A lot has changed for Derek Brannon in his final season with the Maroons. After riding the bench for most of his career, the fourth-year guard has significantly increased his playing time this year and become one of the NCCA-bound squad’s more critical substitutes. One thing about Brannon hasn’t changed, though. He’s still the epitome of a team player that he was when he first walked on to the court at Ratner.
Basketball had little to do with Brannon’s application to Chicago. It was only after he’d been accepted that he sent head coach Mike McGrath some tapes to find out his chances of walking on the squad, and the news back wasn’t all too encouraging. He’d been welcomed to come try out but without any promises of seeing a lot of action in Hyde Park or even getting a spot with the squad.
“The try-out process is challenging,” McGrath said. “I don’t know who you are, I’ve never seen you play except for on tape, we start practice on October 15, and I’ve got to make a decision.”
While fighting for a place on the roster, the Palo Alto, California native quickly showed what he could bring to a program other than just his basketball skills. Other players were the first to notice how in just a few practices Brannon’s dedication and work ethic had already made him an integral part of the team’s core. Stealing a scene from Rudy, they went to McGrath to push for Brannon’s case.
“DB basically came in and outcompeted everybody,” classmate Jesse Meyer said. “People really responded to that and wanted him to be a part of the team.”
By the end of tryouts, McGrath recognized that the unrecruited rookie could compete with the Maroons, but just how much he’d be able to compete with them on the floor against opponents was still uncertain. His first season went by without a single game appearance, and in the next two Brannon averaged 2.4 minutes. But he had earned his jersey knowing that he’d see very few games and clearly had every intention of sticking around for all four years and taking the opportunity to improve in practices.
“I knew that things might not materialize on the court right away, but I thought that if I just kept working at it, something might happen,” Brannon said.
“There were a couple of situations [this year] based on what he had done in practice and based on where our team was at where I felt I wanted to give him a shot, and he did well,” McGrath said.
While his on the court contributions have really only started this year, it has been Brannon’s team-first mentality that has really made him a valuable component of the team his entire career.
“I love having DB around,” Meyer said. “He came in freshman year and ever since he’s been a very good advocate of the program and been an unbelievable example for the rest of us. He’s one of the most respected kids on the team.”
“He never asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’ He never said, ‘When’s my turn, when do I get a chance?’ He just worked on getting better and competing,” McGrath said. “He has enjoyed his contributions even if they’re just in practice or in the locker room and brought things to the table that has really helped the team be better since he’s been here.”
In his final season wearing the maroon and white, Brannon has been able to contribute in ways other than his undeniable leadership by acting as a big spark of the bench and delivering in some high-pressure situations. Mostly called on to help strengthen the defense, one of his biggest moments of the year came in Chicago’s 88–77 comeback against Wheaton in November.
Only a few possessions separated the Maroons from the Thunder, and an open look for second-year guard Kent Raymond, a pre-season All-American who racked up 32 points on the night, would have tipped the game in the visitors’ favor. The task of shutting Raymond down until the final buzzer fell to Brannon.
“We just threw Derek in there and said, ‘Don’t let him score.’ Derek had two possessions where he just didn’t let the kid get a good shot,” McGrath said. “That kind of bulldog approach epitomizes him.”
With the team tipping off against 10th-ranked Hope (23–4) tonight at Aurora for the first round of NCAAs, Brannon is likely to face some similar demands. Tonight’s matchup marks the Maroons’ first tournament appearance in five years, and it has taken much more than just the talent of the starting five for Chicago to get back in the postseason.
“We preach two things. We preach ‘play hard and be great teammates,’” McGrath said. “I thought we had a certain talent level, and I thought we had some very good leadership, and a certain competitiveness level that might allow us to reach NCAAs, but I always wondered if we could turn that corner.”