When it comes to Jermaine Bolden, Morgan State's fireplug point guard, appearances can be, and often are, deceiving.
The player known on campus as "Itchy" is listed generously at 5 feet 9 (generous by perhaps 2 inches) and 175 pounds, which is a shadow of the 199 pounds he said he weighed at the end of last season.
As Bears assistant Kevin McClain noted yesterday: "He moves slow and looks like he's old, but he's in great shape."
This week, the Bears are headed to Kansas City, Mo., for their first NCAA Division I tournament in school history, an accomplishment attributable in large measure to Bolden's evolving game in the backcourt. Whatever success they have as a No. 15 seed in the South against No. 2 seed Oklahoma on Thursday will come at Bolden's direction.
He is the man the Bears listen to on the floor, even though he's a man of few words.
That was evident in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game against Norfolk State on Saturday. Four minutes in, the Bears already had three turnovers and trailed 7-2 when a media timeout sent them to the bench. Without prompting, Bolden lit into his teammates and ordered them to stop rushing shots.
"He really barked at them, too," said another assistant, Sam Brand.
The deficit went to 10-2, but then the Bears went on an 18-0 run and won by 14. The barking wouldn't have happened a year ago or perhaps even earlier this season, when Bolden would have held his tongue.
But a two-year stint at a West Texas community college and a year under Morgan coach Todd Bozeman have remade Bolden into one of the MEAC's best point guards.
"You have to give him a lot of credit," Bozeman said. "He adjusted his game to a pass-first and distribute-the-ball mentality. He hadn't won doing that on this level until now."
When Bolden played at Chinquapin Middle School for Darron Wheeler, he was more scorer than point guard. Same thing at Douglass High under Rodney Coffield.
"He tried to get everybody involved," Coffield said. "But things would go awry and he would take the game into his own hands. In the offense we had, we gave him the green light."
Said Bolden: "I passed a few times."
With Bolden and Morgan State teammate Troy Smith averaging 20-plus points, Douglass won the 2004 state title. But Bolden didn't qualify on his SAT and had to settle for going to South Plains College in Levelland, Texas.
There, he found culture shock - and a new game.
"It was real different," said Bolden, 22. "It kind of grew on me, though. I had more time to put into basketball and studying. Being on my own gave me time to think about what I wanted to do with my life."
Bolden had plenty of reason to buckle down. After his first year in Texas, his third child was born (the three came by two mothers). He had real-life responsibilities.
Wheeler remembers a 14-year-old who wasn't interested in academics and had some behavioral issues off the court.
"Now I see a guy who has really developed into a young man and accepted the role his life has presented," said Wheeler, who works for Morgan's campus police department now. "He's a true success story."
Not everyone appreciates Bolden's progress, though. Despite leading the conference in assists, averaging five, and posting the best assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.8), he was left off the first two All-MEAC teams. In the MEAC tournament, he averaged 16 points and five assists but was passed over for the all-tournament team.
Morgan has no misconceptions about his contribution.
"Before, he was a straight-up scorer," Smith said. "Now, he's a flat-out leader. He doesn't have to shoot the ball to control the team now."
In the process, Bolden - who can't recall how he came to be "Itchy" - has acquired a new nickname, Mustang.
"He drives the car," McClain said of his role at Morgan. "He always finds a way."
Note:: Tickets for Morgan's NCAA appearance ($63, which covers two games) can be purchased at the Student Center box office or by calling 443-885-3050 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
MORGAN STATE (23-11) VS. OKLAHOMA (27-5)
approximately 9:40 p.m.
Kansas City, Mo.
TV: Ch. 13
Line: Oklahoma by 16 1/2