Inside pair makes mark at Hopkins

Seniors forwards Nawrocki and Griffin have Jays poised for Div. III tourney berth

January 30, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

As freshmen, they got after each other so much in practice that Johns Hopkins men's basketball coach Bill Nelson decided to keep them apart as much as possible in that setting.

As seniors, Hopkins forwards Danny Nawrocki and Matt Griffin have honed their complementary games and become, in Nelson's eyes, maybe the most punishing combination in the post during his 21 seasons at Homewood. They also are the main reasons the Blue Jays are positioned to go where they have not been in nearly a decade.

Hopkins, which sits atop the Centennial Conference with an 11-1 record, is 17-2 overall and is sniffing its first league title and first NCAA Division III tournament berth since 1999. The Blue Jays are being stingy again on defense, leading the league in scoring and field-goal percentage at that end of the floor.

They have absorbed the preseason loss of point guard Scott Weisenfeld to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, as sophomore Collin Kamm and freshman Patrick O'Connell have run the show. Their outside shooters have been sharp. Hopkins leads the league with an average of 72.7 points per game.

And it all starts with the two big boys, the co-captains who mostly abuse their opponents down low. Mostly.

"See this? This is from Matt," said the 6-foot-6 Nawrocki, pointing to a recent cut under his right eye. "We haven't been allowed to guard each other [in practice] since our freshman year. We just ended up battling for a rebound. We've had a lot of bumps and bruises. We've gotten better by kicking each other's [butts] for the past four years."

"It's less physical now," added Griffin, 6-7. "Our jerseys were ripped by the end of that [freshman] year. I know I got a lot better that year."

The players are a study in similarities and contrasts.

Nawrocki thrives on power moves, passes well out of the post and thinks he should grab every rebound. During Saturday's 72-54 rout at Washington College, he set the school record for career rebounds and now has 830.

After becoming only the fifth freshman to start under Nelson - and shooting 66.7 percent that year - Nawrocki is one of only three Blue Jays to produce 1,000 points and 700 rebounds. He leads the conference with 10.6 rebounds per game, averages 12.8 points and has 30 double doubles in his career.

Griffin, who barely played as a freshman and did not start until the last half of his sophomore year, is more about finesse.

He has used a deft, turnaround jumper to become the team's top shooter. He leads Hopkins with 16.5 points per game, recently became the 13th Hopkins player to break 1,000, leads the conference with a .643 shooting percentage and has made 82.2 percent of his team-high 118 free throws this season. Griffin has been named conference Player of the Week two straight times of late.

"Matt had to pay his dues. Dan started at a high level and he's maintained it," said Nelson, who has a 345-196 record at Hopkins and is trying to get the Blue Jays into their eighth NCAA tournament. "It's great having one of those guys. It's phenomenal having two. They're probably the two best [big men] we've ever had together."

Both are sharp in the classroom, too.

Nawrocki, who holds a 3.23 grade point average and will graduate with a degree in economics this spring, has a job lined up on Wall Street with Morgan Stanley's institutional equity division. Griffin, who carries a 3.45 GPA and practices meditation, graduates today with degrees in psychology and philosophy. He is angling to be a research assistant at Johns Hopkins Hospital and eventually a clinical psychologist.

"When we came in, [Nawrocki] was way ahead of me, in terms of footwork, strength and basketball ability. I learned how to do things to complement his game," Griffin said. "[Meditation] helped settle me down, and it's helped me with my free-throw shooting the last two years."

Nawrocki's weak spot is the foul line, where he is shooting only 37.5 percent. But he thinks the rest of his and Griffin's strengths should keep Hopkins in good shape down the stretch.

"Teams have trouble guarding both of us," Nawrocki added. "We're probably the best [frontcourt] tandem in the Centennial Conference. I don't think anybody is going to argue that."

Senior guard T.J. Valerio would agree. He and junior guard Doug Polster have combined to make a healthy 43.7 percent of their combined 151 three-point shots. Much of that is due to the way defenses inevitably focus on the big boys inside with zone alignments and double teams.

"If anybody tries to play them one-on-one, they can dominate the paint," Valerio said. "If defenses start sagging off of us, it opens up the outside." gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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