Bowie State leaps from pitiful to powerful

Basketball: The combination of coach Luke D'Alessio, big man Tim Washington and some recent additions has put the long-suffering Bulldogs on a winning path.

January 16, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

BOWIE - In what has developed as another fallow period for area college basketball teams, nearby Bowie State's men are reaping a giant harvest.

With seeds planted by coach Luke D'Alessio, the Bulldogs have grown tall and talented, entering the second half of their season with a 14-1 record and a No. 16 national ranking in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Division II Top 25.

After beating contenders Shaw and Johnson C. Smith at home in the past four days, Bowie (8-0 in the league) is on the fast track toward its first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title, and aiming even higher.

"I want to see that CIAA championship first," said All-America candidate Tim Washington. "Then I want to see a national championship."

These are heady aspirations for a program that was locked in the doldrums for nearly three decades before the arrival of D'Alessio, who has successfully merged a formula of Washington, Division I transfers and his Baltimore connections into a powerhouse.

The Bulldogs began playing in 1972-73. Until D'Alessio's second season, 2000-01, they never had a winning record and flirted with a .500 finish only once. A CIAA doormat they were.

Landing Washington was the first step in the upgrade. A 6-foot-9 center-power forward from Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, he was originally recruited by the likes of Southern California, Syracuse, George Washington and East Carolina.

A combination of circumstances (the East Carolina coach losing his job and inadequate SAT results) sent him first to prep school, then to American University for one season, where he was the Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year.

But when the Eagles made a coaching change to Jeff Jones - whom he didn't know - Washington heeded the advice of Dalonte Hill, a friend and former Bulldogs player, and transferred to Bowie.

"I could have gone to different schools, but I heard an upside about Bowie basketball, that the coach lets you play your game," Washington said.

And D'Alessio had an impressive track record. At Catonsville Community College, his last four of six teams won at least 23 games and he was named Maryland JuCo Coach of the Year three times after capturing championships. Under his watch, Catonsville became nationally recognized.

The partnership of Bowie State and Washington has been successful. Washington has scored 1,040 points for the Bulldogs, fourth on the school's all-time list, and, barring injury, will finish second, in a mere 2 1/2 seasons, to Chuck Gholston's record 1,675. Washington also led the CIAA in rebounding last season.

"Washington is the most versatile and dominant player in Division II basketball today," D'Alessio said. "He is very fundamentally sound and has a great knowledge of the game."

Washington made the Bulldogs respected foes. They went 39-17 during his first two seasons, including 22-10 in the league, and, in 2002, were co-champs of the CIAA East and reached as high as 14th in the national poll.

But his presence was not quite enough. Washington was often double-teamed and the options were few. The supporting cast was skilled, but guard-oriented. Bowie needed more muscle to take the final step.

Through his numerous contacts, D'Alessio found the remedy in 6-8 center Jon Smith and 6-9 center Shawn Hampton from Baltimore's St. Frances, who transferred to Bowie from Virginia Tech and Rutgers, respectively.

Symbolic of the new might, Smith shattered a backboard at Livingston (N.C.) with the Bulldogs leading 23-8, forcing a postponement. That game will be completed Sunday in Bowie's next outing.

"To be in the Division II top 20, you have to have Division I talent," said D'Alessio. "It's really hard to get freshmen like that, but through my ties at Catonsville and having recruited some people before, eventually we've been able to get four or five of those players. They're unhappy or they want to get closer to home."

Smith and Hampton have removed a big load from Washington, who can no longer be doubled without repercussions. "They've taken the pressure off," Washington said. "They're able to finish, as well. Now, I can concentrate more on my passing and what I can do outside."

He had eight assists against J.C. Smith from the power forward slot as Bowie showcased its inside passing.

Then there is the Baltimore connection. Six players dot the Bulldogs' roster, including four prominent ones - Hampton, starting point guard Cornelius McMurray, a member of an undefeated Southwestern High state champion; off-guard regular Omarr Smith (City), and speedy backup guard Arthur Lewis Jr. (Milford Mill). Forward Anthony Thornton (Towson Catholic) and swingman Nathaniel Fields (Southern-B) are backups.

"At Catonsville, I learned that if the Baltimore kids do what they're supposed to in the classroom, you can't find better players anywhere," D'Alessio said. "I wouldn't take anybody over them."

This is Bowie's big shot. The roster is packed with seniors, 10 of them. Only one prominent player is an underclassman.

"We've got more leadership than ever," Washington said. `The feeling is we don't want to go out without accomplishing anything big."

Bulldogs from Baltimore

Name High school Pos. Status Shawn Hampton St. Frances C 1st big man off bench

Cornelius McMurray S'western G Starter at point

Arthur Lewis Jr. Milford Mill G Key backcourt reserve

Omarr Smith City G Two-guard regular

Anthony Thornton Tow. Cath. F Plays sparingly

Nathaniel Fields Southern-B G-F Backup swingman

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