A born-again basketball squad is winning games and fans
by David E. Nathan
Brian Meehan always imagined it would be like this: The Gosman Sports and Convocation Center pulsating with energy. Frenzied fans crammed into the bleachers. Blue-clad supporters urging on the Judges. A group of shirtless rowdies proudly displaying G-O D-E-I-S on their chests.
What was once thought to be woven out of the fantasies of either a madman or an irrationally exuberant optimist has instead become reality at Brandeis as the men’s basketball team is winning games and winning over fans. The Judges have reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division 3 Tournament two of the last three years and are regularly ranked in the national Top 20.
On the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2007, Meehan’s vision for the program he inherited in September 2003 became available for all to see. Before a delirious throng of nearly 2,000 people awash in Brandeis blue, the No. 3 Judges toppled the nation’s top-ranked team, Amherst.
If it was Judgment Day, the verdict was unanimous: Brandeis men’s basketball was back after a long absence.
“I had friends who couldn’t find a spot in the parking lot and had to park near the tennis courts,” recalls Athletic Director Sheryl Sousa ’90. “Even out behind the building, they could hear the cheering. I felt that day that we had arrived.”
The Judges advanced to the NCAA’s Elite Eight for the first time at the conclusion of that 2007 – 08 season, then reached the second round a year later. In 2009–10, Brandeis again came within a victory of advancing to the NCAA Final Four.
“Walking around campus, people you don’t even know come up and say, ‘You guys are doing well, keep it up,’” says Tyrone Hughes ’12, a guard from Boston. “You know then you are not playing for just yourself. There’s a bigger picture.”
The picture was not a pretty one when Brandeis lured Meehan south from Massachusetts’ Salem State College, where he had compiled a 160–39 record and taken the Vikings to the NCAAs in six of his seven seasons. The Judges had suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons, including a 6–19 mark in 2002–03, the third time in four years they had lost that many.
“That first year, we would have 30 people at a game,” Meehan remembers. “When you took into account that many were parents and relatives and guilt-ridden roommates who felt they had to come, there weren’t a lot of real fans at the games.”
Meehan was hired too late to recruit players for his first team, but he began changing the culture of the program right away. He installed the frenetic, pressing defense and high-octane offense he was known for, and he aggressively sought the kind of players required to make it succeed. It was not an easy sell.
“When he first spoke to me about Brandeis, I wasn’t that excited about it,” says Steve DeLuca ’08, an all-state player in New Hampshire who led his high school team to back-to-back state titles. “But when he shared his vision of what the program could become, I was more interested.”
Meehan’s first recruiting class — featuring DeLuca, a four-year starter; fellow 1,000-point scorer Joe Coppens ’08; and steady point guard Kwame Graves-Fulgham ’08 — made an immediate impact.
“It was really strange for me at the beginning, because I played in front of packed crowds in high school, and then at Brandeis you come out for warm-ups and it’s just your parents,” DeLuca says.
The wins started coming — 14–11 records in both 2004–05 and 2005–06, and then a breakthrough 20–7 mark and NCAA appearance the next year — and the fans began finding their way to Red Auerbach Arena. The welcome mat was no longer out for University Athletic Association (UAA) rivals when they traveled to Waltham.
“The other coaches in the UAA used to talk about Sunday afternoon games at Brandeis being the best,” Meehan says with a laugh. “There would be nobody here, so they didn’t have to deal with the crowd. Now they complain about our crowds. We get the best crowd support of any team in New England.”
The crowds at this season’s games will be rooting for a relatively young, untested team. Gone is the winningest class in Brandeis history as rugged forward Terrell Hollins ’10, sharpshooter Kenny Small ’10 and playmaker Andre Roberson ’10 have graduated. More will be expected from the speedy Hughes, top returning scorer Vytas Kriskus ’12, and versatile forward Christian Yemga ’11. They will be complemented by a talented group of recruits.
“We feed off of the crowds,” says Yemga. “It makes us want to play harder and to win. It’s fun to see everybody come together and show Brandeis spirit.”
For more information on Brandeis men's basketball, or any Brandeis team, visit the Brandeis Athletics website.