Three men hoopsters named All-Ivy

By
Friday, March 14, 2008

On Wednesday, a two-year benchwarmer, a former freshman phenom and a prized recruit who took two years to find his potential were recognized as three of the best men’s basketball players in the Ivy League.

Guards Damon Huffman ’08 and Mark McAndrew ’08 were named to the All-Ivy first team, with the latter a unanimous selection, while swingman Chris Skrelja ’09 was picked for the All-Ivy second team.

The postseason awards recognized the trio for leading their team to a record-setting season, in which the Bears (19-9, 11-3 Ivy) finished the league in second place and set records for most wins and fewest losses.

“It feels great,” Huffman said. “It kind of verifies all the work you’ve done.” But he was quick to add that the honors were a result of the team’s overall success: “When your team wins, you’re much more likely to get individual awards.”

Though the Bears’ three All-Ivy representatives jelled on the court this year, they took very different paths to earning the honors.

Huffman’s first-team award was perhaps the most expected. The Petoskey, Mich., native has starred since he first stepped on the court in the 2004-05 season, when he was named the league’s Rookie of the Year after scoring 8.4 points a game and making 41 percent of his three-pointers.

But the guard then hit a sophomore slump. The next season, Huffman finished second on the team with 10.4 points per game, but made just 39 percent of his field goals and 29 percent of his three-pointers.

“I think I got complacent after my freshman year,” he said, “and after my sophomore year, when I realized I needed to work harder and train to do better, that’s what I did.”

Huffman’s hard work paid off the next year, when he earned an All-Ivy Honorable Mention after scoring 14.7 points per game, seventh best in the league, in his first season under Head Coach Craig Robinson. He earned first-team honors this year after averaging 14.9 points per game, fifth best in the league. Huffman was also one of the league’s most accurate shooters, making 48 percent of his field goals and 45 percent of his three-pointers. He will graduate with Brown’s all-time three-pointers record, with 223 made.

But McAndrew and Skrelja took a more unlikely route to the league awards. McAndrew said that as he and Skrelja walked to practice yesterday, they talked about how they went from “sitting at the end of the bench” for a losing team in the 2005-06 season to “having professors and students walking up to (us) and congratulating (us) on the year.”

McAndrew, a Barrington native, was supposed to be the story of the local boy doing good. But after averaging about 13 minutes and four points per game his freshman year, he seemed to fall out of favor with former Head Coach Glen Miller. In his sophomore year, McAndrew’s playing time was reduced to only 10.3 minutes per game, the fourth-lowest average on the team.

But his junior year saw a new coach in Robinson and, for McAndrew, new energy. Out of nowhere, it seemed, McAndrew became the league’s top scorer, with 15.8 points per game. He earned his first first-team All-Ivy award.

This year, McAndrew led the league again in scoring, with 16.5 points per game. He also finished 10th in the league in rebounding from his guard position, with 5.0 per game. McAndrew was a contender for the league’s Player of the Year award, but lost to Louis Dale, the Cornell guard who helped lead the Big Red to a 14-0 league season and its first NCAA Tournament trip in 20 years. But McAndrew said he wasn’t disappointed.

“I really feel that the award should go to the best player on the best team,” he said.

McAndrew said he did feel honored to be named to the All-Ivy first team for the second year in a row. He becomes the seventh Brown player to be named to the first team two or more times.

“To repeat the award, it’s definitely a difficult accomplishment,” he said. “I always felt the pressure to perform for the team and myself.”

But McAndrew said he felt even more glad for Skrelja’s recognition. Skrelja, who ran the team’s offense as a sort of point forward, passed up many shots on offense “for the good of the team,” McAndrew said.

Skrelja said he didn’t think much of it when Robinson announced the award winners to the team after practice on Wednesday. But he finally felt proud after thinking about what he went through over the past three years.

The Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., native attended a top basketball high school in Connecticut and had the goal of being the best freshman in the league when he first got to Brown. But he had a difficult first year, dealing with homesickness and a losing team.

After his freshman year, in which he played in all 27 games and averaged 13.6 minutes per contest, he was poised to become one of the team’s top players in his sophomore year. But he missed about 12 weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his left foot, and struggled to catch up with the rest of the team after he healed.

Completely recovered this season, Skrelja demonstrated his versatility, finishing second in the league in assists per game (4.0) and third in rebounds per game (6.7). He also scored 8.6 points per game and led the team with three double-doubles.

Still, Skrelja said the award offers little consolation for him, since the Bears fell just short of the league title to Cornell. He said he is determined to help his team win the conference next year.

But first, the Bears are hoping that this season is not over yet. On Sunday, after the NCAA Tournament selection show, they’re hoping for a call from a representative of either the National Invitational Tournament or the new, 16-team College Basketball Invitational. The players haven’t yet decided if they’ll gather on Sunday to watch the NIT selection show, but they said they’ll be keeping a close eye on college basketball results that day.