Kentucky won't be No. 1 in his thoughts

Basketball: No one will blame Navy veteran Matt Crenshaw if his mind tends to wander when his IUPUI team plays the top-ranked Wildcats tomorrow.

Ncaa Tournament

March 20, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Odell Bradley got a little nervous when he saw a bunch of military fatigues hanging in Matt Crenshaw's closet last week in his apartment near the Indianapolis campus that combines Indiana University and Purdue University into a tiny commuter school called IUPUI.

It was shortly after the basketball team had returned from the Mid-Continent Conference tournament in Kansas. IUPUI, in its fifth season playing a Division I schedule and its third year of eligibility for the NCAA tournament, had earned an automatic berth by beating Valparaiso.

Crenshaw, IUPUI's 27-year-old senior point guard, had hit the winning basket.

But Bradley didn't know if Crenshaw was going to travel with the team to Nashville for tomorrow's opening-round game against Kentucky in the Midwest Regional at the Gaylord Entertainment Center or was re-enlisting in the Navy.

"I thought he was going to leave us," Bradley said earlier this week.

Crenshaw made the team bus for its ride to Nashville yesterday, but his mind was thousands of miles away. After spending seven years in the Navy, he still has a lot of friends in the military, including several who are deployed in the U.S. action against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

It is with mixed feelings that Crenshaw is going to play the biggest game of his life.

Told by a reporter on Monday that NCAA president Myles Brand had just announced at a press conference a few miles away in Indianapolis that the tournament would begin as scheduled, Crenshaw said, "I don't think they [the NCAA] should make the decision.

"But I am going to play for the guys."

In fact, Crenshaw received an e-mail from one of them, a Marine sergeant named Gabori Partee, just the other day.

"He just wanted to tell me he was OK," said Crenshaw. "He sent some pictures of the guys playing cards, just getting ready to do what they have to do."

Crenshaw's road to IUPUI began when he moved before his senior year in high school from Killane, Texas, to Charlottesville, Va. A football player, he said he was told by several Division I schools to spend an extra year at a prep school.

Instead, he enlisted in the Navy. He wound up in Williamsburg, Va., as a boatswain's mate on the USS Kansas City. He spent time in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba during the Haitian refugee uprising in 1995, as well as in Egypt.

It was during his years in the Navy that Crenshaw began developing a reputation as a basketball player, making the All-Navy team in 1997 and eventually being named All-Armed Forces two years later.

While stationed at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, he began playing in a military athletic league in Washington. A referee in the league recommended him to Kevin Jones, then an assistant at IUPUI and now the head coach at Chicago State.

Crenshaw chose IUPUI over Morgan State and Austin Peay because his girlfriend was in law school at IUPUI.

"It was kind of a leap of faith on his part," said current IUPUI assistant coach Todd Howard. "He knew he had to make it."

There was a precedent in the leap Crenshaw was making.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the Washington, D.C., area, where his 4-year-old daughter, Mikayla, lives (Crenshaw also has a 5-year-old son, Michael, who lives in Charlottesville), Crenshaw was familiar with George Evans.

At age 26, Evans joined the George Mason University team after years in the military and led the Patriots to NCAA tournament bids in 1999 and 2001. Having played against Evans in military competition, Crenshaw knew the odds were long but not impossible.

"It kind of gave me the nod," said Crenshaw, who is 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds. "I knew it could be done."

Crenshaw, who averages 8.1 points and 3.4 rebounds a game, said he sees his role as more than just a leader on a 20-13 team.

"I can be a great mediator between the coach and the rest of the team," said Crenshaw, who is now called `Pops` by his teammates.

He isn't always IUPUI's go-to guy on the court, but last week's shot in the waning seconds against Valparaiso was not the first big shot he has hit. He also made a shot to seal a victory earlier this season against Bradley.

Having lost to Valparaiso in the conference tournament the previous two years, Crenshaw said his shot and his team's victory, which was secured after a long inbounds pass was stolen, "was like a dream come true."

But the dream is a bit tempered this week, with many of his friends on the verge of going into a much more significant battle than facing the nation's top-ranked team. The questions Bradley and the other IUPUI players ask Crenshaw these days have less to do with the Wildcats than with war.

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