Holy Cross men’s basketball picking up momentum heading into tournament

Holy Cross. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa
Holy Cross. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa

For most of the season, Holy Cross men’s basketball has been slogging through a very dark, very long tunnel, but head coach Milan Brown has refused to stop believing that there is light at the end of it.

After opening the year by shocking then-25th ranked Harvard with a smothering, high pressure backcourt defense, Brown’s Crusaders had the look of a league champion. They did nothing to dispel it through their next four games, going 3-1 after the Harvard win, 74-57 stomping of eventual America East regular season champion Albany, with their lone loss coming on the road at Syracuse.

But then Holy Cross hit a wall, losing nine of their next 11, including five of their first six Patriot League contests, essentially burying the Crusaders in the conference standings before they had even reached the halfway mark in conference play. Even after righting the ship and finishing out the season going 7-5, the Crusaders still found themselves as the eighth seed in the conference tournament (thanks to a three-way tie for sixth-place and the subsequent tie-breakers) facing off against ninth-seed Loyola (Maryland) on Tuesday night.

But Brown is confident heading into what is essentially a play-in game, feeling his team is peaking at the right time after ending the season with back-to-back wins in the form of a 63-60 victory over Loyola and a 77-70 road win at BU.

“The way we break up our season, the non-conference is the first season, Patriot League is the second season, and we’re getting ready for the third,” said Brown about how his team approached their final regular season Patriot League contest. “We’ve been talking about getting some momentum for the last month so I think that was more of a focus.”

According to Brown, the win over BU, powered by senior forward Malcolm Miller’s 30-point explosion and a team-wide 9-of-10 second half shooting performance from downtown, was particularly encouraging, especially because the Terriers were still fighting for seeding while Holy Cross was already locked in to the eighth seed.

“Obviously we’re really excited to get the win,” said Brown about the victory. “Understanding that the playoff implications were already set, it was great to see the guys come out ready to play.”

Brown saw the Crusaders’ performance as a microcosm of their refusal to give up on the season despite disappointing losses and mounting obstacles.

“I think our culture is set enough now that we’ll always compete,” said Brown. “We could be in first or tenth but we’ll compete for sure.”

One of the Crusaders’ biggest obstacles was the loss of point guard Anthony Thompson to season-ending shoulder surgery in February, which gave way to one of the team’s biggest boosts in form of resurgent bench play.

“They’ve been coming along for sure,” said Brown of his bench, which has gotten a shot of energy from sophomore Robert Champion, senior walk-on guard De’Vaughn Reid and high-flying former starting wing Eric Green.

“De’Vaughn helping us out with Anthony being down, Rob stepping up, Eric Green, they’ve really embraced that,” said Brown of his bench. “What’s happening now is they’re not only playing hard like they’ve always done, we’re getting production that shows up in the stat sheet.”

Champion was especially big on Saturday, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 22 minutes off the bench.

Champion’s ability to stretch the floor has been especially big for the Crusaders, who had been one of the worst 3-point shooting team in the Patriot League. The 6’6” wing closed out the season drilling 10-of-14 shots from deep over his final four games, including a 16-point performance on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-4 from deep, in the regular season finale.

But according to Brown, the Crusaders’ success doesn’t rest on their ability to knock down long-bombs, but rather having his entire team bring consistent, frenetic energy for every second they are on the court.

“I need everybody to play hard and compete, we do that,” said Brown. Later adding, “it’s great, in the way we play, we can’t [play] seven or eight people, and we have to play 10 or 11 because of the style we play.”

Eight-seed Holy Cross tips off against ninth seeded Loyola (Maryland) at 7 p.m. tonight at the Hart Center in Worcester.

Justin Burrell and Anthony Thompson: An impact that will last a lifetime

Justin Burrell. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Justin Burrell. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

For Justin Burrell and Anthony Thompson, playing as Lilliputians in a game dominated by giants was easy. It was when they came face-to-face with an equally diminutive opponent — each other — that things got tough.

“There were days when he came in, and he was young and his legs were fresh and he was a problem for me,” says Burrell, a senior captain and point guard at Holy Cross who is very generously listed at 5’9”, of the first time he and Thompson, two years his junior, set foot on the same court in the summer of 2013.

“It was tough, coming in as a freshman, he showed me he knew a lot more on the court than I did,” adds Thompson, Burrell’s equally diminutive teammate. “He definitely went right at me.”

“Those two went right at each other from the start,” remembers head coach Milan Brown, “and there were some times we had to kind of switch them off each other because we were worried about how much they were going at each other.”

At the time, Burrell was a rising junior, a starter since day one, just stepping across the threshold that separates supporting cast member — his job as a facilitator for the first two years of his career — from featured billing and a starring role. Only, before he played a single second in the spotlight, he turned around to find himself face-to-face with his heir-apparent and future replacement in Thompson.

It was a situation that could have gotten ugly quick.

“It’s always tough as a coach, because you have to always be building for the future because you only have guys for four years and the world doesn’t stop for them,” says Brown. “And you never know how they are going to take it when you recruit the next guy in line. And I think it’s even tougher with point guards, and the smaller point guards especially, because they usually have that chip on their shoulder mentally that drives them from being doubted their whole career.”

Such a scenario seemed as if it might play out during the first pick up game of that first summer when Burrell and Thompson “almost killed each other,” laughs former Holy Cross star Dave Dudzinski.

“I was worried they might come to blows,” echoes Brown with a laugh.

Except, instead of a fistfight, something else erupted following that first heated showdown: a brotherhood.

The opening battle

Anthony Thompson. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Anthony Thompson. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

“I went right at him, and he’s this young kid, and not only did he keep his cool, but he came right back at me,” says Burrell of the first time the two squared off on the hardwood. “I had to respect him immensely.”

And that respect was mutual.

“He went at me every practice, but he was teaching me things I needed to learn,” says Thompson.

From that day on, according to both, Burrell and Thompson have been inseparable on and off the court, bonding over shared experiences as pint-sized playmakers from what’s known as the DMV — the hotbed of mid-Atlantic hoops that runs from Bowie, Maryland, through Upper Marlboro, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Northern Virginia — and similar interests off the court.

“We hang out all the time,”says Thompson, who hails from Glenn Dale, an unincorporated, racially diverse community of almost 14,000 residents in southern Maryland. “We’re both from the DMV, so we have a lot of similarities in music and hang out in the same places. Once I got here we knew the same people.”

“Having him on the team was great, because we’re from the same area, we’ve got the same taste in music, same interests, it’s like having a little brother on the team,” says Burrell, who was born in Maryland but raised in Dumfries, a tiny town of less than 5,000 in northern Virginia.

