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Senior Ball

Braswell's First Recruits at Cal State Northridge Try to Take Matadors to the Big Dance for the First Time in School History

March 08, 2001|DAN LOUMENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is what Bobby Braswell envisioned when he became men's basketball coach at Cal State Northridge.

A victory over UCLA. Back-to-back 20-victory seasons culminating in a Big Sky Conference regular-season championship. The right to host the conference tournament, which begins tonight in the cozy confines of the Matadome.

And a talented senior class to lead the way.

"When we recruited them, we told them they could help us build something," Braswell said of seniors like two-time all-conference forward Jeff Parris, his first recruit, and Brian Heinle, a 6-foot-9 center who was selected conference most valuable player.

"Most of these guys could have gone to an established program. We had nothing to offer them except the chance to help us build something here."

This is the way to the promised land. Northridge and No. 2-seeded Eastern Washington have byes tonight and open play Friday. The winner of the tournament final Saturday night qualifies for the NCAA tournament.

Mick Durham of Montana State, the dean of conference coaches in his 10th season, won the Big Sky tournament in 1996 with a team led by seniors.

"This is typically how a team gets itself to the NCAA tournament, when all your good players become seniors," Durham said. "I think [Northridge] is the best team this year. [Northridge's seniors] are up there with the best groups that have come through, but I wouldn't say it's any different than when Northern Arizona or Weber State or our team in '96 won [the Big Sky]."

Braswell has been recruiting for the Matadors since 1996. There have been ups and downs as he brought in freshmen and transfers. Andre Larry and Hewitt Rolle provided help before finishing careers last year. Rico Harris and Greg Minor showed flashes of brilliance and fits of petulance.

Taking over a team that went 7-20 in 1995-96, Braswell led the Matadors to sixth-place conference finishes in successive seasons. Northridge swept through the Big Sky tournament his first season and lost, 82-79, in the final to Montana.

The Matadors were 17-12 and 20-10 the last two seasons and made it to the tournament final last year, losing, 85-81, in overtime to Northern Arizona.

Parris has fulfilled Braswell's ideal of a recruit, not only with his play but with his pursuit of an education.

When healthy and free of foul trouble, the 6-5 forward is hard to contain on offense and takes opponents out of their game with his defense.

Parris, who averages 14.3 points and 4.5 rebounds, is quiet and unassuming. The opposite of his sometimes scowling demeanor and rugged appearance, which usually includes a full beard. He gained a fifth year of eligibility by earning a bachelor's degree in psychology last year.

"I came here to get my education and play basketball, and I've done that," said Parris, who preferred to limit his comments at that. "We haven't finished. We have more to accomplish."

Heinle has the ability to dominate play, especially when a game is on the line. He averages 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds.

Northridge has never had a player of his size with the ability to knock down three-point shots, play in the post and make passes from the pivot or perimeter.

And there's Carl Holmes, a 6-2 shooting guard who is often pressed into action at forward. He plays like a coach's son--heady, composed, a consummate role player. That's no surprise, because he is Braswell's nephew and the coach was his legal guardian.

The senior class is deep. Transfers John Burrell, Marco McCain and Denny Ogden have given the Matadors offensive weapons and depth to complete the puzzle that Braswell began assembling five years ago. Add to the mix Jermar Welch, a powerful forward who is trying to gain another year of eligibility because he was an academic nonqualifier as a freshman.

"I've always said I wouldn't have become this good of a player if I'd gone somewhere else," Heinle said. "I've always been glad I came here. I knew it would work out for me and the rest of the guys.

"We have a group of guys who know the game of basketball. We know the history of the game and how the game should be played. Nobody is out here for their own personal achievements. We all know the better we do as a team, the better we are seen as players."

Braswell says he's recruiting by the ABCs. He wants players who believe in the importance of academics, basketball and character.

"We have a special group of guys," he said. "A lot of players today are spoiled, they think the game is about them as individuals. This group of seniors has never made me feel like they were doing me a favor by playing here.

"Each and every one of these guys is the type of guy I would want my daughter to marry. That's what makes me most proud."

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