By Matt Bracken, The Baltimore Sun
6:50 PM EST, December 20, 2012
Tommy Brenton acknowledges he felt nervous the last time he took the floor at Comcast Center. It was the spring of 2007, and the senior forward had led his River Hill basketball team to the Class 3A state championship game.
With a Maryland grad and "big Terps basketball fan" for a father, Brenton grew up dreaming of the day he'd play on the same court where he watched Gary Williams-coached teams grind out victories.
On Friday, more than five-and-a-half years after leading the Hawks to their first boys basketball state title, Brenton will make his long-awaited return to Comcast Center, only this time the anxiety of a high school senior will be replaced by the confidence of a 23-year-old graduate student.
"When I was in high school [I was nervous], but I feel like this is my eighth year playing," said Brenton, whose Stony Brook squad will give Maryland its last legitimate test of the non-conference schedule. "I've been around the block once or twice."
Brenton, the reigning America East Defensive Player of the Year, jokes about his longevity, but there's truth behind his exaggerations. After graduating from River Hill in 2007 with one partial scholarship offer from a Division II school in West Virginia, Brenton decided that a year of prep school at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., would suit him well.
It was at Hargrave that Brenton completely changed his game, morphing from a dynamic scoring threat — 20.9 points per game his senior year at River Hill — to a do-it-all, ultra-tough forward. Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell made two trips to Hargrave to watch Brenton practice.
"You truly can't appreciate him unless you watch in a practice session. Just watch him play," Pikiell said. "He's got terrific IQ — that's the first thing that jumps off the page. The team he played on was so good. They probably had 12, 13 Division I guys. They would beat teams by a lot. They went undefeated that year. You couldn't really appreciate him during the games, subbing guys in and out. But I loved his versatility."
Brenton chose the Seawolves over offers from UMBC and Western Carolina. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward immediately changed the fortunes of Stony Brook, helping a program that won just seven games when he was at Hargrave to a 16-14 record his freshman year. A double-double threat every night, Brenton was named to his conference's All-Rookie team as a freshman, the All-Defensive team as a sophomore and — after missing his junior year with a dislocated kneecap and torn ligaments in his right knee — first-team All-America East during his fourth year in Long Island.
"He's an old-fashioned throwback player. He's a blue-collar guy," Pikiell said. "He leads us in floor burns, charges, rebounds in traffic. He does all the little things. He's so unselfish. He's a pass-first guy, rebounder first, take-a-charge guy. All the stats don't always show up in the points column. I'm most excited because we've been able to build the team around a guy that's so unselfish. The best player usually has streaks where he'll take 10 shots in a row. This guy would be very happy making 10 assists in a row. He's about the end result, which is the winning part."
The play of Brenton, who's averaging 7.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals for the Seawolves (8-2), hasn't gone unnoticed by other coaches. Stony Brook's all-time leader in rebounds and steals has a fan in Maryland coach Mark Turgeon.
"To me, he's the piece that makes them go," Turgeon said. "He doesn't score the most points. He does rebound the most. He's the most complete player they have. He plays multiple positions for them."
Brenton's Stony Brook squad enters Friday's game as a decided underdog, but one thing the Seawolves will have going for them is an unusually loud cheering section for an away game. Jeff Brenton, Tommy's father, works for a local sporting goods manufacturer, and has been known to distribute red t-shirts emblazoned with his son's No. 24 on the backs.
"Last year at UMBC he passed out the shirts [and you could] see a sea of red," Brenton said. "I think he's got something in store [for Friday]. I'm sure he's going to go all out."
No matter what happens Friday during his homecoming, Brenton think Stony Brook is in "a great position" to make its first NCAA tournament in school history. Pikiell can think of no better way for his star player to cap an already accomplished college career.
"He's the most underrated player in the country. I honestly think he could play anywhere," Pikiell said. "To say he's important to our program is an understatement. … He really changed the culture for us. I'm just really, really excited for him to finish out his career the right way."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun