Fall continues to peek its head through at Montclair State University, as the calendar flips towards the colder season. One of the telltale signs of the shift to autumn is sneakers squeaking on the gym floor of the Panzer Athletic Center, as the men’s basketball team begins their season.
The double doors from the locker room on the far side of the gym slowly opened meaning shootaround had begun prior to the first coaches’ practice of the season.
After an eight-month-long hiatus, senior forward Steven Breeman received an opening introduction by junior guard Keyon Pryce that would make even Bruce Buffer proud.
“There he is, the man himself!” Price said. “Steve Breeman!”
While he may not be the flashiest player in the gym, Breeman has certainly earned the title of “the man” through his impact on the men’s basketball program. Last year, he led the Red Hawks in a trying, pandemic-shortened season, averaging 15.8 points per game, in addition to 8.8 rebounds per game. Those numbers would put him right near the top of the conference, but his influence on the team runs even deeper than that.
Breeman started his collegiate career at Moravian College, where he was recruited by current Montclair State head coach, Justin Potts.
“When Coach Potts came to my house for a home visit, my parents really saw the family guy that he was,” Breeman said. “And that really had my parents hooked.”
As for Potts’ first impression, he knew there was something special about Breeman.
“I thought he was a guy that early in his career would take him a little bit of time,” Potts said. “I thought his work ethic and his commitment would make him a really good player.”
In his freshman campaign, Breeman would be a part of a historically successful season, which saw Moravian capture their first NCAA tournament win in school history. He played in 29 games but was limited to just above seven minutes per game, as he was second on the depth chart to conference first-team selection and future Montclair State assistant coach, O’Neil Holder.
In regards to Breeman’s handling of a less than ideal situation, Potts was not disappointed.
“His freshman year, he played in every game. He had a limited role,” Potts said. “But, he bought into his role and was a viable contributor, even in just a limited capacity. What you saw is [that] he just kind of stayed with it and kept working. He got better as the season went on.”
After Holder’s graduation, Breeman was presented with a golden opportunity to fill this gap entering his sophomore year. Decision time came early, however, as Breeman received the call from Potts that same summer.
“I was actually playing Wiffle ball and I got a call from Coach Potts,” Breeman said. “So, I took it while I was playing in the outfield. I was like, ‘Coach Potts, what’s up?’ And he says, ‘This isn’t going to be a fun phone call.’ I immediately knew he was leaving.”
Ultimately, it didn’t take too much time for Breeman, a Jersey boy out of Oak Ridge High School, to make up his mind.
“Once he said he was going to Montclair State, I thought: ‘You know what? Let me just give it some time [and] talk to my parents, because I am definitely going to go,'” Breeman said.
There were certainly challenges that lay ahead at Montclair State. Potts was known at Moravian for his in-your-face, press-for-40-minutes style, had a rotation of 12 players who played over 26 games each prior year at Moravian. Now, he had to take over a completely different roster that was unacquainted with his style. One huge advantage, however, was bringing Breeman with him.
“He was only a sophomore, but he knew all of our terminology. He knew how we played,” Potts said. “He knew where to move in the press and what to do offensively. He was trying to explain that to [the seniors] and at least try to shorten their learning curve.”
Pryce was a freshman on Potts’ first team at Montclair State and was originally committed to Moravian before following Potts and Breeman and becoming a Red Hawk. He said even as a sophomore, it was clear how much of an advantage Breeman had, already having spent a year in the system.
“You could see it right off the rip, just from Potts trying to bring things that he taught over at Moravian here to [Montclair State],” Pryce said. “Steve was picking up left and right, trying to help guys interact, so he was definitely a step ahead of the game.”
After a disappointing end to his first year at Montclair State, which included missing the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, Potts and the Red Hawks seemed poised to make a run in year two. One of the biggest keys was the jump that Breeman had made in the off-season.
It was late February when the team was practicing in preparation for a home-and-home series with Rutgers-Newark, with the playoffs on the horizon. In an instant though, the whole tone of the season changed. Breeman had come down on a teammate’s ankle and would have to miss extended time.
Potts said this took the entire team by storm.
“The air went out of the building. You could see from the guys’ reactions, we knew it was going to hurt us,” Potts said. “He was chomping at the bit and doing everything he could to try and play. So, he took it hard in terms of not being able to finish the season on the court. But, I give him credit. He stayed in a leadership role.”
Despite being sidelined to finish the season, Breeman said he was determined not to let the time go to waste, finding any way to stay involved and help his team win.
“Sitting out and watching my team helped me see the game from a different perspective,” Breeman said. “I could help some of my teammates [with] things and make adjustments, [since I was] seeing from the outside, from a coach’s perspective, per se. I try to take the positive out of everything, and I think that was one positive.”
It was clear how much of an impact Breeman still had on everyone, senior forward Irving Callender IV notes.
“Even though he wasn’t on the court, he was still leading us, so we still got the best out of him,” Callender said. “He’s an extremely vocal leader. A lot of the young guys look up to him and he knows this system.”
Now, nearly eight months later, Breeman is back and has a chance to help Potts complete the turnaround of the program. After another off-season of hard work, helping lead his team through captain’s workouts and practices, Potts had high praise for the man he started this journey with.
“I think he’s just committed. He’s as consistent a guy as I’ve been around in college basketball,” Potts said. “[He is] all in, [and] committed to trying to do the best for the team. He’s a guy who just wants to win. As a person, he is as good as it gets.”
As for Breeman, he doesn’t plan on measuring the success of his senior season on the wins and losses alone.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,” Breeman said. “I’m trying to help the young guys get better every day. And I think if we can get a little bit better every single day, we could accomplish a lot.”
After giving Breeman a warm welcome back to practice, Pryce continued his praise for Breeman, knocking down jump shot after jump shot.
“He’s extraordinary. He’s different,” Pryce said. “That’s probably the best word you could describe [Breeman] with. He’s just different.”