Oct. 23, 2002
PROVIDENCE -- After helping Brown win more basketball games over the last two seasons than at any time in the university's history, Alai Nuualiitia knows he's made a major impact.
Even so, reminders of how different things truly are at Brown hit Nuualiitia almost daily. Recruits that other strong programs lust after visit the campus throughout the year. Multiple freshmen taller than Nuualiitia's 6-foot-7 have arrived, perhaps putting an end to the senior's days as the team's only legit post player. He even pointed out that reporters are showing up for pre-season workouts, not just for the Penn-Princeton weekend.
But the best sign yet that Brown's basketball fortunes have indeed changed is rumbling around town on some RIPTA buses. Nuualiitia, scoring star Earl Hunt and women's team leader Nyema Mitchell headline an advertisement that reads: "Great Students, Great Basketball."
"Earl and I talk a lot about how different things are," said Nuualiitia, who is from suburban Pennsylvania and played with Lakers Kobe Bryant in high school. "When we came here, no one really cared about basketball. Now we're on buses and things like that. It's a great feeling."
For the last three seasons, Nuualiitia, Hunt and coach Glen Miller have forced Brown basketball back into the public eye. The 2001 team finished 15-12 overall, 9-5 in the Ivy, and wasn't eliminated from the league title race until the final weekend. Last year, Brown's highlight came before Ivy play when it beat both Providence College and URI, a trick the Bears hadn't turned in 47 years. Brown went on to finish 17-10, but was a disappointing 8-6 in the Ivy.
The 32 wins over the last two years are the most in school history. The back-to-back winning records in Ivy action were the first in 27 years.
Now, however, the stakes are raised a bit. While Miller has done a superb job leading Brown's resurgence, it's clear that Hunt and Nuualiitia have carried the Bears. Now they are seniors, and this is Brown's best chance at an Ivy League championship in nearly 20 years.
"Sure, that's our goal," said Nuualiitia, "but it was last year, too. It might have looked good on the outside last year, but we were disappointed. Everyone on the team knows we can be better."
Miller says the team responded to its off-season strength and conditioning goals better than ever, and that success has carried over to some competitive early practices. But the coach's focus seems to be on mixing an improved batch of team chemistry, a liability last year. Miller wouldn't specify the problems, but there appeared to be some friction between veterans such as Hunt and Nuualiitia with talented freshman point guard Jason Forte.
"We're trying to stress team and unselfishness," Miller said. "Our team chemistry last year was deficient. After working with everyone even longer now, I feel good about this team and enjoy coaching them."
A negative off-shoot of Brown's rising success is scheduling. Quite simply, no one wants to play the Bears. Miller isn't joking when he says "everyone was calling us four years ago," for games, but now the phone is quiet.
Brown's non-conference schedule is proof. The Bears have a paltry three non-conference home games, against Ohio University, Holy Cross and Rider. Twelve of Brown's first 14 games could come on the road. The season tips off at the Guardian's Classic, a two-game tourney at Notre Dame that matches Brown against Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis. Notre Dame and Belmont are in the other bracket.
"It's the most difficult schedule I've faced at Brown," said Miller. "Scheduling is much more difficult now as we've gotten better, but it's a challenge I think the players are looking forward to."
The lanky Nuualiitia certainly is. He battled knee problems last year but is healthy now. Jamie Kilburn, a junior from New York, is also back up front. He scored in double figures nine times last year and hit PC with a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double.
Hunt, who's scored 1,526 career points, will pass the school's all-time leader, Arnie Berman, early this season. He's led the Ivies in points the last two seasons. Forte (11.3) gives Miller a third double-figure scorer and junior wing Mike Martin looks much stronger as he returns for a third season in the rotation.
Penn, Princeton and Yale all return the bulk of very good teams in an Ivy League that should again be ranked among the top 15 conferences in the country. Brown intends on being in the mix, too.
"Practices are a lot more intense, real crisp," Nuualiitia said. "This is the best we've been in my four years. At every position."