinking about it already last year. His reasons for coming back were academic and athletic.
“I changed my major, the chemistry/pre-pharmacy program was two years of chemistry and then four years of pharmacy…the chemistry program was a four-year program,” said Mart. “So when I changed that I was a little behind for the four-year chemistry program. My family’s very big on education, that was a big factor in my choosing Xavier. So me not having my degree yet, it played a big role in it. “[And then] talking to coach A.J. and coach Tyrone, they honestly thought me coming back would put me in a better situation for a pro career. My trusting them and trusting their vision, and then trusting my parents as well. It wasn’t really a hard decision, once I heard my coaching staff thought it would be best for me and would be the best situation.”
Of course, Mart could’ve easily leveraged the situation to play his final year somewhere else. Transferring ‘up’ is all the rage in college basketball, and opportunities to do so abound for any player of Mart’s status. He had opportunities to go elsewhere but decided to return to Xavier, a decision not to be taken lightly.
“It was brought up, but really wasn’t a consideration,” Mart said. “I’m very thankful for just what this program brought me, and just realizing I can do it from here. I want to be able to say, if God gave me the opportunity to play in the NBA or even the EuroLeague, to be able to say I’ve done it from Xavier is a blessing. The guys who made that possible are the ones who first believed in me…anything I can achieve or make possible, I can do exactly where I’m at.”
“He was very sought after,” said Williams. “It’s very difficult at times to retain these young men, but over course of four years, the relationship we built with his family, and also him with the university, that helped us in regards to retaining him for a fifth year. It was also difficult in that some teams wanted him to transfer, but he also had some interest from international teams, opportunities to turn pro, so there were a lot of different areas we had to fight through.
“The one thing that I do try to make sure we instill in our young men is to communicate. We try to be as transparent as possible, let them know we’re in your corner. We’re not stopping you from doing anything, but at end of day, we want to make sure our communication level is good.”
Mart still has goals to play professionally.
“I went to a camp at the end of last year [and] did pretty well,” he said. “There are still a lot of things I can improve in my game. I feel like my ceiling is high, if I’m given the right opportunity, I can play in one of top leagues in Europe to the NBA. There’s still so much I can add to my game, but the first step to getting better is to realize you have to get better. I’m always looking for ways to get better, ways to improve, that’s the mindset I have.”
“Our goal honestly is to win a national championship,” said Mart. “We have the guys to do that, I honestly believe our junior year we had a team like that, [and this year] we have a special team. Once we get to gelling, the potential is very high. I like to set the bar high, so my goal is to win a national championship before I leave here.”
“We’re excited to have been able to build a relationship with him,” said Williams. “To have the opportunity to have him in our program for four years, five years, he’s been a joy to coach, to help build and grow, and then we’re excited to see what he does at next level and in the next stage of his life.”
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