Burrell, who played high school ball at Potomac High School before a prep year at Fishburne Military School, and Thompson, who spent his high school days suiting up for the Bullis School, didn’t know each other until they became teammates. But both shared the same mindset on the court, and experiences off it, crediting their families, especially their fathers, with their development as players and people.

“We both have that mentality,” say Thompson, “that we’ve been doubted our whole careers because of our size, and every time we’re on the court we’re out there to prove people wrong,.”

“It’s funny,” says Burrell, “because we know so many of the same people, I feel like we should have crossed paths before a million times but we never did.”

As for who is actually shorter between Burrell and Thompson, who is listed one inch taller than his mentor.

“I’ll give myself 5’8”,” laughs Burrell. “I think he’s listed a little bit taller than I am, but when we line up to see who’s taller, it’s actually like literally dead even.”

Growing together

Justin Burrell. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Justin Burrell. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Going from a starring role in high school to coming off the bench to start his freshman year was a tough transition, but according to Thompson, it was Burrell, the player serving as his initial road block to seeing the court, who was his biggest mentor and supporter.

“It was hard getting adjusted to playing with the older guys, because I felt like I had to take a back seat, but the coaches kept telling me to be a better leader, and JB was pushing me to be a leader,” says Thompson, who eventually broke into the starting lineup beside Burrell halfway through his freshman year.

But according to Burrell, it was anything but a one-way street of support between the two.

“I’m not going to sit here and have it seem like it was a one-way street, I’m not going to hear that, because he made me better as well,” Burrell insists. “He came at me every day in practice and he never allowed me to get comfortable or complacent as an old vet,” he laughs.

According to Burrell, playing alongside his successor in Thompson has helped him in turn mature.

“You have to understand that it’s college basketball so they are going to recruit somebody because they have to continue what they’ve established in the past,” Burrell says. “I looked at it as they were confident in the style of play that I have, where they went and recruited another point who was similar to me in size and stature and style of play, so I was happy about that.”

And according to Brown, having Thompson and Burrell pushing each other in practice pushed the entire Crusaders roster.

“Whenever you have two guys competing with each other like that,” Brown said, “it definitely starts to rub off on people. When two guys are going that hard, you can’t take a day off.”

Stepping on the court side by side

Thompson spent the beginning of the 2013-2014 season as Burrell’s understudy off the bench, before stepping into the starting lineup when his mentor missed three games at the end of November and beginning of December with an injury. Upon his return, Burrell began seeing more court time beside Thompson, and the Crusaders began to click, pushing the ball in transition on offense and pressuring it on defense.

“When they made the change to play both of us at the same time, that relationship we built when we were competing against each other carried over,” he says. “I felt like we became a lot faster. I think that catered to our style of play. Defensively, I think it helped us out a lot.”

By the start of conference play, Brown had permanently moved Thompson into the lineup next to Burrell, and the Crusaders found a new gear, finishing the season 14-6 after a 6-7 start and advancing to the second round of the CIT Tournament.

“It’s fun playing together, getting to run with somebody who’s just as fast as me,” says Thompson. “We know we can get up on the court and play full court defense, and then when we get the ball just get out and go.”

Lasting impressions

On Nov. 16, Burrell and Thompson hit the hallowed hardwood at the TD Boston Garden like a hurricane, relentlessly attacking the vaunted backcourt of then 25th ranked Harvard and forcing star Crimson point guard Siyani Chambers into nine turnovers while holding him to a single point in a 58-57 upset.

And just like that, one game into the year, Holy Cross was the undisputed Patriot League favorite and a front-runner to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2007.

Sadly, basketball rarely follows the feel good script.

After a hot start to the season, the Crusaders cooled off, struggling to generate consistent offense without the low-post presence of Dudzinski from the previous season. Thompson suffered a torn labrum and valiantly gutted it out for most of the season before finally being forced to shut it down after 11 minutes of action on Feb. 8, his season ending numbers of 5.9 points and 2.0 assists per game a shell of his freshman year performance (9.4 ppg and 2.5 apg).

Burrell has left his heart and soul on the court every time he has set foot on it, refusing to buy in to the Crusaders’ 12-15 record and seventh place in the standings or give up on his dreams of making the NCAAs.

“As a senior it’s realizing the reality in that this is my last year playing college basketball, my last chance to make the NCAA tournament, and I have to leave it all on the floor,” he says.

Burrell’s efforts have left a lasting impact on Thompson, one he will carry with him for the rest of his career when he returns to health.

“You can really see that this is his last chance, that he really wants it,” says Thompson. “Every day he’s out there working hard and I feel like I’m playing for him.”

And no matter how the season plays out, it’s apparent that the lasting imprint Burrell has left on Thompson, has been returned in kind.

“I’m really glad we got to play together,” says Burrell, “I’m a better player and a better person for it.”

Anthony Thompson. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Anthony Thompson. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Matt McMullen — a winning mindset no matter the record

Matt McMullen. Photo Credit: Colgate Athletics
Matt McMullen. Photo Credit: Colgate Athletics

In his first three years at Colgate, Matt McMullen never experienced a winning season. Frankly, he lost, a lot – 61 games in all over that period, against just 32 wins, while going 13-33 in Patriot League games.

But that only made the 6-foot-6-inch 220-pound forward hungrier to win. Now, McMullen is seeing that hunger pay off, as the second place Raiders are looking to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the three seasons we had where we weren’t particularly a good team, they all contribute to this year,” says McMullen, a native of nearby Brick, New Jersey, of Colgate’s 10-6 record in conference play.

“I don’t know if we’d be in the position we are now to compete for a championship if we hadn’t had those struggles over the first three years, especially considering that a lot of the guys on our team that play are seniors and we all went through that together. I think that it’s definitely helpful.”

When McMullen first arrived at Colgate, he says there was a completely different ambiance in the locker-room. At the time, Colgate was in the middle of a serious transition, with current head coach Matt Langell replacing outgoing head coach Emmett Davis, the coach who had recuited McMullen and landed his commitment.

“I had about 10 or 12 offers coming out of high school and my mindset was to go to the place that could give me the best education with a full ride. So obviously, the Patriot League is appealing for that reason,” he says.

When Davis was handed his walking papers, McMullen could have opened back up his recruiting, as has become par for the course in an era where players often commit to play for a coach and not the university, but he opted to stay the course.

“I didn’t commit to Coach [Matt] Langel’s staff, I committed to the former staff with Emmett Davis, but when Coach Langel took over, he called me and said he’d still love to have me. It felt right to me and sounded like a good fit and I’m glad I came here,” says McMullen.

During McMullen’s first three seasons, Colgate finished 8-22, 11-21, and 13-19 respectively. But McMullen says his commitment to the program never waivered.

“My mindset is just: you got to keep moving forward. We’ve had a staff change and complete overhaul of the program and Coach Langel did a great at making sure that I stayed focused and constantly telling me that I’m part of what’s going to end up changing here soon.”

As a drastically undersized the dirty-work forward for the Raiders, McMullen has never been a star, or spent much teal in the limelight, but has played a vital role bringing toughness and intangibles.

“I take a lot of pride in my versatility. I try not to be a one-dimensional player,” says McMullen, who is currently averaging 31.9 minutes, 8.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. “Also, I just try to play harder than anyone else on the court at all times. I think those are the two things that, throughout my entire career, have really been sort of my trademarks.

“This year, I would say my role is just really a glue guy. I just try to figure out the identity of the game as we go and figure out how I’m going to get us the win, whether it’s getting rebounds, scoring points, playing defense. I feel like I can contribute to the team in a lot of ways. I just try to read the flow of the game and find a way to get it done,” said McMullen.

Being a senior who has experienced turbulence with changing parts around him, McMullen has found himself embracing his position to lead underclassmen who will be in a similar position as him in a few years.

“There’s definitely more of a leadership role this year. I tried to be a leader for the past few years but it’s not always as easy, especially when you’re a younger guy and you’re not really playing as much,” says McMullen.

During the non-conference slate, McMullen spends most of his time guarding opposing forwards who are literally taller than him by a head, but he’s never looked at his stature as being an obstacle on the court.

“Particularly in our out-of-conference schedule, it’s a lot more difficult just because I am so much more undersized, but in the Patriot League, most of the players I’m going head-to-head against are around my size.

“We have a lot of guys in the league who are 6’6” forwards who are swingmen, so it’s kind of a change of pace from what I’m normally used to, where I have that speed advantage and able to use my undersize abilities to my advantage,” said McMullen.

To combat his size disadvantage, McMullen has focused on improved his game on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball each season.

“I’d say shooting is something that I’ve become much better at. When I got here I think I was an OK shooter, but by no means the type of shooter that I am now.

“Also, defensively I think I’m much improved, just in terms of, not even on the ball like head-to-head defending, but more off the ball, understanding defensive concepts and the importance of communicating,” says McMullen.

The year has certainly been a roller coaster ride for McMullen and the Raiders, who started off 3-10 on the season and stand at just and stand at just 13-16 overall, but turned on the jets in Patriot League play, running out to a 10-6 conference record.

“I think we’ve played well. Like I said, we were still going through that process of figuring out how to win early in the season. I think our 3-10 out-of-conference record is indicative of that, but in terms of what we’ve been able to do in the league, I feel like every lost, we’ve learned something from. We’ve improved on that loss and come back better.

“We’ve had some heartbreaking losses; we still are having heart breaking losses. We just blew a 10-point lead in under a minute to Navy like a week ago. So, all of this, in my opinion, is part of the process and still contributing to what we’re hopefully going to be able to accomplish in the next two or three weeks,” says McMullen.

Those ‘heartbreaking losses’ include a triple-overtime loss to Loyola University Maryland on Feb. 22. where McMullen erupted for career highs in points (19) and rebounds (17).

Peaking at just the right time, McMullen has a clear vision of the future for himself and the team.
“I think our only goal is to win a Patriot League championship. Do something that hasn’t been done at this school for twenty years. That’s really what we’re focused on,” he says.

And according to McMullen, three straight years of losing have given the Raiders the tools – and motivation – to win when it matters most.

“I think it starts with finishing out the regular season conference strong so we can put ourselves in a good position for home court advantage in the playoffs. Even if we do have to go on the road, we’ve won on the road at the places we’re probably going to have to go,” says McMullen.

McMullen’s sights are squarely set on the winner-take-all Patriot League Tournament, which starts on March 3, and the NCAA Tournament. But when his college career comes to an end, he has a few different ideas about the next chapter of his life.

“I think maybe there could be basketball in my future, but I don’t know if I could do it. I have a lot of mileage on my body. I’m not particularly healthy. I got a lot of knee issues and all sorts of nagging injuries.

“I’m actually going to try to be an actor, believe it or not,” says McMullen.
But before he hits the Hollywood stage, McMullen is dreaming of stepping out under the bright lights of March Madness.

“We feel good about what we’re doing and we’re excited for it. For seniors, it’s our last go around that we’re going to have this really great opportunity,” says McMullen.

Pee Wee Gardner: A 5’9″ giant on the court

Pee Wee Gardner. (Courtesy Photo/American University Athletics)
Pee Wee Gardner. (Courtesy Photo/American University Athletics)

Basketball has long been a sport played and dominated by giants. Taller players usually seem to hold a significant advantage—eight out of the top-ten all-time leading scorers in NBA history played either the power forward or center positions. But as the sport has evolved, smaller yet athletically-gifted guards have begun dominating the game, proving size doesn’t matter.

American University senior point guard Darius Gardner proves that the measure of a man is not based solely on his physical stature. Standing at a diminutive 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, and anointed with the nickname “Pee Wee” for most of his life, Gardner plays bigger than anyone else on the court, especially in the game’s biggest moments.

In five of the Eagles’ 14 wins this season, Gardner has hit a shot in the waning seconds to either win the game or send it into overtime. In countless other wins he’s made plays down the stretch, whether it be an assist, a steal or drawing a charge, to secure the victory. Last year he helped lead American to a berth in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Patriot League tournament, in which he was named the MVP.

“He sees [his size] as an advantage,” American head coach Mike Brennan says. “But little guys in general, they have to be tough. Basketball is a game played by big, strong, fast people, so if you’re a little guy playing this game there are certain attributes you have to have, and he has them all.”

***

“Hello, this is Darius.”

That’s how Gardner introduces himself to someone who doesn’t know him.

“If it’s concerning basketball, ‘Pee Wee’ is fine,” he later clarifies.

According to Gardner, he picked up the nickname when he was 14 years old and the youngest player on his AAU team. There is no one in his life who doesn’t call him Pee Wee.

Gardner grew up in Houston, Texas as the youngest of three boys. “I’m the tallest one, though,” he’s quick to point out. He admits he didn’t have the easiest upbringing.

“Just being an inner-city youth and not having available resources, not having a role model growing up, not having the best facilities growing up, not having the best education available to you, stuff like that,” he says, describing his childhood.

Gardner starred at Jack Yates High School, one of the top high school programs in the country, and was a four-time All-State honoree and led the team to a mythical national championship as a senior and two Texas state championships. Despite his accolades, he was under-recruited as big-name schools shied away from him due to his size, so Gardner played two seasons at Stephen F. Austin  before transferring to American.

***

After sitting out a red-shirt year, Gardner was finally ready to step onto the big stage last season, Brennan’s first year with American. As soon as workouts began, Brennan not only recalls Gardner’s skills on the court but also his immediate leadership abilities, his coachable nature and his desire to be the hardest worker on the court.

