Basketball redshirt senior Colby Wollenman balances athletics and academics
To head basketball coach Tom Izzo, he is the team doctor.
And for Izzo’s sake, redshirt senior forward Colby Wollenman said he'd better become a cardiologist if he’s going to be taking care of Izzo.
Balancing a demanding major like physiology, which Wollenman does, and being a member of a sports team isn’t an easy task.
But Wollenman does it, and does it well. Despite how difficult it can be to focus on homework after returning home late from practice, he said being committed, determined and perfecting time management have all helped.
“I’m really blessed that academics come relatively easy to me ... a lot easier than basketball,” Wollenman joked.
During the 2014-15 season, Wollenman received the NCAA’s Elite 89 award for the 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. This award is given to a student participating at the finals site for the NCAA championship with the highest cumulative grade point average.
He was also named a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar and received MSU’s Scholar-Athlete award last season.
This season, Wollenman is in the process of visiting medical schools. He has missed four practices to visit schools like University of Michigan, Baylor University, University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania.
He has three more scheduled at Washington University in St. Louis, Vanderbilt University and UCLA.
Izzo jokingly said he takes full responsibility for the success Wollenman has had off the court with his test scores.
“It just goes to show we’re not just a basketball program, we educate our guys, too,” Izzo said. “I’m really proud of what he’s doing.”
But before the team doctor kisses the floor of Breslin Center, he still has his last season with the team ahead of him.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Prior to walking on to the basketball team in the 2011-12 season, Wollenman came to MSU on academic scholarship.
He heard of MSU via the STARR Charitable Foundation Scholarship. Since 1998, two anonymous alumni from Wyoming have been providing full-ride academic scholarships to students from Wyoming, and recently the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Douglas Estry, the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, works with the donors to bring students to MSU who otherwise might not have been able to.
Wollenman said he was not selected for the special scholarship, but was given almost an equivalent academic scholarship by the university.
“I decided Michigan State would be a cool place to go. ... But the STARR is what got me interested in Michigan State,” Wollenman said.
Last season he received an athletic scholarship, which he had not received as a walk-on. In previous years, he had been on academic scholarship. As a redshirt senior, he is back on academic scholarship for his final year.
Funny enough, Wollenman’s younger brother, physiology junior Lucas Wollenman, came to MSU on the unique ride. He too plans on becoming a doctor.
Lucas said he became aware of the scholarship when Colby applied. After visiting his brother on campus several times, Lucas said he decided to go for it.
The application process is fairly long. Lucas said it includes four essays with about 250 words and several interviews if a candidate makes different rounds of cuts.
Since being selected, Lucas said the scholarship has given him many different opportunities, such as studying abroad in New Zealand, and it brings him closer to his brother.
“It’s never really been a downside to have a famous brother,” Lucas said. “He’s still the same doof I know him as.”
Wollenman joked while his major is a lot of work, he’s never considered doing homework on the bench.
“When it’s basketball, it’s basketball,” Wollenman said. “When it’s school, it’s school. There’s very little mixing of the two, but they don’t mix well.”
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
During his freshman year at MSU, Wollenman could be found shooting hoops during his spare time at the intramural facilities.
“I used to play pickup games all the time ... because I came here with little intention, actually I’ll say no intention, of playing basketball here,” Wollenman said. “It wasn’t even in the cards.”
He said it was during those pickup games he met some people who tried out for the team in the past and Wollenman thought, “shoot, might as well, guess I’ll try it.”
“Even when I decided to try out I thought there was no way I would make the team, I’m not good enough,” Wollenman said. “I had a really good tryout and the coaches liked me. ... Five years later, four years later I’m here.”
Trying out for the basketball team is not something advertised to the public and Wollenman said people have to go out of their way to find out about it.
To Ryan Alley, Wollenman’s varsity basketball coach at Big Horn High School in Wyoming, it’s no surprise Wollenman made the team.
“(He is) one of those kids that had a lot of options and knew what he wanted. ... He knew it was going to happen because he wanted it,” Alley said.
The persistent attitude explains previous success Wollenman had during his high school career. Amid Wollenman’s senior year, the team went 28-0 and on to win a Wyoming State Championship title. Alley described the team that year as a “special group of guys.”
“We had a great team and group of guys that I’m still close with that we’d been together since middle school,” Wollenman said. “We were like, ‘if we stick together we’re going to have a pretty good basketball team by the time we’re seniors,’ and we did.”
Early in his high school career, Alley said Wollenman was impressive at ball-handling and passing, and as time went on his better scoring ability kicked in. But Wollenman’s scoring average wasn’t as high as it could have been.
“He shot his ball to teammates and friends a lot,” Alley said. “Overall, that season was a pretty amazing season.”
However, he remains humble throughout the success.
Since making the team at MSU, Wollenman said his best memory is “definitely going to the Final Four.”
He recalls the first time the team walked onto the court in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the open practice with “like 30,000 people” in attendance.
“We just walked out there. ... There’s bright lights and the court’s elevated, so you feel like you’re on a stage in front of all those people, and it was surreal,” Wollenman said. “It was so cool.”
During a game against Illinois last season, Wollenman seized his window of opportunity. Given the chance to play, he made a rush down the court — dunking the ball and leaving Izzo, teammates and the crowd in shock.
It’s not something seen often from Wollenman. Even Alley said when he did it in high school, “we don’t get a lot of dunkers and it’s fun to watch.”
Since that game, Izzo said Wollenman has continued work hard and improve and he will see some playing time this season.
“He’s improved enough where he’s going to play,” Izzo said. “Who knows, he could start.”
Wollenman’s hard work and influence on the team doesn’t go unnoticed. Redshirt junior forward Matt Van Dyk, another walk-on, said with so much experience, Wollenman brings a lot to the team.
“He’s so intelligent, he’s been on the team for five years so he knows,” VanDyk said. “He jokingly says he could coach a team with Michigan State’s offense and defense if he needed to, which is true.”
With a full season still ahead, Wollenman said the desired end goal is the national championship game.
And this time next year, he could be studying to become a doctor at the rivalry school down the road in Ann Arbor.
But he’s still excited to just get back on the court.
“Last year was kind of my first real taste of getting into the rotation of playing in games,” Wollenman said. “Having had that experience ... to get out there and fill that role again and hopefully make our way to a national championship.”