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(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Ask Michael Orris, and he'll tell you he's here because of his brother.
That his brother can't be here with him is the pain he carries every day.
Having played at Kansas State and Northern Illinois previously, Orris found himself at South Dakota State this season and, thus, finds himself in the NCAA Tournament this week, getting ready to face top-seeded Gonzaga. This was the sort of trip he used to dream about with his brother, Billy, back when they were kids.
Billy is the one who toughened up Michael at the gym, rebounded all his practice shots, followed him to college and sat in the front row for his games. Billy was killed in a motorcycle accident in the summer of 2015.
"To not share this stage with him, it's extremely difficult," Orris said.
Rise and grind! It's GAME DAY! ESPN 3, 7pm @ Oral Roberts!pic.twitter.com/pOZ9sVIMud
— Michael Orris (@M_Orris44) January 12, 2017
Orris had a year of eligibility remaining when he graduated from Northern Illinois last season, still reeling from the death of his brother.
He kept playing because that's what Billy would've wanted.
"I think we're all faced with something big like that in life," he said. "I asked, 'Is it worth it to keep playing? Should I? Can I?' And for me, it was never an option. To not play would be dishonoring him."
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Billy was five years older than Michael, and as soon as Michael got old enough, Billy would take him to the gym, tell his friends to rough him up under the boards and foul him hard outside. His older brother turned him into a player, Michael says.
Billy followed Michael to his first school, Kansas State, and the two hit the gym at night, together, where Billy shagged shots for his little brother. Billy sat in the front row during Michael's season with the Wildcats, and Billy helped pave the way back to Illinois after Michael started looking for a change, not happy with his limited playing time with K-State.
Michael found out his brother had died on Aug. 7, 2015 _ a day before his 21st birthday. When police arrived to tell the family, "It was like a bomb went off," Orris said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Last offseason, incoming South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger called. The coach and player connected immediately. Part of the conversation was about Billy.
It's been a tough year for the Jackrabbits _ adjusting to a new coach, a new system and, for Orris, a new way of life. It has come together of late, with Orris playing a key role.
"I'd be foolish to say that ... he's not gaining that strength from his brother and playing for his brother to some extent," the coach said.
No. 16 seed South Dakota State has won seven of nine going into Thursday's game against the Zags. In the semifinal of the Summit League tournament, Orris scored a career-high 20 points, including the game-winner with 1.5 seconds left.
Now, he's here _ elated, yet in some ways, alone.
"To not share this stage with him, it's extremely difficult," Orris said. "I've been thinking about it every day. The semifinal game where I hit the shot. All these moments that I'm not getting with him that me and him dreamed about. It's really unfathomable."