- Associated Press - Monday, March 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Past the strip mall on Hawaii Avenue and the tracks where Metro’s Red Line trains rumble past every few minutes is Washington’s quiet juggernaut.

Past the benches outside DuFour Center with Cardinals painted on the sides and the red bannisters and red-and-black everything else inside, basketballs thump and mismatched high-tops squeak and Steve Howes bellows encouragement.

In a city of monuments, Catholic University’s men’s basketball team is tucked in a nondescript corner of the Brookland neighborhood in the midst of a season that’s more anonymous than its surroundings. All the Cardinals seem to do is win.

The latest came Saturday, defeating the College of Staten Island in the first round of the Division III NCAA tournament after winning their first-ever Landmark Conference title last month. Up next is Williams College this Saturday.

But this isn’t college basketball of the sort that’ll fill our television screens and brackets in a couple of weeks. No, here there’s little attention and no scholarships.

The gymnasium resembles something from a large, well-kept high school, brown bleachers pushed up out of the way for practice a few nights back. Lacrosse players drifted through and passers-by poked their heads in the open door. No one cared. Howes kept running full-court drills at a frenetic pace.

The ills of big-time college basketball, the scandals and big money and outsized egos and look-at-me announcers and early NBA departures couldn’t fit in here. There’s room for a few thousand raucous supporters and, well, that’s about it.

“It’s the purest form of athletics,” Howes said.

The coach isn’t kidding. He’s a Washington native who attended Good Counsel, in his ninth season leading Catholic University. But don’t be mistaken: This is far from a basketball backwater. George Washington’s Mike Lonergan coached here (Howes played for him). So did Jack Bruen and Tom Young. Loyola’s Jimmy Patsos played here. The list goes on.

Each time Howes steps into the gymnasium, his eyes dart to the supersized red banner in the corner. That’s from Catholic University’s Division III national championship in 2001. The banner reminds him of what he’s working for, reminds him of the tradition he hopes to reignite.

“It stares at you every day,” Howes said.

Already, the university rolled up 25 wins and is back in the tournament for the first time since 2007. The women’s team nearly matched the men, capturing the Landmark Conference title, too, and advancing to its first-ever NCAA tournament last weekend before losing the second-round game.

Look around the small gymnasium, at the red and white jerseys whirling around the court on a cold night, and the scene is almost quaint. Somehow this feels like how college basketball should be, in a place where the loudest and most dedicated support during games comes from the university’s other teams.

This is a place where Howes and his staff sometimes grab dinner in the university’s cafeteria with the students, not walled off from the rest of the world in a basketball castle.

“This is home,” he said.

Some of Howes‘ gang turned down scholarships to play here. The team cobbled together a grade-point average in excess of 3.0 with no-joke majors. One player interns for the Wizards. Another in a local school. During the season. Yes, during the basketball season.

So, when Howes talks about the “student” part of the student-athlete, actually believe him.

“Of course, you’d like to get some more attention,” he said. “But we have really high-character young men who are really good students and also really good basketball players. They chose to be here so they could have a more balanced college experience.”

After that conference title, Howes didn’t sleep until 5 a.m. Hundreds of phone calls and emails came in. He lost count. Another laugh. The anonymity isn’t complete.

Washington is an easy place to get lost. Howes understands. He cuts through the talk of being overlooked with deep laughs and broad smiles. He knows what is building.

Practice is over, but basketballs still bump through the gymnasium. A few players remain. In one neglected corner of Washington, March’s madness is already here.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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