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Wayne Cavadi | | February 26, 2016

DII basketball: Former NBA star Scott Burrell excelling in debut as head coach

  Scott Burrell spent eight seasons as an assistant at Quinnipiac and player at UConn and in the NBA.

Scott Burrell has been a high school standout, a college basketball star, and an assistant coach in his home state of Connecticut. Now he can add head coach to his resume as he took the reigns of Southern Connecticut State for the 2015-16 season. He was not the only first-year head coach in DII men’s basketball this season, but he is arguably the most recognizable. 

Burrell came to SCSU with a portfolio full of accomplishments that would top any athletic director’s wish list. He first became part of UConn’s illustrious lore when he played for Jim Calhoun. His Huskies would go 31-8 during the 1989-90 season. Burrell's freshman year, and he would toss a memorable long pass to Tate George for a buzzer beater over Clemson in the Sweet 16. He ended his UConn career as one of their finest all-around players becoming the first Husky in school history to compile 1,500 points, 750 rebounds, 275 assists and 300 steals.

He parlayed his collegiate career into NBA success, becoming a first round pick of the Charlotte Hornets and making him the first athlete to be drafted in the first round of two different sports (the Seattle Mariners drafted him out of high school his senior year). Eventually, he would reach the pinnacle of his NBA career, winning an NBA Championship as part of the Chicago Bulls 1990s dynasty, a defining moment in which he learned everlasting lessons.

“You learn that there are no days off, you come to practice to play like it’s a game every day and you learn how hard you have to work to be great,” Burrell said of his experience of being a world champion. “You learn what it takes to be professional at your craft, that’s why they were the best and still are the best. Michael [Jordan]’s competitive drive, his work ethic and his tenacity is what makes him the best basketball player to ever play.”

He played overseas for several seasons before he became an assistant for coach Tom Moore at Quinnipiac. Burrell spent eight seasons with the Bobcats before accepting his first head coaching job, a position in which he seemingly knew he would one day be destined.

“When you love the game, and you love being around the game, you think of a second career when your playing days are over. I wanted to coach,” Burrell said. “My father was a coach, I played for some great coaches. It’s a bug, you want to pass on what you’ve learned from the guys you’ve played with and the coaches you’ve played for.”

It seemed as if every stop of his journey had prepared him for that July 13 day that SCSU named him Michael Donnelly’s replacement and the next head coach of the Owls. During his playing years, for example, he was able to watch and learn from some legendary coaches like Calhoun, Phil Jackson and John Calipari.

“If you're not a sponge wherever you go, you're wasting time and your missing out,” Burrell said of the knowledge he has gained. “I learned from playing for three Hall of Fame coaches. They’re winners for a reason. They are great motivators, great teachers, great Xs and Os and they know the game mentally and physically and they’ve passed that on to those players that they’ve touched.”

Burrell really learned the ropes from Moore once he got to Quinnipiac. Moore and Burrell shared the common bond of sitting on the bench under Calhoun, Burrell as a player and Moore as an assistant coach and one of the best recruiters in the nation. That bond grew greater as their coaching team led the Bobcats to four postseason appearances.

“It was great working for Tom,” Burrell said. “You pick up something from every coach you’ve ever been around. Coach Moore had that same mentality that he picked up for UConn. He’s very philosophical. He’s very tactical in what he says and he calmed me down as a coach and it was what I needed. When you’re playing you can be aggressive, but when you’re a coach you are mentoring and teaching youthful kids.”

Now Burrell had the task of replacing Donnelly, which would be no easy ordeal. Donnelly transformed the SCSU program from a two-win team in 2009-10 to a 30-win team just two seasons ago. The Owls are on the heels of consecutive round of 16 appearances, and Burrell, of course, is expected to maintain that winning culture.

“Mike Donnelly did a great job here building it back up from where Art Leary had it at one point,” Burrell said. “It’s a winning atmosphere here. 

“You want to keep it going in the same direction. People thought, ‘I know he played, but can he coach?’ You don’t just play basketball, you learn the game and become a professor or doctor of the game. When you play with great players you see how they became great. When you play for great coaches and see how they mentor kids and push them to newer heights in their game you carry that with you. You want to try to be that in your first job.”

The rookie head coach answered the call, leading the Owls to a 22-6 record while winning the Southwest Division and the Northeast-10 regular season title. He also had the honor of coaching some of the conference’s best players. Thursday evening saw four Owls take home honors, including the NE-10 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All Conference honors and an All-Rookie team nod.

Junior guard Michael Mallory would finish second in the NE-10 and 20th in the nation at 22.5 points per game en route to First Team All-Conference. A year after finishing with 12.8 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, senior guard Desmond Williams would elevate his play to new found heights under Burrell. Williams had a monster season racking up 22.3 points and 9.9 rebounds a night. His play would not go unnoticed, as he took home the NE-10 Player of the Year. 

“Dez is a talented, talented kid,” Burrell said. “He scores many different ways, he plays defense, he blocks shots, he can pass it and can handle it. Mike is a dynamic scorer, who’s athletic and explosive. I’m blessed to have those two guys. They bring it to practice everyday, energy and motivation-wise. It’s easy to coach guys like that who carry the team. When your two stars are your best players and your hardest workers, it makes your job as a coach easier.”

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Burrell said that this team was about more than big time scorers and play makers. This rendition of the Owls was full of key role players, much like Burrell became later in his career with the Bulls. Players like Austin Carter who excelled in what they were asked of and looked for opportunity when it became available made this team even stronger. 

“Austin is a quite kid, I try to get him to talk more,” Burrell laughed when describing the NE-10 Defensive Player of the Year. “We put him on the best scorer every game, and he makes it tough on any guy he guards. He loves that challenge. He’s second in the league in blocks, when he’s not playing defense, he had two games with 18 rebounds. He always rises to the occasion.”

Freshman guard Isaiah McLeod — who had committed before Burrell was hired — played in 27 games and finish fourth on the team in scoring at 8.6 points a night. Freshman forward Joey Wallace — son of Syracuse Orange great John Wallace whom is amongst Burrell’s first commitments with SCSU— became a starter en route to capturing NE-10 All-Rookie Team honors. 

“Isaiah is a steady shooter,” Burrell said. “I love coaching him, he’ll have a great postseason. Joey is a hard working, vocal leader and he gets better every day. I had to insert him in the starting lineup because he brings so much energy to the team.”

Now, the Owls patiently await the winner of the American International and Southern New Hampshire game in he NE-10 tournament as they go for the clean sweep of league and tournament titles. Ranked third in the East Region, they have high hopes for an NCAA tournament bid. And Burrell wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I look forward to the challenge that the postseason is going to bring us,” Burrell said. “We have all these kids who have honors. You know what that means? Teams are going to be gunning for us. I’m looking forward to us rising to the occasion every night for the next three games in our conference tournament and into the NCAAs.”