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Vermont 60 – Syracuse 57
NCAA Championship Tournament
Worcester, Massachusetts
March 18, 2005

Crucial three or this jumper earlier in the game,
T.J. Sorrentine enjoyed the green light during his UVM career. Photo by Sally McCay


THE SHOT T.J. Sorrentine squares up and lets it fly from 28 feet out. With the game in overtime, 1:06 on the clock, a one-point lead and a different play called from the bench, the senior point guard’s bomb isn’t exactly the high-percentage option. “I just had a feeling come over me,” Sorrentine will say after the game. “‘You’ve gotta make this. You’ve got one more in you.’” When the shot rips through the net for three, Tom Brennan throws his hands in the air, grinning like a man sensing the victory of a lifetime. Another reason to smile — Sorrentine’s gamble is pure Brennan, reflecting the lessons of a coach who has lived by the philosophy of a gunner, never hesitating to let fly with a long shot, a one-liner, or a well-aimed word of encouragement.

Philosophy of a Gunner
by Kevin Hench ’89

photo by AP WideWorld/Frank Franklin

When I was a sophomore at the University of Vermont, I had a political science professor start a class by writing three numbers on the blackboard.

100 - 435 - 278

He circled each number as he explained its significance.

“One hundred is the number of senators in the Senate. Four hundred thirty-five is the number of voting representatives in the House,” he said. “And 278 is the ranking of your college basketball team.”

That was 1986, Coach Tom Brennan’s first year at Vermont. The Catamounts staggered to a 5-23 mark that year and would lose over 20 games the next two seasons as well. In case you didn’t notice, things changed a wee bit over the last two decades.

Not only did Brennan lead Vermont to three straight trips to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, in his 19th and final season, he saddled up for his ride into the sunset in style as the Cats stunned 2003 national champs Syracuse in the first round for our school’s first-ever tourney victory.

“You watch March Madness on TV and you think ‘One day, when am I going to be there, and win a game there?’ Today it happened. It’sunbelievable,” Germain Mopa Njila said after the Syracuse game. Just as unbelievable, Mopa Njila’s transformation from role player to superstar — playing outstanding defense while putting in 20 points on 9 for 10 shooting, including a clutch three-pointer in overtime.
photo by Sally McCay

About two months before this magical season ended with a loss to Michigan State in the second round, my Vermont classmate Tony Reilly alerted me that the Catamounts had climbed into the Top 20 in the RPI rankings. I had seen the Cats give Kansas all it could handle in their season opener and knew they had started their annual romp through conference play, but I had no idea how high they had climbed in the Ratings Percentage Index, which I thought had been devised specifically to punish small conference schools like my beloved UVM.

Sure enough, when I checked the RPI standings, Vermont was tied with Villanova at No. 18. It’s hard to explain just how nuts this is to anyone who didn’t spend time in Vermont’s cozy Patrick Gym in the mid-1980s when ’Nova was on top of the college basketball world and Vermont, according to Professor Gary Nelson, was No. 278.

When Rollie Massimino, who graduated from UVM in 1956, was coaching Villanova, he would schedule an annual game between his Big East power Wildcats and his alma mater. I remember one night in Patrick Gym when Villanova’s Doug West, who would play 12 years in the NBA, took off his warm-ups just long enough to bury the Catamounts in eight shots. He scored 20 points on 8-of-8 shooting, including four bombs from beyond the arc, in the first 10 minutes and then sat and watched the rest of the blowout.

“You’re playing for your team, you’re playing for yourself, you’re playing for your coaches, and you’re playing for all the people in Vermont,” said Taylor Coppenrath, “and even probably elsewhere, so many people around the country intrigued by our success.” Coppenrath’s development from a lightly regarded high school player in West Barnet, Vermont, to an NBA prospect was key to the Cats’ rise to national prominence.
photo by Sally McCay

For me, one of the joys of watching Doug West or Northeastern’s Reggie Lewis playing in Patrick Gym was knowing that I would be hoisting up threes on the very same court during the next day’s lunch-hour game with assorted faculty and students (who shared my ambivalence about attending class). And if I were lucky, I’d be playing alongside Coach Brennan. The guy was so much fun to be around, so relentlessly positive, your shooting percentage would jump 10 points when he said hello. Coach made me feel so good about my game, I was once emboldened to actually try driving to my left. I turned it over but somehow managed to escape injury.

