Vega, Winthrop men's basketball kick off season today

bmccormick@heraldonline.comNovember 8, 2013 

While his teammates pounded through college basketball practices just 10 feet away, Brandon Vega was busily plowing through his own personal campaign last season at the Winthrop Coliseum, rehabbing his torn ACL. The rest of the Winthrop men’s basketball team listened to coach Pat Kelsey’s instructions, perfected defensive closeouts, that kind of stuff. All the while, Vega was on the sidelines blurring through a rope ladder laid on the floor, his feet pitter-patting through the grid like a jazz pianist tickling the keys. Vega and that rope ladder got pretty close; surely he misses it now that he’s returned to playing?

“Uh, no, not at all,” Vega said Thursday after his team’s two-hour practice.

In this story, the rope ladder could symbolize a rusty pair of manacles. After an arduous rehab, Vega is free of the rope ladder now. Saturday, the redshirt junior will suit up in the Eagles’ season opener against Roanoke College. The shackles are off and it’s time for Vega, and Winthrop’s basketball team, to crank up the tempo.

“The thing that makes him special is he is absolutely a blur, going from one end of the floor to the other,” Kelsey said, his eyes wide with excitement. “He is downhill as fast as any point guard I’ve ever been around. He will be an absolute bolt of lightning when he comes in the game.”

After promising the Eagles would play faster at his opening press conference, Kelsey’s first team was unable to do so in large part because Vega tore his ACL during an open gym at the school’s West Center in August of 2012. The injury forced Vega to take stock of his inner fortitude.

"It challenged me mentally," he said. "I'd never faced anything like that before, so I had to overcome a lot of adversity. Coach Kelsey and my teammates kept me positive the whole time. When I got the news that I couldn't play I always wondered how I would react to an injury like that, but I just stayed positive. I'm just thankful to be out here with my teammates and be able to play this year."

"He dealt with it like a pro," Kelsey said. "(Trainer) Jeff Lahr said he may have been the hardest working patient that he's ever been around, and that's Brandon. He's always the first one in the gym and the last one to leave."

Without Vega last year, Winthrop created few easy buckets in transition and halfcourt offensive possessions were sluggish and labored. Winthrop’s average possession length in 2012-13 was 20.4 seconds, which made Kelsey’s team the 324th slowest offense in the country (out of 347) last season. Football teams may want to control the ball, and accordingly the clock, but there are very few college basketball teams that actively want to slow the game. Enter Vega, the point guard spur the Eagles lacked.

“Everybody knows on this team if they run with me they’re gonna get the ball and that’s the way I like to play,” Vega said. “I don’t like to play ‘slow it down.’ I think we’re gonna be a lot of fun to watch this year.”

Vega used to do an NBA drill in high school called “10’s” where the player goes the length of the court and back 10 times. The fastest he’d ever been timed was 53 seconds. Oh, and he was dribbling a basketball... in his opposite left hand. That kind of blistering pace led former Snow College coach Michael Ostlund to recruit Vega from North Miami for the same reasons as Kelsey, primarily to speed up his team. During Vega’s sophomore season at Snow, a junior college in Utah, he averaged 11.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, while leading the Scenic West Athletic Conference with 6.4 assists per game.

"He can take the ball and fly. I've said it a hundred times, I've coached basketball for 20 years, with the ball from free throw to free throw line, no one does it faster," said Ostlund. At least "No one I have coached. He can really fly with the ball."

Vega’s presence will be felt in the half court just as much as when he’s sprinting full tilt. The Eagles struggled immensely last year in half court offensive sets, which resulted in too many late shot clock situations. Even if Winthrop doesn’t get much better at generating offense from 47 feet and in, Vega’s ability to create off the dribble should salvage some messy offensive possessions that would have been empty trips in 2012.

Ostlund’s use of Vega reveals another area where he will cause trouble for Big South opponents this season: dribbling off of ball screens. At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Vega’s low center of gravity makes him a nightmare for big men to try and wall off in screening situations. Add the fact that NCAA referees were given a mandate in the offseason to increase hand-checking foul calls, and it’s easy to see where Vega could get opposing teams into foul problems quickly. For a Winthrop team that struggled to score last season, bonus trips to the free throw line will be welcome.

“The way the rules are now, it’s catering to the offense because guys can’t put their hands on you,” said Vega. “I think me and my teammates are going to be able to take advantage of that. I’m looking for contact all the time anyway, so I think it’s going to be hard for guys to stay in front of me and cut me off.”

Winthrop has more shooters from the wings and corners this year, which should enhance Vega’s effectiveness. Andre Smith, who filled in ably at point guard last season, can return to his true position, shooting guard, while senior Christian Farmer returns and smooth-shooting transfer Keon Moore is eligible. Six-foot-7 Serbian freshman Ivan Saicic and Central Arkansas transfer (and walk-on) Carlin Bremner can also fill it up from outside. Vega will also be able to kick the ball to Joab Jerome, the team’s best driver from the perimeter.

“Our offense is more...” Kelsey considered the right word, before settling on “potent.” “You can go to the 11th or 12th guy and I would be comfortable with them on the floor. We will play a lot more guys this year; there will be more frequent substitutions because our pace will be faster.”

Where depth was an issue for Kelsey’s program last season, there are no such issues this season, despite offseason injuries to Moore, Derrick Henry and Duby Okeke, all currently sidelined. Vega knows he can stomp the pedal to the hardwood with Smith and freshman Keon Johnson, a near clone of Vega, able to run the team.

“The freshmen, they’re ready to go now,” Vega said. “I think the good thing about this year is we’re deep.”

Kelsey plans to bring Vega off the bench initially as he eases back into the flow of the game. The Eagles will be one of the few teams in the country whose play will speed up when the backup point guard enters the ball game. The coach and the player are fighting the temptation to try too much too soon, but Vega has an appreciation of just being back, something the injury, and an offseason mission trip to Haiti, helped engender. It’s been 17 months since he last played a competitive basketball game. Saturday against Roanoke College, the little point guard will finally let it rip.

"My family is gonna be here, so it's going to be very exciting for me,” he said. “I probably won't be able to sleep Friday night. I'm gonna be real antsy, but after that first good play I think I'm gonna be all right."

An emotional guy, Kelsey said seeing Vega return on Saturday will tug at his tear ducts.

“Anybody that’s ever spent time around Brandon and gotten to know him, absolutely loves him,” Kelsey said. “He loves Winthrop and he is going to be a huge part of our success.”

The sports car is out of the garage and the dust cover is off. It’s time for Winthrop to test it out.

“There aren’t a whole lot of guarantees in life,” Kelsey said, “but the one guarantee that I know, that you can take to the bank, is that we will not be 324th in the country in possession length this year.”

Bret McCormick •  803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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