By Andrew Festa
Progress in UIW’s men’s basketball program is evident everywhere you look at the McDermott Convocation Center. It’s visible from the upgraded locker room and weight room to the new basketball goals, once used in an NBA All-Star Game.
Most notable, there’s progress on the court, and that’s saying something considering it’s tough to top back-to-back Heartland Conference championships. In 2010-11, Coach Ken Burmeister’s fifth season at UIW, the team turned heads again, this time as a member of the Lone Star Conference. Even against stiffer competition, the Cardinals won their first 11 games and moved into 9th place, their highest ranking in the National Association of Basketball Coaches poll since UIW joined NCAA’s Division II in 1999-2000.
“We were determined to come in to this new conference and be the best that we can be, and so far we’ve proven that we earned the right to be in the Lone Star Conference,” says junior forward Chris Johnson, from San Antonio’s Brackenridge High School.
The Lone Star Conference name itself is a sign of progress. Assistant coach Prince Johnson says it helps with recruiting and fan attendance, but that’s not all.
“In the Heartland the past two years we’ve gotten a bunch of wins, but we haven’t really gotten the respect because they say we were playing weaker-tier teams. Now, this year, we’re getting the wins, and we’re getting respect,” he said.
Tracy Robinson, a 6-foot-6 forward from Sam Houston High School, has helped turn around the program, Burmeister said. The four-year starter has never had a losing season at UIW. The Cardinals began his senior year 11-0 at home, and they went 35-8 over the previous three seasons.
“We just have a real good chemistry. We like being around each other, we push each other, so that’s really the cause of it – good chemistry – this year,” said Robinson, who was named Lone Star Conference South Division Offensive Player of the Week three times during a four-week stretch in December.
One of this season’s home victories came in double overtime against Midwestern State, which had eliminated the Cardinals in the first round of the NCAA South Central Regionals the past two years.
“Talk about a chip on your shoulder,” said junior guard Shaun Umeh, a nursing major and multiple Player of the Week honoree. “(Midwestern State) put that chip there. Last summer working out, that was probably the one team I was thinking about.”
Another marker of the program’s success is Pierce Caldwell, whose face and feats are plastered all over the Convocation Center. The three-time honorable mention All-American and three-time Heartland Conference Player of the Year is playing professionally in Latvia, in Northern Europe, for the Liepajas Lauvas.
“The biggest adjustment is not basketball, it is the lifestyle,” said Caldwell, 22. “Everything is so much different than in San Antonio. It is a grind everyday. The Americans are expected to carry the team.”
The Baltic League team became interested in Caldwell after he was named co-MVP of the Eurobasket Summer League in Las Vegas last summer. Before going overseas in January, he played eight games for the (Frisco) Texas Legends, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks coached by hall-of-famer Nancy Lieberman.
“Seeing Pierce having success and being able to play on the next level has really boosted my confidence and given me a lot of motivation,” said Robinson, who expects to graduate in May with a degree in kinesiology. Recent graduates Jawan Bailey and Eric Nuncio also played pro ball internationally in 2010-11.
“Incarnate Word did a good job in preparing me for my pro career,” Caldwell said. “They gave me 24/7 access to their facilities, and I used that to the fullest.”
All current Cardinals, including the women’s basketball and volleyball teams, benefit from the new training equipment, flat-screen TVs and computers at the Convocation Center. But Burmeister said the gym still needs new seats until it’s possible to build an arena.
Much of the new equipment has come from funds raised at the annual game dinner – as in wild game, not basketball game. The event has raised more than $100,000 for the team during its six years, said Mike Beucler, a local businessman and an active outdoorsman who organizes the dinner and provides the meat. As a donation, Aldo’s Italian Restaurant prepares the dishes, such as buffalo ravioli, wild boar medallions, wild game sausages and quail, and hosts the event for friends of the program who bring bottles of wine and other items for an auction.
“I consider the cause to be so worthy because I see these young men and the effort that they put in and I see the educations that they’re getting … really enhancing their lives,” Beucler said. “And for me to be able to be such a small part of that is very rewarding.”
Beucler, of Beucler Properties Inc., credits fellow university trustees Gary Henry of Schlitterbahn and John Miller of Bill Miller Bar-B-Q as well as Gary Joeris of Joeris Construction with helping coordinate the event.
“That has been critical for our success, the friends of the (basketball) program,” Burmeister said. “What we have to do is get some alumni friends of the program. We need to find them.”
Because the program’s progress is palpable, and the momentum is building.