Does a Division II basketball standout fit at Notre Dame? Does it matter? He's a great story

''I’ve always been told that if you’re the best player in the gym, you’re in the wrong gym.” 

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
How does former Nova Southeastern (Fla.) standout power forward R.J. Sunahara go from a Division  II standout to possibly playing next season at Notre Dame?

His is a story worth telling, worth reading, worth remembering, even if the process steers him to somewhere besides South Bend. 

The transfer portal is the new normal in college basketball, but there’s nothing normal about the college basketball journey of power forward R.J. Sunahara. 

Sunahara isn’t your normal end of the bench/back of the rotation player at a power conference school seeking a fresh start. He's not your normal late bloomer who tore it up for a mid-major and longs to prove himself among the big boys and the bluebloods. He’s traveled nothing close to a normal basketball road after receiving tepid interest from Lake Erie and Tiffin and West Liberty coming out of Bay (Ohio) High School. 

Sunahara’s college basketball journey took him to Division II Fairmont State in West Virginia. He redshirted his first year, then transferred to Nova Southeastern University, another Division II school in Davie, Florida. Sunahara played three seasons for the Sharks and played last season without peer. 

The 6-foot-8, 210-pound Sunahara averaged 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 26.7 minutes as Nova Southeastern (32-0) won its first national championship. He delivered 28 points and nine rebounds in the title game to share most outstanding player honors. He earned league defensive player of the year and league player of the year. He was all-conference, an All-American, all-everything. He earned the National Association of Basketball Coaches Division II player of the year and the Bevo Francis Award, which recognizes the nation’s top small college basketball player. 

In Division II, he was number one. 

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By April’s end, Sunahara was one of more than 1,650 players in the transfer portal. He already has an undergraduate degree in business management. If his credits transfer to his new school, he could be close to a Master’s. He could’ve returned to Nova Southeastern for his final year and been a Division II All-American again. He could’ve chased a national championship repeat and all kinds of accolades. 

Instead, he went in search of something somewhere else. Why? 

For everything he’s done at Nova Southeastern, Sunahara wants to compete at the highest collegiate level. He craves that chance at competition. He's always been that way back to his days of averaging 22.3 points., 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.6 blocks as a senior at Bay. 

If there was a game somewhere in Northeast Ohio, Sunahara would find it. Make the short drive across U.S. 6 and into Cleveland to play pickup? Sunahara would. Go all the way out to Akron? He'd go. Sunahara had a basketball and a car and game, so he’d blanket the area in search of the best competition to play, to challenge him, to push him. 

It’s the competitor in him. Doesn’t matter if he’s playing video games at his apartment down in Davie, playing pickup on campus or walking to the beach with his buddies — first one to that stop sign wins. 

Sunahara needs a challenge like others need oxygen. 

That’s why he’s in the transfer portal. He’s already aced the Division II exam. 

“I want to be tested; I want to play against the best of the best,” Sunahara said last week from Florida. “I’m ready to take that next step. I’ve always been told that if you’re the best player in the gym, you’re in the wrong gym.” 

It’s time to find a new gym. 

R.J. Sunahara won a national championship this spring at Division II Nova Southeastern University. He now wants to play at the Division I level - and just maybe, at Notre Dame.

From Division II to Notre Dame? Maybe

To keep his portal process from going sideways — what about that school, or that one or those? — Sunahara limited his choices of Division I programs to three. It will be Georgia, Notre Dame or West Virginia. All have specific reasons for making his final wish list. 

Georgia was the first school to reach out when Sunahara hit the portal late last month. His father, Reed, has been the West Virginia volleyball coach since 2015. Sunahara’s older brother, Rex, played football for the Mountaineers as a long snapper and has had NFL stints with Miami and Pittsburgh. Sunahara has known Hall of Fame coach Bob Huggins “for a while.” 

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As for Notre Dame, that’s where it gets interesting. 

One Friday during his senior year of high school, Sunahara was finishing a football scrimmage at Bay when the Fairmont State men’s basketball coaches arrived to drive him the 230 miles back to campus for his official weekend visit. That showed Sunahara how much they cared. He was all-in before the car made it back to West Virginia. 

The coach at Fairmont State then was former West Virginia point guard and current Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who played for Huggins. It was Huggins who recommended to Sunahara’s father that R.J. play for Mazzulla. Sunahara never played for him. He redshirted his only year in 2018-19. After that season, Mazzulla left Fairmont State for a staff spot with the Celtics. A coaching position opened when a Boston assistant had left to return to college. 

That coach was Notre Dame’s Micah Shrewsberry. 

Small basketball world. 

“Coach Shrewsberry contacted me and was like, ‘Hey, your old coach, Joe Mazzulla, said some good things about you and from what I’ve seen on film, you seem like a good player.’” Sunahara said. “I thought that was cool because I think the world of Joe. 

“If Joe is calling Coach Shrewsberry, that’s a good thing.” 

Sunahara was scheduled to tour Georgia over the weekend. On Monday, he planned to board a plane for the two-day trip to Notre Dame. He’s never seen campus outside of a recent Zoom call with Shrewsberry and his staff. He wants to see the Golden Dome. He wants to see the Mural of Life on the south wall of the Hesburgh Library. He wants to see if he fits. He believes he could.

Could he fit in the Atlantic Coast Conference? Could he go from playing against Barry and Florida Tech and Rollins to playing against Duke and North Carolina and Virginia? 

“Without a doubt, he’d find a way,” said former Bay coach Jared Shetzer. “He has that kind of work ethic and ability. He loves the game. He’s always bet on himself. 

“You don’t come across people like that every day.” 

Later in the week, Sunahara will see West Virginia. He might know immediately where he wants to play. It might take a few days to sort it out. Sunahara will let the process be the process. 

“Every option is open right now,” he said. “I won’t decide just yet. I want to go on these visits and see what’s happening.” 

What would happen if Sunahara chose Notre Dame is that he’d become a trailblazer. No Division II player has ever played for the Irish. Sunahara would be the 21st century version of former Irish power forward Ryan Humphrey. 

In 1999, Humphrey became the first Division I transfer to enroll at Notre Dame. He became a first team All-Big East selection and first-round NBA draft pick. Sunahara’s ceiling might not be that high, but in a season that promises to be a total rebuild, it would be fun to find out. 

Sunahara might be exactly what Notre Dame needs. Right guy. Right place. Right time. 

“I think that would be so cool, proving that someone from D-II could transfer up and compete at that level,” he said. “Hey, if I can do it, maybe other people can do it.” 

What a story that would be. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.