Redhawks tangle with Washington Huskies on Tuesday at KeyArena
This time of year, college basketball players sweat until their skin itches — until their egos vanish — for a chance to have one shining moment.
They all want in the NCAA tournament, and they’ll dive, elbow, scrape, bite and sacrifice just to shimmy in the most joyous dance in sports. Even if their team isn’t good enough to win the national title, there’s always celebrated consolation in simply being invited, more so than in any other sport’s postseason. Everyone would jump into the bleachers just to be featured in that unabashedly maudlin song at the end of the championship game.
One shining moment.
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Love it. Crave it. Dream it.
Unless you play for Seattle University.
Still in transition to become Division I members with full privileges, the Redhawks can’t compete for a bid until the 2012-13 season. Instead, their goal has been to qualify for and win the next best thing, the NIT, but with a 10-16 record, those hopes have expired.
So as the Redhawks play host Tuesday night to a Washington team intent on making a push toward March Madness, the difference between the Haves and Have Dreams is considerable.
You must wonder: What is Seattle U. playing for?
That’s one shining question, actually.
It illuminates the determination of a team that will be undetectable on even the best radar come March.
“Our one shining moment is being in an atmosphere that wants us,” senior guard Garrett Lever said. “It’s being where we’re loved and appreciated. We aren’t high recruits. We aren’t players that a lot of coaches saw as Division I caliber. But we’re here, playing at a great school, learning from a great coach. We’ve beaten big-name schools that people thought we couldn’t beat. We’re right here, playing hard, in the moment. In our minds, we’re no different from everybody else right now.”
In their grandest dreams, these players will be the trailblazers of a revival. Seattle U. is only in its third season since returning to Division I after a 29-year hiatus. I spent a week recently getting an all-access look at the program, and though the challenges are enormous, the Redhawks’ vision — look at coach Cameron Dollar’s wide eyes — is as invigorating as it is impossible.
Dollar doesn’t want to build a program that can stay above .500 regularly. He doesn’t want to build a program that will experience a growth stunt once it reaches mid-major status. He wants to win a national championship, and he wants to do it within 14 years. He wants back what the program had during the old days of Elgin Baylor and Co. And then he wants more.
Dollar wants it even though the college basketball landscape has changed greatly, even though the system is designed for the big boys with BCS football programs to stomp on the little guys and the ambitious startups, even though Washington, Gonzaga and Washington State present intrastate hurdles.
He’s nuts. He’s inspiring.
“He’s the most motivating person I’ve ever met,” senior forward Alex Jones said of his coach. “He’ll never give up. I have no doubts that he’s going to bring this program back.”
Jones is an incredible story of college growth. He’s 6 feet 8, but he averaged less than two points and one rebound as a senior at Arcadia High School in Phoenix. He enrolled at Arizona State University strictly as a student, but during an open gym, he showed enough to convince Scottsdale Community College that he was a worthy project. By the end of his two years there, he was an all-conference player.
Former Seattle U. coach Joe Callero recruited him here, but when the coach left for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo two years ago, Jones considered his options before deciding to stick with the new coach, Dollar. Now, he’s averaging 11.2 points for a Division I program.
That’s definitely a shining accomplishment.
“When I was playing at first in junior college, I was horrible,” Jones said. “If you had told me then that I’d play D-I, I would’ve thought you were crazy.
“I was just kind of floating through college. I figured I’d get my bachelor’s degree and just go work for my dad. Now, my eyes are open to all kinds of possibilities.”
He has a vision now. He won’t be discouraged. This is Dollar’s most elementary coaching principle, and it’s a universal motivator.
The Redhawks will experience what it’s like to face a team making a late-February tournament push Tuesday at KeyArena.
The Huskies see themselves making the Big Dance and grooving for a while. After a loss to Arizona on Saturday, they’ll bring an extreme sense of urgency to this game. It could get ugly.
But Seattle U. will run with them for as long as it can. For the Redhawks, this is an urgent time, too. They’re going nowhere this season, but the bridge will be down soon. So they better make the most of their final five games.
“Even as we are building for the future, we still can accomplish great things while we’re here,” said junior forward Aaron Broussard, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. “Our one shining moment is enjoying the present. We’re lucky to be playing this game.”
And that’s one shining perspective.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer