Butler coach Myron Lowery still remembers the first day he saw a lanky, Butler sophomore dominating most of the Bulldogs’ open gym scrimmage with an array of dunks and hustle plays, often imposing his will with athletic ability.
At the time, Lowery, in his first summer as the Butler head coach, didn’t even know that player’s name.
That player was Zane Rankin, a rising sophomore, who had made the varsity team as a freshman, but spent most of that season on the bench, watching former Butler standouts such as Giovanni Mack, now playing at UNC Pembroke, and Matthew Fisher-Davis, now playing at Vanderbilt.
“I remember I was dunking everything, hustling every play and I was definitely trying to get coach Lowery’s attention,” Rankin said. “Then coach Lowery came up to me and asked me: What is your name? It’s kind of funny that he didn’t even know who I was at the time. But he told me I was going to play a significant role on that team.”
But while Rankin’s play on the court was impressive, he admits his work in the classroom was not up to par, and he was declared academically ineligible at Butler for his sophomore season.
Rankin made the difficult decision to transfer to Charlotte United Christian that fall, where he could focus on his grades and still play basketball.
However, he also vowed to get back to Butler.
“Zane (Rankin) always said he was coming back to Butler,” Lowery said. “I believed him because he came to a lot of our games, sitting right behind our bench. You could tell it was killing him not to be able to play at Butler.”
“It hurt me not to playing at Butler that year (sophomore season), because those guys (Butler teammates) were like my family,” said Rankin, of a Butler team that went 23-4 overall, including 11-1 in Southwestern 4A (SW4A) conference play, winning the league. “It was weird to be playing with another team. My heart was definitely still at Butler.”
Rankin got his grades back up and improved on the basketball court as well.
The rising, Butler junior came to the first, Bulldog open gym that next summer looking to impress Lowery again.
This time around, Rankin was determined to make the most of his opportunity at Butler, but still had to prove himself on a team loaded with talent, including seniors guards, Orlando Robinson and Raequan Scott.
Rankin worked his way back into the starting lineup, and played a key role, averaging 8.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.3 steals per game.
The Butler junior had his moments, including 21 points against Charlotte Catholic (who went on to win 4A state championship) and 18 points to help Butler beat Myers Park in the SW4A conference tournament championship game.
But Rankin admits he also had some tough times, including missing game-winners against Independence, Jay M. Robinson and South Mecklenburg.
But Lowery believed Rankin was a go-to guy with the game on the line.
“I had a lot of confidence in Zane,” Lowery said. “He missed a few shots with the game on the line, but I told him, ‘We’re going to keep coming to you.’”
Just a couple weeks later, Rankin blocked an East Mecklenburg last-second shot to preserve a 64-62 win.
Two nights later, he poured in 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a 73-64 victory at Porter Ridge.
Rankin carried his good play into the postseason, as he averaged 10.5 points and five rebounds per contest, over the last six games of the season that ended in a 78-66 loss to North Mecklenburg in the 4A state quarterfinals.
Rankin and his Butler teammates got back to work this summer, going 30-1 overall, and with most of the same team back had great expectations for the 2016-17 season.
Rankin, now a 6-foot-4, 190-pound senior also felt like it was his time to play a lead role for Butler.
“We had a great summer and you could tell then Zane, now a senior, was ready to be a leader for this team,” Lowery said. “I gave him some lofty expectations coming into this year, and he’s delivering.”
Rankin has transformed into a different player this year, as he is averaging a career-best across the board, including 19.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 3.3 assists per game, shooting 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point arc.
He also regularly guards the opposing team’s best player, and can play four of the five positions on the floor, if needed.
Rankin, who has only two turnovers this season, already has 20 points efforts in wins over Hough and South Mecklenburg. He also had a career-high, 37 points on Nov. 25 in the Phenom Hoops’ Showcase victory over Kings Mountain, that included seven, three-pointers.
While his 37-point outburst was fun, according to Rankin, it wasn’t even his most impressive performance of the season.
That performance came in a 57-47 win at Charlotte Catholic on Dec. 1.
In the Catholic game, Rankin went down with a hyper-extended left knee in the first quarter.
He iced his knee down during the second and third quarters, when Lowery asked him if he could go.
Rankin had also had the flu all week.
“When I saw my team needed me in the fourth quarter (against Catholic), I just couldn’t sit and watch,” Rankin said. “My knee was in pain, I had had the flu all week, but it was time to suck it up and play ball.”
Rankin did just that in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points, grabbing five rebounds and three steals to help the Bulldogs win and move their record to a perfect 6-0 this season through Dec. 4
“I am very motivated this year, being my last season at Butler,” Rankin admitted. “I want to go out strong and let people know my name. ...
“But this season is all about winning a state championship for this team. We have all the pieces. We won a lot of games for Coach Lowery (47 in the last two years combined), but we want to get to last goal (state championship).”
Rankin has a strong supporting cast to help him do so, with fellow seniors, Tarique Stowe, Omega Stitt, Jah’Lil Carter, Chase Morrisette-Burnett and junior, Gerrale Gates, all playing big roles. Junior, D.J. Little, also returns from football team this week to a Butler squad, ranked No. 5 in the Observer Sweet 16 and No. 1, according to Phenom Hoops.
Rankin’s goal to be No. 1 when the season ends.
After a career that has had a lot of ups and downs, Rankin is living out his dreams this season, as he also signed to play college basketball at Lander University last month.
But, Rankin says his journey has been about a lot more than basketball.
“Playing college basketball is a dream come true and I will continue to work hard every day in the gym,” Rankin said. “But this whole journey has taught me that you never give up on yourself. You have to confident in yourself and be strong. For me these are lessons that I will use the rest of my life on and off court.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.