Monday, March 16, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Martin unique to NCAA tourney

RADFORD -- Ask Radford University basketball coach Brad Greenberg about Phillip Martin, his starting forward from the Roanoke Valley, and he'll tell you about toughness. He'll tell you about defense. He'll tell you about effort.

But before he tells you all that, Greenberg will tell you this:

"He's the only person I've been around on a basketball team who can recognize a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote."

You want March Madness? Try keeping up with schoolwork as a double major in Social Science and Philosophy and Religious Studies while at the same time working to figure out how to upset Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament.

Such is Martin's lot this week.

Not that he's complaining.

"I never would have thought in high school prior to coming here that I would be as busy as I am," Martin said. "It's practice, school work and bed every night. But I think basketball helps me with that, too. I don't have as much free time as some other students; I don't get caught up in quite as much other stuff."

But like everyone else, he's caught up in the hoopla surrounding RU these days. The Highlanders, fresh off a week of hype that included prominent coverage in USA Today, gathered in the student center Sunday along with about 250 well-wishers to watch the selection show on TV.

All the other players wore red T-shirts. When RU was unveiled as a No. 16 seed set to play top-seeded UNC on Thursday in Greensboro, Martin was wearing white.

"I had red on earlier," Martin said with a smile. "I was getting too anxious, getting too hot. I had to take it off."

Martin's always stood out a little anyway. The 6-foot-6 junior out of Roanoke Catholic was named an Academic All-American by ESPN The Magazine last month. He carries a 3.91 GPA despite his heavy course load and the travel demands of hoops.

"I think he's going to retake those two classes he got Bs in so he can get that 4.0," joked junior post man Joey Lynch-Flohr, one of Martin's roommates. "He's very conscious of schoolwork, more so than anybody else on the team.

"Philosophy and religion -- there's a lot of reading in those majors. I don't know why he's double-majoring as an athlete. That's a major in itself."

Martin's getting high marks there, too. Since he entered the starting lineup permanently on Jan. 3, the Highlanders have won 17 of 19 games. Unselfish and perpetually positive, Martin often is asked to guard the other team's top scorers.

"He wants to win," Greenberg said. "In the beginning of the year, when we weren't winning, he came in and had a heart-to-heart with me. He said, 'Coach, we've got to get this thing going. I don't want my years at Radford to be ... this. I don't want to be just a bunch of guys who played.'"

That's definitely not a problem these days. Martin, who won two state championships at Roanoke Catholic after transferring from James River, now finds himself preparing to face the team he idolized growing up in Fincastle.

"I couldn't even watch them play Duke," Martin said. "Because I loved them so much and hated Duke so much that it was hard to watch the games."

Why not read a book instead? Like, say, one by Ralph Waldo Emerson. That way, years later, when your basketball coach writes an inspirational quote on the board, you immediately recognize it.

"He's one of my favorite authors," Martin told his stunned coach.

A real student-athlete in the NCAA tournament. Imagine that.

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