Islanders rise out of ocean, oblivion

first_imgCHICAGO — Ronnie Arrow felt the itch. Having sat out from coaching for two years on a self-imposed sabbatical, the former South Alabama coach was ready to get back to coaching. He and his wife decided by the time their brand-new house was built, he would have a job back on the sidelines.”I was hungry; I was out of coaching for two years,” Arrow said. “My spark was back, and I was ready to go.” Right on cue, with his new home only three weeks from completion, Arrow — with a little help from his friend Tim Floyd — was hired as the new head coach of upstart Texas A&M Corpus Christi.When No. 2-seeded Wisconsin takes the floor Friday afternoon against No. 15 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the Badgers will be taking on an opponent that has built itself up from nothing in only nine years. “That’s very impressive. It says a lot about the coach and the coaching staff and the players that are there, how focused they are, how willing they are to buy into the system,” UW senior guard Kammron Taylor said. “Probably a couple years ago, nobody would ever have thought they would be here. So it’s a good story to see them here playing in the tournament.”Just nine years ago, TAMUCC didn’t even have a basketball team. They only had a dream, a hope of one day hosting big time college basketball. That dream comes true Friday, as the Islanders — in only their eighth year of play, and in just their first year of non-independent status — have reached the small-school mountaintop: the NCAA tournament.”We are very thrilled to be here; we paved the way to be here,” said senior Taurean Mitchell, a native of Corpus Christi. “I’ve been here four years. [Now] we have a chance.”It wasn’t easy starting from scratch. “This program has been my baby, from the embryo stage on to now,” Arrow said. “Nine years ago, we had nothing. We had no logo; we didn’t have pencils and papers. I was in four different offices. … We had nothing.”Nothing but a coach. Next, the school needed a team. That part wasn’t too difficult, as the island university in many ways sells itself.”Our university is on an island right on the Gulf of Mexico,” Arrow said. “They can go 25 yards out of their apartments and catch supper. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. We can sell Texas A&M Corpus Christi.”Senior guard Josh Ervin put it a little bit differently.”It’s really sunny, we’ve got some great weather, pretty ladies and everything,” Ervin said. Once the school had players and a coach, they needed a place to play. That’s when things really got hard. Playing in an ice rink with a floor over it in a chilly make-shift arena referred to by Arrow as “The Cold Dome” — cold enough to see your breath — the Islanders weren’t exactly playing in Madison Square Garden. “We’d drive-by recruits,” Arrow said. “We’d say ‘That’s where we play,’ and keep on going. There was no way we were showing them that place.”The team finally received a more fitting home in 2004, when the American Bank Center was completed, with the team playing its first game there Nov. 6.”It may not be as big, but it’s nice as any place in the country,” Arrow said. The school had a coach, a team and now an arena. Now they needed success. While playing in the purgatory that is Division-I Independent play, the Islanders had flirted with .500 in their first five years. However, in the 2004-05 season, the team won 20 games, and then repeated the following season, becoming the first Independent school since Notre Dame in 1989 to accomplish the feat. But for all of its hard work, all Corpus Christi could get as a reward was a long vacation, something the Islanders would gladly trade for an invitation to a post-season tournament. Despite the 20-win seasons, an invitation didn’t come.”The guys who came to our university the past eight years had no chance,” Arrow said. “For the past two years, we were the first Independent since ’89 with Notre Dame … to have back-to-back 20-win seasons, but we didn’t have a chance to get into [the postseason].”The players were equally frustrated.”The first three years I was here that we weren’t in a conference, we went 20-8 and still didn’t get a bid anywhere,” Ervin said. “We really wanted to prove to a lot of people that Texas A&M Corpus Christi can really play some basketball.”This year, the Islanders get their chance, gaining admission to the Southland conference. The team promptly showed its gratitude for being added to the league by going 26-6, taking the regular-season Southland title, winning the conference tournament and stealing the automatic-bid to the NCAA tournament in just its first year.”We are so appreciative of being able to get into the Southland Conference,” Arrow said. “We don’t want to wait for any more committees to invite us; we invited ourselves.”Now, Corpus Christi finds itself in a dream position, with the chance, finally, to dance and to knock off one of the nation’s premier schools. “This is a one-shot deal; this isn’t a series and on any given night,” Arrow added. “We understand that in the history of the NCAA tournament only four times has a 15 (seed) beat a two (seed), and we hope to be No. 5.”The Badgers realize their opponent cannot be taken lightly at all, or else UW could find itself as the latest seemingly impossible mission accomplished by TAMUCC.”Our eyes are open. It’s not like a non-conference game or a regular-season game; … anyone can knock you out,” senior forward Alando Tucker said. “You can’t overlook any opponent, and we recognize that.”In truth, it would be an act of pure wonderment for Wisconsin to overlook a program that has to garner so much respect for the amazing job of rising not from the ashes, but from the dirt itself to become an NCAA tournament team. “You do it with hard work and perseverance and because in America you can,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said.Nine years ago, Arrow was working on completing a house. Now he is looking to complete building his program. The Badgers had better be ready.”I know and respect the job that they do,” said Arrow. “But we’re comin’ to play.”last_img

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