Team preview: Grambling

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

As per NCAA rules, the season doesn't start until early November, and teams can't take the court to practice until mid October. But on the night before Midnight Madness, the Grambling basketball program took the first, and most devastating, loss of the 2005-06 college basketball season.

Seven team members defied head coach Larry Wright's curfew the night of Friday, Oct. 14, 2005, opting to celebrate at a nightspot in Monroe, a city 35 miles east of Grambling's small-town campus. The three-car caravan headed back along Interstate 20 early Saturday morning. At 3:12 a.m., a car driven by then-senior forward Jamar Lewis, traveling at 80 miles per hour, swerved into a tree and burst into flames.

The other two cars stopped, and guard Brion Rush was able to pull both Lewis and 6-6 forward John Dorsey from the front seats to safety. He wasn't, however, able to rescue the two passengers in back -- 20-year-old Marquist McCray, a marching band member who had accompanied the group, and sophomore guard Marcus Watson. Both died instantly when the car's gas tank exploded.

Rush told the Monroe Journal-Star that Lewis had swerved to avoid hitting an animal in the road, and initial police reports indicated that Lewis was neither seat-belted nor sober when the accident occurred. Lewis suffered minor burns and wore a brace for two months; he missed the first four games of the season before averaging 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in the final 23 games.

"[The crash] made each individual do some soul searching, both on and off the court," Wright said. "I think they came to the conclusion that this is valuable time that we have here in college and we need to take advantage of the opportunity. We need to take advantage of it. After Marcus' death, they realized that nothing is promised in this life. You're here today and gone tomorrow."

The loss of Watson was not only devastating to his friends and family, but it left a vacuum in the program as well. The team had lost a double-figure scoring guard in Ron Ellis to graduation after the 2004-05 season, and Wright had tabbed Watson, who averaged 4.4 points in 14 minutes as a freshman, to step into a much larger role.

"Marcus was penciled in a starter," Wright said. "We felt that we had the best guard rotation in the conference going into the year. Losing him really hurt."

Though Rush wasn't able to save Watson's life, he carried his friend's weight in another way. As a senior, Rush increased his scoring to 25.8 points per game, an increase over the 17.6 he averaged the season previous. He dropped an Division I-high 53 points in a Feb. 4 win against Southern, and also led the squad in rebounds (7.0 rpg) and assists (3.4 apg). As Rush's significant year-over-year up-tick roughly matched what was expected from Watson, he was quite literally playing with the strength of two men.

And then, late in the season, the team received an untimely and unintended glimpse of its future. While running back up the court on defense against Jackson State on Feb. 18, Rush's little toe broke in what is known in medical circles as a
"Jones fracture." Even though he worked feverishly to rehab in time for the conference tournament, the star guard's season -- and college career -- was over.

Despite missing the last six cgamess, Rush still received league player-of-the-year honors. The team finished 11-7 in the SWAC (tied for second place) and took a No. 3 seed into the tournament. While in Birmingham, GU defeated Mississippi Valley, 50-49, in a quarterfinal before falling, 61-49, to eventual champions Southern.

"We lost a starter to death, and we lost our best player with six games remaining," said Wright, who coached the Tigers to a similar 11-7 league record in 2004-05. "For us to finish tied for second with those things happening, we felt like we had a much better year than we did the year before."