Points, praise are piling up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every one of his games, whether it's big or small, can't start until he makes two phone calls.

He's superstitious like that. Always has been, now that he thinks about it. At some point, the routine simply became a part of him. The familiarity of things helps him relax. Skip it, and something just doesn't feel right. It's the way most great scorers are built. Above all things, they need confidence, which is why Loyola's Andre Collins picks up the phone before every game and dials the same two numbers.

The first call is to one of his closest friends, a guy Collins knows will have his back no matter what. The conversation is never long, but it's always important. The next call is to his older brother, Andrew, a former Division II player at Davis & Elkins College. They joke a little bit, tease one another like brothers often do, then say goodbye.

"From there," Collins says, "it's all business."

The pre-game ritual is not complete, however, without one last thing. In the locker room, before he takes the court, Collins puts on his headphones, closes his eyes and cues up the song "U Don't Know" by rapper Jay-Z. One lyric stands out above all the rest. It's the last line, but it's also the most important, both for Collins and for the Greyhounds this season.

I. Will. Not. Lose. Ever.

"I rewind it like five or six times, just to play that one little part," Collins says. "That's the last thing I hear before I go onto the floor."

Loyola (10-4) hasn't quite gone undefeated this season (its loss Saturday to Niagara ended a three-game winning streak) but Collins - who transferred from Maryland in 2004, then sat out last season in accordance with NCAA rules - has helped inject the program with the belief that, each game, anything short of a victory is unacceptable.

That's quite the leap for a program that, before this season, hadn't won more than seven games in a season since 1998-99. But Collins has helped Greyhounds fans forget those lean years awfully quickly. His 27.7-point scoring average is third in the country, trailing only Gonzaga's Adam Morrison (28.2) and Towson's Gary Neal (27.8).

"Individually, it's a nice achievement, but what makes it even better is the team is winning," Collins says. "I think my teammates have been doing a great job of finding me, setting screens for me and getting me the ball. The coach is also calling the right plays."

Collins may sound humble when he's off the court these days, but catch him on the hardwood, and you'll see the cocky swagger and upper-lip curl of a player who feels, at times, as if he can do anything with a basketball in his hands. Collins has scored more than 30 points in a game five times this season, including 39 twice in losses to Manhattan and Providence.

He also set a school record with nine three-pointers in a 78-75 win over Marist on Jan. 8, but his best game may have come Dec. 31 at Delaware, when Collins scored 36 points, had eight assists and grabbed five rebounds in a 99-86 victory. It was the most points anyone had scored against Delaware in 15 years.

"Once you let him get into a zone, he's tough to stop," says Delaware coach David Henderson. "He shoots so well, which makes him dangerous, and he has tremendous range. He's an excellent ballhandler and he doesn't get rattled easy. But what impresses me is, he makes plays, but he also makes his teammates better. He finds the open man, which makes him a huge weapon."

Most people figured Collins would have success in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference after spending three years at Maryland, but few saw this coming. In fact, Loyola's Jimmy Patsos was the only coach to vote for Collins in the preseason MAAC balloting for all-conference selections. Collins didn't even make the cut for honorable mention.

"A lot of people were a little surprised about me not getting voted on any of the teams, but then, I haven't really been able to show my talents since high school," says Collins, who scored 2,152 points during his career at Crisfield. "It just gave me the extra push and motivation to play hard."

Motivation has never really been a problem for the 6-0 Collins, who, because of his lack of size, knew he had to step onto the court every time with the mentality that he couldn't be stopped. Collins spent much of his childhood trying to emulate his idol, Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, dating as far back as Iverson's career at Georgetown.

"I've always admired his will," Collins says. "Undersized guards have to be competitive. They have to have some type of fire and have no fear out there. That's what I like about Allen Iverson so much. He'll go in, get his shot blocked, get banged around, and he'll come back next possession and go right at them and score."

Collins, who plays point guard and shooting guard for the Greyhounds, looked a bit like Iverson against Manhattan this season, when he went off for 39 points against the league's top team.

"Andre is a terrific player and is probably as good a scoring guard as I've seen in this league since I've been here," says Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez. "He was spectacular against us. ... You can match up with him and double him, but if he gets in a rhythm, sometimes it doesn't matter. Some guys are just good enough that they're not going to be stopped."

For the first time in years, Collins feels like one of those players again.

"It definitely feels like high school," Collins says. "I'm very happy to be in this situation and to have this opportunity. I'm just trying to make the best of it."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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