Finding himself after lost year

Darshan Luckey: Academically ineligible last season, the freshman from Baltimore is averaging 22 points a game for St. Francis (Pa.).

College Basketball

February 13, 2003|By Bo Smolka | Bo Smolka,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It took Darshan Luckey a year longer than he would have liked, but he is finally making a name for himself in college basketball.

Granted, the stage isn't as grand for Luckey as for his backcourt mate at Southern High School, Melvin Scott - now at North Carolina - or another of his good friends, Syracuse phenom Carmelo Anthony.

But at St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa., a sleepy outpost tucked away in the Allegheny Mountains 180 miles from Baltimore, Luckey's star is beginning to shine.

Luckey, who makes his first local collegiate appearance tonight when the Red Flash plays at UMBC, sat out last season because he was academically ineligible. Now he is making up for lost time.

The 6-foot-4 guard enters tonight's game averaging 22 points a game, second in the nation among freshmen. That's even better than Anthony (21.5), Luckey's former teammate on a Nike travel squad. Luckey is on pace to break school and Northeast Conference rookie scoring records, and he has been the leading scorer in the past nine games for the Red Flash (10-10).

It's possible, though, that none of this would have happened had it not been for the firm, unwavering guidance of Luckey's mother, Betty, who all but ordered Luckey to stay in Loretto.

A year in limbo

A two-time All-Metro selection at Southern, Luckey drew plenty of interest from Division I programs. As Luckey struggled to achieve a qualifying score on the SAT, though, many of his suitors, including Georgetown and Providence, lost interest.

But St. Francis, a school of 2,000 founded by Franciscan friars, kept the faith.

"The coaches here stuck with me," Luckey said. "They never gave up on me."

Luckey ultimately earned a qualifying SAT score and went to Loretto in the fall of 2001, ready to take his smooth shooting stroke and passion for the game to the college court.

In mid-September, however, word came from the NCAA that Luckey was ineligible under Proposition 48. Apparently the NCAA and St. Francis were not on the same page regarding Luckey's course work at Southern.

To determine freshman eligibility, the NCAA uses a "sliding scale" that factors standardized test scores and a student's grade-point average in core courses like English and math; a higher GPA allows for a lower test score. Luckey had indeed met the SAT minimum, but according to the NCAA, his accompanying GPA was 0.15 short.

As a "nonqualifier" in NCAA parlance, Luckey was not only ineligible, but he also could not receive any athletic scholarship money as a freshman. For Luckey to stay at St. Francis, his family would have to pay the freight for a year.

Stunned and frustrated, Luckey considered going to junior college. He considered transferring to a school in Division II, where he would have been eligible immediately.

"At one point," he said, "I was ready to leave school and give up basketball altogether."

His parents, Betty and George Luckey, would have none of it.

"I knew if he came home he wouldn't want to stay in school," said Betty Luckey, a dispatcher with the Defense Department. "He figured if he couldn't play ball, he was going home. His thing was ball. My thing was education. Me being the parent, I had the final say-so."

Recalled Red Flash coach Bobby Jones: "Betty basically came up here [one weekend] and said, `Darshan, you got yourself into this, and you're going to get yourself out of this. She said, `You're not going anywhere else. You'll go up to the financial aid office Monday morning, and whatever you don't qualify for, we'll take out a loan. You're going to go to school.'

"I saw this conversation take place with my own eyes. It's one of the more amazing things I've seen. I give all the credit to his mom and dad for understanding what was best for their son."

Relegated to the stands last year - nonqualifiers may not sit on the bench during games - Luckey could only watch as the Red Flash struggled through a 6-21 season that included nine losses by four points or less.

Luckey had his own struggles, adjusting to college academics and to life in rural Cambria County, where schools are closed for the opening day of buck hunting season and where African-Americans make up roughly 3 percent of the population.

"It was a hard adjustment," Luckey said. "I've lived in the city all my life. This style of life is very different, but sometimes in life it's good to experience different things."

Said Jones: "At some point, he realized, `This is the best place for me.' Once he accepted being here, and knew what he needed to do, it turned around completely."

`A tremendous scorer'

Luckey showed no signs of rust following his year in exile, scoring 27 in a season-opening win over Howard. Still primarily a shooting guard with improved post-up moves and driving ability, Luckey has topped the 20-point mark 16 times, including a current streak of nine in a row that began with 25 in the first meeting with UMBC, won by the Red Flash, 73-68. He has been named the NEC's Rookie of the Week six times.

"He's a tremendous scorer," said Wagner coach Dereck Whittenburg, the former N.C. State star who watched Luckey total 61 points in two games against his squad. "His talent is higher than our level."

Said UMBC coach Tom Sullivan: "At this level, he can score from several areas on the floor. St. Francis does a lot of drive and dish, and you really need to know where he is. You can't afford to leave him alone."

Early risers

Darshan Luckey is among the top freshman scorers in Division I through Monday's games. The top five:

Player, School PPG

Keydren Clark, St. Peter's 24.3

D. Luckey, St. Francis (Pa.) 22.0

Carmelo Anthony, Syr. 21.5

Craig Smith, Boston Col. 21.1

Ike Diogu, Ariz. State 18.1

Hot shot

Darshan Luckey's top five games this season:

Date Opponent Pts.

2-3-03 at Wagner 38

2-1-03 at Sacred Heart 30

12-4-02 Youngstown St. 29

11-22-02 Howard 27

2-6-03 St. Francis (N.Y.)

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