Just last season, the Bowie State men's basketball team entered the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament with a 22-4 record and high hopes, but after receiving a first-round bye, the Bulldogs were eliminated by Johnson C. Smith, 82-66.
It was the second straight year that the Bulldogs failed to win a game in the CIAA tournament, and the losses are providing motivation entering this week's event in Charlotte, N.C.
"We know how that feels," said junior guard Byron Westmorland (Mervo, Baltimore City Community College), who last week was named to the 2011-12 All-CIAA team. "The last couple of seasons we had success in the regular season and I think we let that get to our heads. ... If we take care of business, it will be a great year for us, but if we don't it'll just be a disappointment, and we're not trying to be disappointed this year."
Bowie State again took care of business during the 2011-12 regular season, going 21-5 and winning the CIAA North.
The key was a renewed commitment to defense, and the turning point was back-to-back losses in early January, to Winston-Salem State (70-69) and to Shaw (83-73), losses which dropped the Bears to 9-3.
Bowie State won its next seven straight, allowing an average of 65 points a game during the run.
"The first key is always what we do defensively," said third-year Bulldogs coach Darrell Brooks, who played point guard for Bowie State from 1975 to 1979. "It's kind of what we've made this program into now. We want to be a hard-hat defensive team — come out every night and guard your man and rebound the basketball — which will allow us to run. But defense is the first key, the biggest key for us in this program — how we defend."
Bowie's defensive backbone is senior forward-center Travis Hyman (Old Mill, Anne Arundel Community College), who last week was named the CIAA Defensive Player of the Year. Hyman, who is scoring 10.2 points per game, leads the team with averages of 8.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks a game.
"He gives us a big, athletic shot-blocker in the back," Brooks said. "He allows us to pressure like we do. And if we do make a mistake, or if we do get beat, they know they have Travis behind them to help alter the shot."
Offensively, the Bulldogs are led by All-CIAA senior guard Darren Clark (16.5 points per game), a transfer from Lincoln; Westmorland (14.6); and senior guard Jay Gavin (13.8), a transfer from Virginia Commonwealth.
Hyman is scoring five points under the 15.2 he averaged last season as the Bulldogs' second-leading scorer. The drop in production is one Hyman says has benefited the team.
"I'm willing to sacrifice my points for us to win," Hyman said. "I'm willing to give up my shot for somebody else to get a shot; I'm not worried about getting the ball. As long as we defend and win, I'm happy."
Bowie State is positioned to participate in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region tournament. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 6 in the Atlantic, and the top eight teams in each of the eight regions in Division II qualify for the regional tournaments.
Brooks believes his team's willpower will get the job done.
"I love my basketball team. I love these guys," Brooks said."They worked really, really hard this year — all year long. And they want to win as bad as anybody."
Hyman said the team is determined to meet its expectations, starting with Thursday's CIAA quarterfinal at 3 p.m. against Livingston, Chowan or Virginia State.
"We have what it takes," he said. "We need to play as a team, do what we do and keep defending — stick to our principle. … As long as everybody comes with their attitude to do what we do and play as a team, I think there's no stopping us."