One day, when I was struggling mightily with my stroke and half-expecting a reprimand or a freeze-out from the coach, he smiled and shouted over to me, “Just keep shooting.” And that, by the way, is everything you need to know about how Tom Brennan turned around the University of Vermont basketball program. If Coach could take a short, slow intramural gunner like me and make him feel like a Division I prospect, imagine what he could do with guys who arrived in Burlington with skills. Or even skillz. I may not know why the caged bird sings, but I do know why great practice shooters struggle in games: they simply don’t think their coaches believe in them.

Any basketball player who has ever taken a jump shot under threat of instant removal from the game if he should miss understands what that kind of pressure can do to his shooting percentage. It’s much worse than the comparatively benign pressure of a hand in the face. This is why gunners tend not to flourish playing for knee-jerk coaches whose lone talent as players was drawing charges. The young men who have had the good fortune to play for Coach Brennan at the University of Vermont over the last 19 years have faced no such pressure. From Rob Zinn — whose range I’d like to think I stretched in losing some epic H-O-R-S-E games during those summers in Burlington — to Matt Johnson to Eddie Benton to Tony Orciari to the incomparable duo of Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine, the one thing Catamount players have never had to fear is a quick hook from the coach. Has any other coach in the country had five different players hoist 16 or more 3-pointers in a game? (Sorrentine launched 15 threes in his lights-out performance — 26 points — against Michigan State.)

“We got a team you may look at across the court and say, ‘How are these guys still in the tournament?’ We start four white guys and a kid from Cameroon. It’s not a team you would look at and say, ‘They’re full of specimens.’ We work hard, we play together, and that’s how we win games.”
T.J. Sorrentine in the New York Post
photo by AP WideWorld/Frank Franklin

Why the constant, unblinking green light? Because Brennan, in spirit and practice, has always been and forever will be a gunner. From his record-setting, conscience-free high school career, to his playing days at Georgia to his current radio gig, the quip-equipped New Jersey native has always shot first and asked questions never. Somewhere along the line, he decided being a college basketball coach should be fun. And so, too, should being a college basketball player. Imagine that.

When his team had to survive a veritable Shackleton expedition — after being snowed-in in Denver — to reach its NCAA tournament first-round game against No. 1 seed Arizona two years ago, Coach Brennan refused to let the ordeal diminish the extraordinary experience of Vermont’s first trip to the Big Dance. If anything, the trek embodied the rigorous journey the program had completed in climbing from No. 278 to the NCAA tourney. The Catamounts gave Arizona all it could handle for the first ten minutes before succumbing to a Wildcat team that had more size, more speed, and more sleep.

Last year the America East champs drew eventual national champion Connecticut in the first round. For a moment it may have seemed like the committee had done the Cats a favor by making them a 15 seed instead of a 16, until they found themselves paired against the best team in the country, featuring current NBA star rookies Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon.

Still, Vermont jumped to a 7-0 lead and was tied 24-24 after 11 minutes. Sure, the roof eventually gave in as the Huskies pulled away for a 70-53 win, but not before the Catamounts had made a case for 2005 to be granted a higher seed. (It’s worth noting that after beating Vermont by 17, Connecticut beat DePaul by 17, Vanderbilt by 20 and Alabama by 16 to reach the Final Four.)

“If I wasn’t playing them, I might have been pulling harder for them than anybody,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo after his Spartans turned back a valiant Vermont effort in the NCAA second round. Authors of the greatest season in Catamount basketball history, UVM’s seniors walk off the court together for the final time.
photo by Sally McCay

When the Cats won their third straight America East championship with an 80-57 clinic over a 21-win Northeastern team in February, Vermont hoop fans, aware of the team’s lofty RPI, salivated at the prospect of a winnable first-round game. This prospect was all but dashed when the committee’s retirement present to Brennan was a 13-seed and a first-round matchup with Syracuse and Big East Player of the Year Hakim Warrick.

Thankfully, Brennan’s players were a little more generous, beating the Orange 60-57 in overtime as Germain Mopa Njila and Sorrentine — duly empowered to let fly — drained unconscious 3-pointers in OT. As retirement gifts go, it sure beats a gold watch, eh?

When Vermont opens the 2005-’06 season, Coach Brennan will not be in the locker room to let the Catamounts know that he is “rooting like hell” for them, though he undoubtedly will be. But his message, his strategy, and his philosophy of life will forever reverberate in the pull-out bleachers and championship banners of Patrick Gym.

“Just keep shooting.”

Kevin Hench ’89 is the supervising producer of The Sports List on FoxSports Net and writes a column for FoxSports.com.