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Originally published February 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 4, 2009 at 10:01 AM

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Steve Kelley

Seattle U. is quietly having a great season on the court

At most schools, there is a conference championship to contend for and a lush postseason looming. For dozens of teams and hundreds of players, the anticipation in February soon will melt into the madness of March. This is the beginning of the best time of the year in college basketball. But at Seattle University, the anticipation is different. This month is like all the other months. Equally important, equally challenging, equally exciting.

Seattle Times staff columnist

When you walk out of the gym after basketball practice this week, the sun still is shining. The air is warmer. There are birds in the trees again and students are wearing shorts and T-shirts.

The first harbingers of the postseason are all over campus and for basketball players there is a heightened sense of the importance of these final weeks' worth of games.

At most schools, there is a conference championship to contend for and a lush postseason looming. For dozens of teams and hundreds of players, the anticipation in February soon will melt into the madness of March. This is the beginning of the best time of the year in college basketball.

But at Seattle University, the anticipation is different. This month is like all the other months. Equally important, equally challenging, equally exciting.

In this transition season, from the NCAA's Division II to Division I, there isn't a conference championship to chase for the Redhawks. There isn't a postseason looming.

The energy here is different, but the excitement is just as real.

Something magical is happening at this school on the hill. The basketball team has a five-game winning streak. The Redhawks are 13-6 this season, with wins over D-I schools like Louisiana Tech, Cal-Irvine and Loyola Marymount.

They are undefeated in seven home games and their computer ranking in the Sagarin USA Today list is higher than Indiana, Georgia, DePaul and Colorado.

"We like the feeling that we're the underdog," junior guard Chris Gweth said after Tuesday's practice. "And we kind of like being that story of the team that came up from nowhere and surprised everyone."

Quietly, under the radar, away from the genuine rush of excitement caused by Washington's nationally-ranked basketball team, Seattle U. is winning games as if this were the 1970s all over again.

This has been a season to celebrate. And coach Joe Callero, with no hardware to use as a motivational tool, has kept his team focused on the everyday business of getting better.

The Redhawks have put this streak together without a superstar. They have done it with chemistry, rather than blue chips, more attitude than athletes.

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When they run on the floor, they don't scare teams with their size or their vertical leaps. No player averages more than Austen Powers' 12.2 points per game, or Michael Wright's 6.9 rebounds. But they share the ball, like they share the glory.

Gweth scores 29 in a win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Powers scores 28 in a four-point loss at Portland. Mike Boxley grabs 15 rebounds in a win at Cal Poly. Wright grabs eight rebounds in a close loss at Oregon State.

And every night, everywhere, the Redhawks play a tough, baffling, matchup zone that has led to this belief that they can stay with any team, any night, in any conference.

"I thought we could pull an upset or two in November, maybe early December, but I wondered how good we'd play in January," Callero said. "And I wondered about the reality of motivation the whole year.

"In 22 years of coaching, I've had zero experience with this. The coaching manual isn't designed for first-year transitional coaching. But as we continued to play well into January, I told our assistant coaches, 'We have a group of guys who really like to play together.' Yeah, maybe we're pretty good."

Already they have traveled more than 20,000 miles this season, from Anchorage to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with intermediate stops in Fresno and Irvine, Calif., Edwardsville, Ill., and Portland, but they haven't gotten tired, or testy. They've never felt as if they were in over their heads.

"With all the travel and the grinding we've done, I thought we'd hit the wall now," Callero said. "You just look at the scenario and the wear-down factor just screams at you."

Every day at practice, inside the Connolly Center, Gweth looks at the wall and sees the uniform names and numbers of Elgin Baylor, Johnny O'Brien, Clint Richardson, Frank Oleynick and is reminded of what Seattle U. basketball used to be and what it can become again.

"That is definitely a motivator," Gweth said, nodding at the wall. "I want to tell my grandson that I was part of this. We're the starting team to do it. That's encouraging. It's really like a blessing."

Gweth left the gym and walked into the springlike sunshine, knowing that, even in this transition season, he and his teammates are playing for something just as important, maybe even more important, than a conference title.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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