“He was everything you could possibly want in not just a point guard, but a player on your team,” Brennan says.

Gardner says his size doesn’t play a role in his desire to outwork everybody on the court. It’s simply his personality.

“I just think, me personally, I just want to play harder,” he says. “It doesn’t matter about my size or other people’s size, I just take up the challenge to go up against anybody and do the best of my abilities.”

So no, there is no Napoleon complex for Gardner. Instead, he looks at being undersized as a positive.

“Someone asked him that when he won a game for us on a buzzer-beater against Mount St. Mary’s. He basically took the ball and split two defenders, who both were about 6’10” or 6’11”, and he described it as him being blessed to be 5’9” because he was able to wiggle his way through those big guys to get to the whole for a layup. So he sees it as an advantage,” Brennan says.

Pee Wee Gardner. (Courtesy Photo/American University Athletics)
Pee Wee Gardner. (Courtesy Photo/American University Athletics)

“Everybody, including myself, wants to be taller. But being very tall, you have limitations to what you can do out there on the court,” Gardner says. “I think being smaller, you can do things that tall guys can’t do. You can maneuver around, get up under people and pressure them, and you can make little things happen on the court that you couldn’t do if you were 6’5”.”

Despite being the smallest person in the Eagles’ huddle, it’s usually Gardner who has the lead voice, an intangible that can’t be replaced.

“It’s a cliché, I guess, to say that he’s a coach on the court,” Brennan says. “It’s not just his ability passing, shooting, making plays, setting people up and all that kind of stuff, but it’s his personality on the court—how he competes, he’s our best competitor. He knows how to lead the team verbally and emotionally throughout the game and in practice on a daily basis.

“He does it all ways—first and foremost he leads by example. Every day in practice he’s the hardest worker, getting shots up, taking charges, doing all the little things in practice,” Brennan continues. “And then he’s very good verbally with how he communicates with his teammates; he’s always positive, always picking guys up, always encouraging them, saying all the right things whether it’s a little detail on how to guard a ball-screen or how to run a certain play. Whatever it may be, he recognizes what the team needs and he’s able to react and respond.”

Gardner was never one to shy away from being a leader on the court, even back when he was the youngest player on his AAU team.

“I think I always had the ability to communicate, I just always try to encourage,” he says. “I think those are my best attributes: communicating and encouraging everybody to be better at what they do. I think that’s one of the best things I can offer my teammates, my encouragement.”

***

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” –Mark Twain

American has played 13 games decided by five points or less. When the games turn into dog-fights, Gardner’s bark and bite are equally as big while he leads his teammates vocally and makes the right plays so his team can win.

Ask Mount St. Mary’s about Gardner’s bite. Ask Lehigh. Ask Hampton, Colgate, or Lafayette. All have been subject to Gardner’s late-game heroics. When the game is on the line, the ball will be in his hands, a trust Brennan developed in Gardner last year in his second game as head coach.

“It goes back to his decision-making. He’s played a lot of basketball in his life, so he’s seen every situation and he’s not surprised by anything,” Brennan says. “It started our second game last year against UMBC and he made two plays—one at the end of regulation where he went the length of the court and made a pull-up jumper to send the game into overtime, and then he did the same thing in overtime and went the length of the court and found a teammate cutting for a layup to win the game.

“So we really trust his ability to do the right thing, especially when the game is on the line, and he’s done it several times. He does it all the time, actually—most of our games are close, so it’s not always a buzzer-beater but there might be a play in the last minute or the last two minutes and he’s always doing things to secure a win. He did it all of last year and he’s done it a bunch of times this year.”

In addition to his big-shot ability, Gardner has also been a player Brennan can’t take off the court, leading the Eagles, and the entire nation, with 38.9 minutes per game.

“I never want to take him out, I never want to wake him out, he’s invaluable,” Brennan says. “He just does so much every single possession offensively and defensively. The shot-clock is 35 seconds; he does so much more than anyone else on the court in those 35 seconds offensively and defensively, he’s always engaged. Just to play that many minutes and to do as much as he does on each possession makes him that much more remarkable.”

“It’s just doing what I can do to help the team win,” Gardner says. “I can’t control the minutes, that’s Coach Brennan, so as much as he has me out there I just do whatever I can. Whether it’s 40 minutes, five minutes, two minutes or however many seconds, it doesn’t matter… I’m just trying to play as hard as I can to help the team.”

***

As Gardner’s college career nears its end, he is hoping to lead the Eagles on another run to a Patriot League championship. American is currently 14-12 overall and 7-7 in conference-play, good for fourth place in the league.

Even with all his accolades and the praise he receives for making big plays in the biggest of moments, Gardner remains extremely humble. He keeps the memory of his difficult upbringing close and lets it fuel his desire to give back. As an intern with the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation over the summer, he served as a coach for the foundation’s summer camp, which hosts hundreds of underprivileged children from all across the country.

“Just bringing underprivileged kids a chance to get out of their neighborhoods and see other things and understand that there’s life outside of the neighborhoods they grow up in, that there are obstacles they’re going to face in life, and that they can overcome them. I just tried to be there just as an advisor to let them know that I was one of those inner-city kids before, and now I’m a college student, just to show them that if I can make it out, they can make it out as well,” Gardner says.

The type of person Gardner is makes him a 5-foot-9 giant, the “Pee Wee” nickname hardly applicable when describing his personality. It’s those qualities he has as a man that make Brennan wish he could’ve been lucky enough to coach him for more than just two years.

“Of course, not just because of his ability on the court but more because of the kind of kid he is, the kind of leader he is, the influence he’s had on the program and the department,” Brennan says. “He’s just been a joy to have around, to be able to coach him on a daily basis and see him has been tremendous… There aren’t enough superlatives to describe him.”

Pee Wee Gardner. (Courtesy Photo/American University Athletics)
Pee Wee Gardner. (Courtesy Photo/American University Athletics)

Malcolm Miller needs your vote to be the Dark Horse Dunker

With less than 24 hours left for fans to vote, Holy Cross senior Malcolm Miller is locked in a dead-heat with pint-sized Texas A & M Corpus Christi high-flyer John Jordan in the first round of the Dark Horse Dunker competition.

The competition, sponsored by Intersport, producers of the State Farm College Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championships, pits 16 “under-the-radar” dunking extraordinaires head-to-head in an bracket style, single elimination tournament where fan votes determine the winners of each round. The fan-vote winner of the entire tournament will participate in the College Slam Dunk Contest held during this year’s Final Four.

Miller, a 6-foot-7-inch 200-pound human-pogo stick, has been dropping jaws and rattling the Hart Center rafters with monster slam dunks for the past four years, as seen in the video below, produced by the Holy Cross Athletic Department.

Johnson, Miller’s opponent, may have the highest vertical leap of the entire field. With a 38-inch standing vertical leap and a reported 50-inch running vertical leap, the 5’10” guard (and that listing may be a bit generous) plays at eye-level with the rim.

Voting ends at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday, and with less than 19 and a half hours remaining, Miller and Johnson remain tied, each holding 50 percent of the vote.

Fans can vote here, and with less than half a day remaining and Miller and Johnson still neck and neck, literally every fan vote counts.

Matt Langel — the eye of the coaching storm

Matt Langel. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa
Matt Langel. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa

On Wednesday evening in storm-battered Boston, Colgate men’s basketball head coach Matt Langel was the eye of the proverbial storm. Outside the Agganis Arena, the city remained at a standstill after the latest of a serious of blizzards and Nor’easters.

Inside, the energy emanating from the benches of Langel’s visiting Raiders and their hosts, the Boston University Terriers, was frenzied, with seemingly every player and coach jumping up and down, shouting, and contorting their bodies with every foul and every bucket in a back and fourth game.

Everyone except Langel.

While Colgate assistant Mike Jordan and athletic trainer Leslie Cowen were shaking the floor from the Raiders bench, and Boston University head coach Joe Jones was halway out onto the court emploring his team to make a stop, Langel was methodically walking up and down the sidelines, calming watching his players en route to a 76-69 win to stay in a two-way tie with Bucknell atop the Patriot League.

Set against the backdrop of the flamboyant antics employed by bombastic coaches in today’s game, Langel stands out as a bastion of cool, collected calm on game days – making a scene on the sidelines simply is not who he is.

“I believe the game is about the players,” says Langel. “I think if you watch a lot of coaches out there, I try and take after younger coaches, Brad Stevens, who obviously is a very young coach and somebody that I say man that guys has a great even keel about him. His players play really hard; when he was at Butler, they played for each other, they played together and he never makes it about himself, there’s not antics, no sideline show, that’s how I feel the game should be coached, it should be about the players.”

While Langel admired Stevens from a far, his true inspiration comes from his mentor, former coach and colleague Fran Dunphy. Langel spent his playing days (1996-2000) with Dunphy at the University of Pennsylvania and then returned in 2004 as an assistant. Two years later when Dunphy left and went down the road to Temple University, Langel was right by his side, remaining there until he left to run his own program in Hamilton, New York in 2011.

“I think I pick my moments,” says Langel. “We’re a veteran team, I think they understand me; they’ve been with me for a while. I’m sure they’ll tell you there were plenty of times where I’ve let them know what they’ve done wrong and what they need to do better. I think I learned that from Fran Dunphy who I was fortunate enough to play for and then work for. And that is you have to be who you are and you can’t try and be something that you’re not, because it’s not genuine and again young people read through that really quickly.”

Langel’s time, especially as a player at Penn, not only help him with his person on and off the court, but it has helped him learn to use personal experiences to get the most out of his players.

“My staff and I know what’s required to be a student-athlete at the highest level, not meaning that we played or studied at the highest level individually, but to balance that rigor of competing like crazy but also going to a really prestigious academic institution where it’s hard work,” says Langel. “I hope those experiences that we had help us keep perspective of what our guys go through and help them figure out the best way to keep those balanced.”

Langel points to the winning attitude that permeated through the Penn program as one he is trying to cultivate at Colgate. During the 1998-99 season, Langel and his teammates punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament, something Colgate hasn’t done in nearly 19 years.

“I was fortunate to be a part of a program as a student-athlete when I was their age and then as an assistant coach at Penn and at Temple where there was great history, tradition, there were great expectations, and a winning culture in place and that was carried down from generation to generation,” says Langel. “Specific to here over the last four years, that was something we’ve been trying to create, cultivate, grow and that’s hard.”

Hard may be an understatement.

Entering the season, Langel’s record as a head coach was 32-61 in three seasons, with the Raiders racking up losing records in all three seasons – something Langel had only experienced once as a player and coach at both Penn and Temple.

During non-conference play this season, Colgate lost seven of its first eight games and went just 2-10 against Division I opponents. But there were signs of growth admit the losses, as eight of the Raiders 10 losses came by single-digits, with the only two blowouts coming at the hands of powers Syracuse and Ohio State.

“Sometimes it takes without winning some games, losing close games, it’s hard to help young people figure that out,” says Langel. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”

But Langel’s team was able to seemingly flip a switch and turn the corner when Patriot League play began on New Year’s Eve, racing out to a 9-4 record in conference play, including a regular season sweep over a Bucknell squad that remains tied with them in the conference standings.

“I credit this group, the veterans specifically for not giving up, not saying oh man it’s too hard, they continued to work and work together to try and find solutions and what more they could do to push it that little bit extra,” says Langel.

Langel feels that his group of seven seniors were the main reason behind such an impressive turnaround, as they have embraced the sense of urgency that comes with their final season of college ball.

“I talked to the older guys and some of the captains often and said it’s not anybody else’s team, it’s your team, and if you want this thing to go better, you’ve got to give more and you’ve got to figure out a way to help a little bit more,” he says. “And they did. They listened, and I think that’s a hard thing for young people to do sometimes and say well I feel like I’m doing everything I can it’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s fault, but they really have taken ownership of it and its worked out to this point.”

According to Langel, building the current team began the moment he stepped foot on campus in 2011 and began recruiting his inaugural class, first with forward Matt McMullen, whose AAU team Langel knew well. Late in the recruitment process, Langel brought in Luke Roh and then along the way landed transfers like Damon Sherman-Newsome and Ethan Jacobs.

“Those guys, there’s been bits and pieces that have been added along the way like transfers and some of the younger guys,” says Langel. “Those pieces have continued to grow together, I wouldn’t say there’s been one time when the group came together, it’s been a process.”

Through the process, the Colgate basketball program suffered through some tough seasons and hasn’t had much to show for it on paper, but Langel credits those struggles with sewing the seeds of success the Raiders are now experiencing.

“We stuck together and that started to build that winning culture that all good teams need.”

Ethan Jacobs’ long (skateboard) ride to the top

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There is a common thread that permeates the Colgate University’s men’s basketball roster: perseverance — players that never gave up, even after losing seven out of their first eight and 10 of their first 13 games of the season, is why the Raiders can be found atop the Patriot League standings heading into the February home stretch.

That perseverance is a characteristic embodied by senior center Ethan Jacobs, who, despite struggles throughout much of his early career, has emerged as one of the league’s best centers and an irreplaceable part of Colgate’s roster.

Born in tiny Mora, Minn., and raised in an agricultural community in Tipton, Indiana, Jacobs’ journey to Colgate, featuring a layover at Ohio University, was a long and winding road, one that he traveled with a basketball under his arm and a skateboard under his sneakers.

“I was a kid that always skateboarded,” said Jacobs of his childhood in Tipton, a tiny city of about 5,000 residents that sits roughly 36 miles from Indianapolis. Only two an a half square miles in size, life in Tipton is slow, other than the three-day Pork Festival held Thursday through Saturday proceeding every labor day.

Growing up, Jacobs didn’t have any interest in hoops, preferring to spend his time riding around town as opposed to cramped inside a stuffy, sweaty gym. But after a growth spurt pushed him to 6’1” in the sixth grade, he decided to try out for his middle school team.

He was cut.

But the setback ignited a fire in him to get to work on the game, and in the seventh grade he made the team and, according to Jacobs, played pretty well. But then he hit a speed bump, literally, breaking his wrist after a hard fall on his skateboard, and missed almost his entire eighth grade season. But after another growth spurt pushed him past 6-foot-7 as a high school freshman, Jacobs picked himself back up and went back to work on his game. It was at that time that he met a mentor who would be the catalyst for Jacobs’ basketball future.

“Freshman year I was introduced to a guy, Jay Rich, that really showed me what my potential could be and opened the door to basketball and has been my mentor since then through the basketball process.”

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Rich’s first order of business: utilizing Jacobs’ big frame and working on his post game and turning him into a threat close to the basket.

Fast-forward another three years and Jacobs had become a beast on the low blocks who could also get out and run the floor despite his size. After two sectional championships, including a 23-3 mark as a senior, all-league and all-area honors and being selected for the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Role Model Award as a senior in 2010, and an ESPN.com scout grade of 86, Jacobs accepted a scholarship to play for Ohio University.

“I think when I was recruited to Ohio, running the floor and being able to space the floor were probably the two best things they saw in me,” said Jacobs.

But upon arrival, Jacobs found himself starting over from square one, buried on the depth chart behind upper classmen. Despite playing just 22 games over his first two seasons of college ball, Jacobs enjoyed his time at Ohio, crediting it as a valuable learning experience and key component of his development.

“My experience at Ohio was very much a learning process,” said Jacobs. “As a freshman, first year in college, you just try and be a sponge and soak up everything you can basketball wise, and academically. We had a great coaching staff, a big group of guys with a lot of talent. Those first two years were very challenging because I had guys in front of me that have been there and learned the stuff and coming you’re behind so you have to catch up and learn everything.”

During his sophomore year, Jacobs enjoyed something that most players can only dream of: A prolonged moment in the NCAA Tournament spotlight as a Cinderella of the 2012 tournament, as 13th seeded Ohio shocked fourth-seed Michigan in the opening round and downed 12 seed University of South Florida to punch through to the Sweet 16. The Bobcats fell in overtime to Fourth-ranked North Carolina. Now three years after the clock struck Midnight on Ohio, Jacobs still savors the experience.

“it was amazing, something that will definitely be with me for the rest of my life.”

After Ohio’s run through March Madness, head coach John Groce and his staff left for national power Illinois, leaving Jacobs to figure out his next step. With a new coaching staff coming in, Jacobs explored his transfer options, but found few Division I teams biting on a raw center who had spent his career on the end of the bench. He did, however, have a nibble from Colgate head coach Matt Langel, who saw untapped potential.

“He came out here on a visit and one thing led to the next and we really felt that his skill ability to shoot the ball and his size would be something that would be able to help us,” said Langel of Jacobs, who up until that point had never made a single 3-pointer in a college game and had just 10 college points to his name.

”With an extra year off to adjust to the academic rigors of Colgate but also the style of basketball and work with our assistant coaches so he can help our team, and he has really done that,” said Langel.

Jacobs spent his first year at Colgate as a spectator, sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules while watching Colgate struggle to a 11-21 record while going 5-9 in league play. But he used that time to completely take apart and rebuild his game.

“For me I just tried to do everything I could to improve, whether it was watching film, being in the gym, skill sessions, 1-on-1 with a coach or other things by myself,” said Jacobs. “But sitting away from it, is different because at Ohio you have the opportunity to play but as a red-shirt you don’t, so it’s a different mentality. But definitely I was able to see those guys improve and want to put the work, which is most important.”

As a red-shirt junior last season, playing the first meaningful basketball of his career, Jacobs made a big impact, averaging 11.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 22.7 minutes per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from behind the arc.

“In college basketball if you can have a big who can score, it really puts pressure on the defense,” said Langel. “And Ethan can do that, he can score with his back to the basket, and he doesn’t have just one move, he’s pretty skilled, he can go both ways, he can shoot from in the post and then it creates some difficulties as to whether you’re gonna help in and leave some of our other shooters open.”

With his burly 240-pound frame and ability to both deliver a brain-rattling screen and knock down a jump shot, Jacobs has excelled at the pick-and-pop.

“In my opinion, the pick and pop is one of the hardest actions to guard defensively for a big man not usually guarding a guy that can shoot,” said Jacobs. Later adding, “If the guards have an advantage then I’ll space out and let them attack and the help may not be there and Austin and my other teammates are great at finding me when that happens defensively, that breakdown.”

Those mismatches and breakdowns have led to Jacobs becoming one of the biggest producers on this year’s Colgate team, averaging 12 points per game, while opening up the floor for fellow senior and Raiders leading scorer Damon Sherman-Newsome. Jacobs also leads the team in rebounds with 4.6 per game.

Jacobs’ physical size and abilities have made him an integral part to Colgate’s game plan, but his growth into a vocal leader has made an equally large impact on a program trying to make their way back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

“I talk about it whenever I can, whenever the conversation is around to just try to explain how great of a feeling it is of accomplishment, togetherness,” said Jacobs. “You put all this work in as a team, you’re together every day, in the weight room, watching film, whatever it may be and to see that all come together and win a championship together is something really special so I try and tell them stories or feelings or whatever I can about that experience.”

With five games left in the regular season, followed by the winner takes all Patriot League Tournament, Jacobs sights are squarely set on getting back to the NCAAs, this time on the court instead of as a sideline spectator. And with the end of his college career in sight, Jacobs has officially traded in his Sketchers and skateboard for high-top Under Armor sneakers and basketball shorts.

“I definitely want to play professional basketball,” said Jacobs. “That’s been my dream since I fell in love with the game early on and I’ve been having several conversations with coach Langel and coach Jordan about their process and kind of what they went through. So we’re just going to try and put a lot of that stuff off to the end of the season.”

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Photographs by Chris Dela Rosa

 

Dunk of the day: Boston University center Blaise Mbargorba slams over Lafayette

Boston University registered a resounding 74-60 road win at Lafayette on Monday night — arguably the Terriers’ biggest of the season when considering the margin of victory, lateness in the season and magnitude in the standings by keeping the Terriers in a three-way tie for fourth place.

The game was a total team effort from the Terriers, who played nine players, eight of whom scored. BU thoroughly outplayed the host Leopards in every facet of the game, shooting 51.8 percent from the floor and 34.5 percent from downtown, while holding Lafayette to 39.6 and 32.1 percent, respectively. The Terriers won the battle of the boards 36-25, and overcame the loss of freshman point guard Eric Johnson to injury. Junior shooting guard John Papale led four Terriers in double-figures with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while sophomore guard Eric Fanning and freshman guard Cheddi Mosely each added 13 and junior forward Nate Diedonne chipped in 10.

But the loudest points of the night came from 6-foot-11-inch red-shirt sophomore center Blaise Mbargorba, who threw down an absolute thunder dunk with 10:28 remaining in the second half to push the Terriers’ lead to 61-49. Mbargorba set the stage for the dunk by setting a perfect screen for Papale, before rolling to the hoop. Papale returned the favor by hitting his big man in stride with a bounce pass. Mbargorba gathered the pass, took two hard steps and took off, leaping off of his right foot from well outside the paint and throwing down a vicious one-handed slam over Lafayette guard Joey Ptasinski, who made the unfortunate mistake of trying to take a charge on the play.

Boom-shakalaka.

Holy Cross men’s basketball isn’t giving up on season

Holy Cross men's basketball head coach Milan Brown and his Crusaders are trying to get back to where they were in November, when they knocked off then 25th ranked Harvard. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa
Holy Cross men’s basketball head coach Milan Brown and his Crusaders are trying to get back to where they were in November, when they knocked off then 25th ranked Harvard. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa

For most of the season, November has felt so far away from windy Worcester, Mass. On Thursday night, it felt like it was just yesterday.

Roll back the clocks three months ago to opening night and Milan Brown’s Holy Cross men’s basketball team was taking it to a nationally ranked team at the TD Garden, downing then 25th ranked Harvard while looking like the cream of the Patriot League crop.

Fast-forward to New Years Eve and the Crusaders opened up league play by somehow finding a way to lose to an inconsistent Boston University squad despite forcing 20 turnovers while only giving the ball up two times themselves. At the time, the Boston University loss pushed a two-game skid to three – a losing streak that would reach five before final being snapped.

Entering Thursday evening’s game, Brown and his Crusaders found themselves at the bottom of the standings with a 8-12 overall record, a 3-7 record in league play, and staring down a Colgate team standing where Holy Cross was supposed to be: In first place.

“I may not have looked at the standings so much now because I knew where we were so I didn’t want to see my name where I knew it was,” said Brown.

Despite everything, it could have been much worse for Brown and company. Thanks to a topsy-turvy Patriot League slate where parity has reigned supreme, the Crusaders still sit just four games out of first place, something Brown made sure to use it and keep his team’s spirits high.

“We don’t talk about [the standings] a lot, but I just kept saying, we’re not out of the race and our goals have not been taken away from us,” said Brown. “The best thing that has happened to us so far is that we can still be in control of our own destiny, and as long as you are in control of your own destiny that should the most exciting thing going on, because you’d hate for somebody else to control it.”

As Thursday night’s the game neared the halfway point, it seemed as if fans would witness a rare thing in Patriot League basketball nowadays: a blowout. One that Holy Cross was on the losing end of. With 3:35 to go in the first half, the Crusaders faced a 14-point deficit and Colgate did not look as if they were going to stop pressuring.

Holy Cross was able to cut the Raider lead to 36-27 before the half. Holy Cross trailed 45-37 with 13:15 remaining, but then the Crusaders turned back the clock to the promise of opening night, ratcheting up the relentless defensive pressure their team was supposed to be built around as Brown cycled in five-man squads every few minutes, rattling off a 20-4 run over the next 8:26, pushing ahead before cruising to a 70-60.

“We talked as a group and we just wanted to get back to playing the way we said we were going to play earlier in the year when we were successful,” said Brown. “Which was 94 feet, trying to speed people up, utilizing our bench and hopefully trying to win games into the final eight minutes, if nothing else because we’re digging into team’s legs and I think that was something that happened for us tonight.”

A few weeks earlier, Holy Cross was able to pick up two big home wins against Lafayette and Navy, but then dropped two close ones on the road against Loyola-Maryland and at home against American. Brown commended his team after the game for not giving up, even though all signs pointed to the ball not rolling in favor of Holy Cross this season.

“I was extremely proud of the effort and the way our season has gone in league play, we have all the right to have the mindset where you could say it’s just not our year, and everybody can stop,” said Brown. “The guys I’m coaching aren’t like that and I didn’t think that they would so we’re excited to see what’s gonna happen in the next seven games.”

Senior guard Justin Burrell said he and his fellow seniors looked back to their past experiences with rough patches to try and keep the team focused right the ship. Burrell compared the stretch the team has had recently to one the Crusaders faced during the 2011-12 season when they lost five of the eight games they played spanning from the second week of January to the first week of February. After the rough patch, the team reeled off six wins in a row to finish conference play 9-5.

“We have some older guys in the lineup, their experience and the way they carry themselves rubs off on the rest of the team,” said Burrell. “Me in particular, my freshman year we had a really rough spot of the season and we continued to do what we were supposed to do and out of nowhere we ran off with five or six games in a row. So I continue to reiterate that to the rest of the team and as you can see, there’s no quit in us.”

With seven games left in the season and only two of them being home games, Holy Cross has their work cut out for them. If they want to be successful, it comes down to getting back to basics and doing what works for them, which is turning games into marathon’s and forcing opponents to rely on their conditioning. It worked against Harvard in November and worked against Colgate on Thursday night, if they can keep it up through February and March, remains to be seen.

Brandon Venturini: Navy’s surprise star

Brandon Venturini. Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann / Navy Athletics
Brandon Venturini. Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann / Navy Athletics

With nearly 20 years of Division I head coaching experience under his belt, sniffing out talent has never been a problem for Ed DeChellis.

Usually the struggle for DeChellis, now in his fourth season at the helm for Annapolis, lies convincing talented players to come play for Navy, where in exchange for getting to play Division I basketball and four-years of free education from a great institution, they must commit to five years of active duty in the armed forces upon graduation – and all but give up on any dreams of playing professional hoops.

But in the case of Navy senior Brandon Venturini, the team’s second leading scorer, it was the exact opposite.

“I knew since about the sixth grade that I wanted to go to the Naval Academy,” says Venturini, who made the team out of an open walk-on tryout during DeChellis’ first year in the fall of 2011. “I didn’t know until my senior year of high school that I wanted to try to play basketball there and I didn’t know until the fall of my freshman year of college that I’d actually have a shot of being on the team.”

“It’s kind of funny,” says DeChellis. “Usually when we first start recruiting a kid, we have to sell them on what a great experience going to Annapolis is and how much a degree from here will be with them for their entire life. With a lot of talented high school players, they don’t want to have to commit to serving in the Navy on active duty. For Brandon, he was sold since he was a kid on Navy, he had to sell us on his abilities as a player.”

Now in his final season of college basketball, Venturini has become and indispensible part of DeChellis program as a tough, physical combo guard who stretches the floor from downtown and gets after it on defense and is currently averaging 12.7 points per game while shooting 37.4 percent from three. Much more importantly, he’s emerged as a team leader who helped keep the team above water when it was rocked by injuries earlier in the year.

“He’s definitely a vital part of our program,” says DeChellis. “He has a definite skill in that he can really shoot the basketball, and he has a willingness to dive into any role we’ve asked of him.”

Three years ago, Venturini was scrapping, scratching and clawing just to try and make the team.

“I wasn’t recruited here,” says Venturini, one of four seniors on the team. “They had an open tryout that was like a boot camp, and I went everyday. I practiced every day with the freshmen who were all recruited here.”

“It became apparent early on during tryouts that he had a definite skill that translates at the Division I level: the ability to shoot the basketball,” says DeChellis.

But when pressed, DeChellis and Venturini both admit that neither of them dreamt that Venturini would wind up playing the role he has for the team.

“I’ve seen a lot in my career, so I don’t want to say anything surprises me,” says DeChellis, “but, no, I didn’t think Brandon would wind up being a go-to scorer for us.”

“Not right away,” adds Venturini on whether he entertained daydreams of being a star. “I was just trying to make the team.”

Where it all began

Venturini grew up in Allendale, a middle-class community in Michigan that sits along the Grand River. By the time he was nearing the end of grade school, he knew exactly where he wanted to go to college and what he wanted to do.

“My brother actually was in the academy, he graduated in 2009,” says Venturini of his brother, Aaron, now a Naval helicopter pilot six years his senior. “I’m one of those younger brothers who wants to do everything their older brother does, so I’ve been wanting to come here since the sixth grade.”

At the time, Venturini, whose sister, Lauren, is a lieutenant in the Air Force and whose grandfather went to the Chilean Naval Academy, had no interest in, let alone dreams of, playing basketball.

“I liked soccer growing up,” he says. “That was my favorite sport, I played it all the time.”

At the end of middle school, Venturini started playing organized basketball. It was yet another case of the younger brother following the lead of his older brother and “hero.”

“I started playing for my middle school team. It was actually my brother who pushed me to play college basketball. He was the one who had me in the gym all the time, who was training me,” laughs Venturini.

It was that brotherly bond that led Venturini, who also earned All-Conference honors in golf as a high school senior, to decide to focus on basketball as his sport, and to go farther in the game than Aaron, who played junior varsity basketball at the Naval Academy, had.

“We kind of made a pact my junior year that I would be in the gym and in the weight room all the time with him and I would try to play college ball,” he says.

Still, Venturini admits that it wasn’t until after earned his third-straight all-conference honors and been named to the Western Michigan Dream Team as a senior, that he was truly sold on trying to play college ball.

“It wasn’t really until after my senior season of high school that I was sure I wanted to play college basketball.”

From there, Venturini enrolled for a post graduate year at the Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS), where he had to try out and make the team, and spent the season in the shadows of players recruited by the Navy coaching staff.

During the season, Venturini approached the then coaching staff at Navy about trying out for the varsity.

“They told me that I’d have a spot on the JV team,” he says.

But during that offseason, Navy’s staff was let go and DeChellis was hired, opening the door – albeit just a crack — for Venturini to take a shot at the varsity.

Making the team

“We definitely needed bodies,” says DeChellis of his first season at Navy and the open tryouts. “Brandon came in and really impressed us with his ability to shoot the ball, but also his effort, the extra time he put in, and his commitment to being coached and soaking everything in.”

“I was a little freshman,” says Venturini. “I was just trying to do whatever it took to get someone to notice me.”

It worked.

“At the end of tryouts, the coaching staff told me when practice would be and that I’d better show up and keep bringing it,” he says.

His first phone call after making the team: “My brother and my family,” he says.

Growing with the game

Venturini’s career at Annapolis hasn’t exactly coincided with banner years for the program, which went 3-26 his first season, 8-23 his sophomore year and 9-21 last season. But according to DeChellis, the muscular 6-footer has been crucial to rebuilding the program.

“You need guys like Brandon who show up and put in hard work, push their teammates, and hold everyone accountable every single day.”

As a freshman, Venturini saw action in 26 games, averaging 11 minutes, 2.8 points and one rebound per contest. As a sophomore, he was one of just two player to start all 31 games, and ranked third on the team in scoring (8.8 points per game). Last year, his role time once again increased, as he started all 30 games (one of just two players to do so) and ranked second on the team in scoring (11.5 points per game) and sixth in the Patriot League in steals (1.5 steals per game).

“He’s a guy who has just grown every single season through hard work and doing things the right way,” says DeChellis.

Going out with a bang

Venturini’s final year was supposed to coincide with Navy turning the corner as a program, but in the early going, it looked like it would be a disaster, as the Midshippmen lost star senior Worth Smith early on to a knee injury, before losing two more players to knee injuries and another to a broken jaw.

“That was pretty rough because we were missing a lot of key players who had played a lot of minutes,” says Venturini of the stretch that saw Navy begin the season going 2-7.

According to DeChellis, Venturini was instrumental in keeping the team’s spirits up and moving in the right direction.

“We had to play a lot of young, impressionable kids a lot of minutes early,” says DeChellis. “And the fact that Brandon kept showing up made a big impression on them not to give up and to keep fighting.”

With Smith and several other reinforcements rejoining the fold, Navy has turned the season around, and currently sits at 8-13 on the season – just one win away from the best mark of Venturini’s career – and 4-5 in conference play.

But Venturini isn’t satisfied with simply helping to stem the tide and turn the program around.

“There’s nothing I want more than to win a championship and get to the [NCAA] Tournament,” he says. “We only have so many guaranteed games left if we stay healthy. For me and Worth [Smith] and Kevin [Alter] and Earl [McLaurin], the four seniors, we’ve been thinking about that for a long time, and we’re trying to get everybody riled up and excited.”

Not bad for a kid who didn’t even know if he wanted to play basketball five years ago, let alone whether he’d even have a team to play for.

Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann / Navy Athletics
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann / Navy Athletics