Brown’s Seniors Traveled Different Paths to Success
by Phil Kasiecki
Senior Night for Brown came on Saturday evening. Among those honored were two young men who have been through quite a bit on the court at the school, going from rebuilding to a winning team in their senior season. But the journey was a little more interesting than just the start and end points, including a coaching change halfway through.
Mark McAndrew and Damon Huffman comprise arguably the best backcourt in the Ivy League this season. Both are known more for their shooting than running a team – indeed, this season’s team has been noteworthy for having its offensive success with essentially two shooting guards and a point forward in Chris Skrelja on the perimeter – and both have been an integral part of the team’s success. A coaching change is never easy, but both have clearly benefited from it as each is finishing up on a strong note.
“These guys have just been so welcoming of what we’re trying to do,” said head coach Craig Robinson. “They really gave themselves over to us when we first got here.”
Both players admitted that there was certainly an adjustment period, especially from standpoint of expectations. Whereas they knew what they were getting with Glen Miller, who left two years ago to take the head coaching job at Ivy League rival Penn, they didn’t know what to expect at first with Robinson.
“With Coach Miller after the first two years, I would have known what to expect coming in the third year,” said Huffman. “Coach Robinson came in and expected a lot of different things and had a different style of play.”
While McAndrew and Huffman are classmates and have done much together on the court, their path to this point wasn’t quite the same.
Local Boy Happy to Be With Those Who Matter
Talk to Mark McAndrew for a few minutes, and you get the feeling that he really enjoys the camaraderie he has with the people in his life. You get the feeling that it’s very important to him. Add that to going to school 15 minutes from home, and it’s clear that the native of nearby Barrington has had a great situation.
As a sophomore at Barrington High School, McAndrew led the team to a Rhode Island state championship. He recalls with great fondness how close that team was and how important that was in the team going 27-1 en route to the championship. As far as he knows, every member of that team has been to a Brown home game to see him play. Every year, they call each other on the day they won the state title and think back to that day.
“It’s really great to have family and your old high school friends come out and support you,” said the senior guard. “I think a lot of them have united here at Brown games, from everybody I played with in high school. That means a lot to me that we can keep in touch through what we love to do – play basketball.”
The middle of three children in a sports family, McAndrew followed his father’s lead into basketball. His father played at Providence from 1972-76 and was part of their Final Four team his freshman year. His older sister played tennis at Villanova for four years and was a captain for two of those years. His younger brother, a sophomore at Stetson, was the top golfer on the team last year and played in the U.S. Men’s Amateur Championship last August. He could become a pro one day in Mark’s second sport, and big brother already has an idea should that happen.
“It would be a dream of mine to be his caddie one day,” he said with a smile.
He began playing basketball at an organized level when he was about six years old, although he used to play with his cousins at his home. He remembers the five-foot rims and being able to dunk back then, and best of all, playing without a care in the world.
When he played organized ball, it was a bit different since he always played up with older kids. That might be the root of his work ethic, as he always had to play that much better to keep up with the older kids he played against.
McAndrew committed to Brown before he did a prep year at Worcester Academy. He knew he wanted a good academic school and was recruited by several Ivy League schools in addition to Holy Cross and William & Mary, but Brown was sure to be hard to beat. It has proven to be a great fit.
While he will finish in the top 20 in scoring at the school, that wasn’t a given a couple of years ago. In his first two seasons, he wasn’t much more than a bit player, although as a freshman he showed his shooting ability in making nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers. The coaching change clearly benefited him right away last season, as he broke out in averaging just under 16 points per game and leading the Ivy League in scoring in league games only.
He’s continued that this season as the league’s leading scorer, but this time in all games. He shoots 42.4 percent on three-pointers, and looks as at home in the offense Robinson installed as anyone. While his shooting gets plenty of attention, it hasn’t been uncommon to see him score a layup from making a nice cut after passing the ball to a teammate.
The root of the sudden success? Certainly, his work ethic had a lot to do with it. But when there’s a coaching change, there’s some uncertainty, and that was the case here initially. As is often the case, he doesn’t just see how it affects himself.
“It was hard to get a feel for what he wanted from us,” he reflected. “When he said dribble, we dribbled, when he said shoot, we shot. We believed in him and he believed in us that we could push each other every day to be the best team we could possibly be. It was an adjustment because it was a new style, a new type of system that he was putting in, but we believed in it and we stuck together as a team, and it’s really worked out well for us.”
An Economics concentrator, he may one day go to business school or attempt to get a job on Wall Street. For now, there is more basketball, and there is likely to be an opportunity to play professionally somewhere after this season. A late bloomer as a college player, his growth over the last couple of years would appear to be a good sign for that.
His college career is coming to a close, but it’s been one spent with family and long-time friends close by. You get the feeling he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Little Brother Has His Own Success
When you’re the youngest of three boys, it can be tough competing with the siblings. Damon Huffman grew up in just that situation a ways from where McAndrew was.
“We played a lot of backyard basketball. My brothers beat me a lot of times,” said the senior guard, who said his shooting developed in part from how they went at him in those rivalries. “They would just hack me if I went to the basket, so I may as well just keep shooting outside.”
While McAndrew grew up near Brown, Huffman grew up a ways from Ivy country in Petoskey, Michigan, a small town of about 6,000 people not far from the Upper Peninsula. The town is right on the water by Lake Michigan, and it’s one where Huffman says “there’s not a lot going on except basketball and sports.” While Providence isn’t far from the water, it’s certainly a little different from the Upper Peninsula.
Life included a lot of sports for Huffman growing up, as he played a lot of soccer and basketball and ran track his senior year of high school. Soccer helped him with basketball and he always enjoyed it, playing it from about the same age as he played basketball. Even so, basketball was always the clear sport.
“In the summers, I would never train for soccer, I would train for basketball,” said Huffman. “I think I decided in middle school that I wanted to focus on basketball and play Division I.”
He had plenty to look up to in his family for that. His oldest brother, Trevor, is the all-time leading scorer at Kent State and was part of the Elite Eight team in 1999. He is still playing professionally in Europe.
Giving one the sense that basketball is life, Huffman gained a great deal from his brothers. They introduced him to basketball even before they regularly beat him at it, as he remembers tagging along with them when they played in recreational leagues ever since he could remember.
“I was like the annoying little brother that was always in the gym,” said Huffman.
On Saturday night, he became the school’s all-time leader in career three-pointers. His shooting has been the key to his game all along, highlighted by a game last year against Rhode Island where he and the Rams’ Jimmy Baron had a shootout from long range. He went 8-11 from behind the arc en route to a 30-point evening in the losing effort.
Lightly recruited out of high school, Huffman said he talked with a couple of other Ivy League and Patriot League schools, but Brown was the one that stuck with him. Despite his brother’s success, he didn’t have a clear path to Division I and had a limited number of options. Most of all, Brown told him something that proved to be accurate.
“They were really big on me and made me feel important. They said I had a chance to make an impact as a freshman, and that’s something that I wanted,” he recalls.
As a freshman, Huffman was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year, shooting over 41 percent on three-pointers. Miller and his staff were right: he could certainly make an impact as a freshman and did just that.
It came in a bad rebuilding year, as the Bears had a very young team and struggled to a 12-16 mark. Huffman didn’t like the results, but took a little solace in the award even though it didn’t give the team more wins.
“It felt good to get a personal award like that, but life isn’t good unless you’re winning,” said the senior guard.
His sophomore year wasn’t any better, as the Bears went 10-17 and at times looked like they could have done a lot worse. Huffman struggled to shoot the ball, as he shot below 39 percent from the field and made less than 24 percent of his three-pointers. Things could only get better again, right?
Any hope of that became uncertain when the coaching change occurred. Like McAndrew, Huffman wasn’t sure what to expect at first, even though the benefit of hindsight shows that he’s done very well under Robinson. It was only natural to wonder what the change meant.
Last season, Huffman rediscovered his shooting touch not only in the game against Rhode Island. He shot a career-best 45.5 percent from behind the arc last season and averaged 14.7 points per game, a figure he has duplicated this season. The Bears showed signs of improvement, especially as the season went along, leaving some promise for this season.
With the Bears’ success this season, a first-team All-Ivy honor seems likely. But the individual stats and honors don’t really matter so much as the bottom line: the Bears enter the final week of the regular season at 17-9 and with a chance to set a school record for wins in a season.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a winning season in my career,” he reflected. “Everyone has kind of come together as a group. I think we knew we were good last year, we just didn’t have the experience under Coach Robinson. I think this year we’ve really shown, through a lot of hard work over the summer and to the freshmen that we can be a good team.”
Life at Brown has been a change for him, one for the better. He’s enjoyed his time at the school off the court in a place far from home and sees new possibilities for the rest of his life. One thing is for certain, though: when his playing days are over, he hopes basketball won’t be a thing of the past for him. He hopes to stay in the game, preferably in coaching. There’s a simple reason for it, all going back to his early days with his big brothers.
“It’s kind of been my life and I don’t think I can just leave that,” said Huffman. “Basketball is in my blood, and I don’t think it’s something that I can just give up.”
The little brother hasn’t just tagged along this time. With the help of his big brothers earlier in life, he’s now forged his own path in a place far from home.
What Can Brown Do For Them?
Robinson has talked of having to change the culture at the school. Both players speak of it as well, which just proves how much the players have bought into the message. While both are happy with the success the team is having now, they also speak of the future for the program.
“We’ve instilled a culture here of winning and a culture of hard work, and that Brown can be competitive in the Ivy League year in and year out, and hopefully soon we’ll win some of those Ivy League titles,” said McAndrew.
The Bears have tied the school record for wins in a season after picking up their 17th on Saturday night. They are holding out hope for the postseason, either with the NIT (long shot) or the new College Basketball Invitational. If they win their final two games next weekend at Harvard and Dartmouth, they might have a chance with a 19-9 record.
Robinson is hoping that can happen, feeling like it would be one good way to show the appreciation for McAndrew and Huffman, as well as classmate Mark MacDonald, who has been hampered by injuries since December. While he has good young talent in his program and they have certainly shown improvement over the course of the season, next season and beyond won’t be a simple matter of plugging new guys in.
“It’s going to be hard to replace these guys, and I just hope we can do something for them that we haven’t done, like having the best record in Brown history,” said Robinson. “That would be tremendous for them to go out like that.”