BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The attachments to Jason Rowe's crib included a Nerf basket.
His career in organized basketball began at the age of 8 -- in an under-13 league.
On the surface, Rowe's precociousness carried over to Loyola College, but underneath the smooth numbers he has put up for the Greyhounds was an awfully rocky adjustment to his freshman year. There was too much to learn, too many roster changes, and, worst of all, too many losses.
"I was pretty depressed," Rowe said of Loyola's 2-10 start. "I was 26-3 last year, on a state championship team. I've never been through such adversity. I remember talking to my younger brother, telling him, 'I can't believe this is happening. People are either hurt or leaving school.' I wondered if I was next."
Rowe need not have worried. He has started all of Loyola's 26 games. The 18-year-old, all 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds of him, has gotten stronger down the stretch and his development is one reason the Greyhounds will return to his hometown as the streaking third seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
If Loyola (13-13) beats Niagara (10-16) in the last of the four quarterfinals tonight, the Greyhounds probably will get Canisius, another local favorite, in tomorrow's semifinals. Most fans here are rooting for an all-area semifinal, but Rowe's high school coach says they're wasting their breath.
"Loyola is going to win the tournament, and Jason is going to be named the Most Valuable Player," Joe Cardinal said. "No doubt in my mind. I learned long ago never to put anything past Jason."
Rowe was the first player in New York state prep history to reach 2,000 career points and 2,000 career assists, but he did so in an unconventional program at Traditional High.
Now, Rowe is an unconventional point guard -- he has a sleek shooting stroke and a 36-inch vertical leap -- on an unconventional team. The threat in the low post is Mike Powell, a 6-2 shooting guard. Loyola is down to nine healthy scholarship players and one big man, and Rowe needed time to figure how the pieces fit.
"My high school coach said he was going to write a book about our state championship," Rowe said. "The title was going to be 'All The Way Without A Play.' I played with a lot of talented guys in high school. All five would bring the ball up the floor. That was fine, but things in Division I are a little more structured."
Loyola coach Brian Ellerbe, who was force-fed the starting point guard job when he was a freshman at Rutgers, understood the difficulty of the transition. Rowe didn't know how to fight his way around a screen, or how to spot a teammate coming off one. As late as January, there were nights when Rowe was still a liability in crunch time.
"It's a double-edged sword," Ellerbe said. "Some kids can be over-coached in high school, but Jason had to learn about structure, offensively and defensively. He played off his offense early on. When his shot was on, everything clicked. When he was not making shots, the world was coming to an end.
"If a play didn't develop the way it was drawn up, Jason would go nuts. He'd take it upon himself to create whatever he could, and that could be anything. You've got a 5-9 kid picking up his dribble in the lane, and that's a no-no, but the only way for a point guard to learn is to play. When I recruited him, I said I was going to live or die with this kid."
Ellerbe has lived the good life lately. Loyola's only losses in its past 10 games were at Rutgers and Iona, and over that stretch Rowe is averaging 18.3 points on 55.1 percent shooting. For the season, he's averaging 14.1 points on 46.5 percent shooting. He leads Loyola, and all MAAC freshmen, in assists (107), steals (54) and three-pointers (45).
Ricky Bellinger of St. Peter's was named MAAC Rookie of the Year, but Rowe has his backers.
"Quite frankly, Jason Rowe is a level or two above this league," Niagara coach Jack Armstrong said. "He was a Big East player. I can't understand where the Big East schools were on Jason."
Cardinal admits he didn't have a reputation for producing college prospects, but Rowe's potential was visible on the AAU circuit. There were concerns about his build and questions about his academics, but at the start of his senior year, he added two core curriculum courses that eventually would make him eligible as a freshman.
In the end, Marquette was Loyola's only major-conference competition for Rowe.
"Jason's recruiting was a little strange," Ellerbe said. "It was definitely a result of coaches not doing their homework."
Ellerbe is glad he did his.
MAAC tournament At Buffalo, N.Y.
Today No. 1 Iona (22-6, 11-3) vs. No. 8 Fairfield (8-18, 2-12), noon
No. 4 St. Peter's (12-14, 9-5) vs. No. 5 Manhattan (9-17, 5-9), 2: 30 p.m.
No. 2 Canisius (15-11, 10-4) vs. No. 7 Siena (9-17, 4-10), 7 p.m.
No. 3 Loyola (13-13, 10-4) vs. No. 6 Niagara (10-16, 5-9), 9: 30 p.m.
Iona-Fairfield winner vs. St. Peter's-Manhattan winner, 6 p.m.
Canisius-Siena winner vs. Loyola-Niagara winner, 8: 30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 7: 30 p.m.
Pub Date: 3/01/97