Brett Nelson last donned a Florida uniform more than 14 years ago.
The former sharp-shooting combo guard, who finished his college career close to 40 percent in 3-point accuracy, has taken lessons learned in four years under former UF coach Billy Donovan into his college coaching career. Entering his fourth season as an assistant at Marquette, the 36-year-old Nelson was promoted as one of two associate head coaches at the Big East school last month.
“It’s a special place,” Nelson said. “It’s a basketball school, great tradition and obviously a lot of people know the history. I didn’t actually realize it until I got here. The resources we have here are incredible and then, obviously, I work with great people.”
Marquette won a national title in 1977 under Al McGuire and reached the Final Four in 2003 behind former Miami Heat and current Chicago Bulls standout Dwyane Wade. Hired in 2014 by current Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, Nelson helped lead Marquette back to the NCAA Tournament this past season after a four-year absence.
“Our first two years was obviously somewhat of a rebuild,” Nelson said. “It’s what we inherited. Last year we had a good year, got back to the NCAA Tournament. We return a lot of guys. We’re excited. We’re getting it going the right way.”
Of course, if Marquette builds upon its recent success, it will help Nelson continue to raise his national profile. Nelson said his goal is to become a head coach, but he’s not fixated on it.
“In college basketball, a lot of it is timing, a lot of it is who you know and that kind of stuff,” Nelson said. “My main focus is to help Marquette be as good as it can, win as many games as it can, go to the tournament, make deep runs. I’m a big believer in if you do your job, do it the right way, obviously, if you handle your business the right way, you’ll get opportunities.”
In coaching circles, Nelson has earned a strong reputation for both his recruiting ability and basketball IQ. His Florida ties helped him break into coaching. Nelson began as a director of basketball operations in 2006 under former UF assistant Anthony Grant at VCU, then jumped to Marshall from 2007-10 to work under former UF assistant Donnie Jones. At Marshall, Nelson was instrumental in the recruitment and development of former Thundering Herd and current Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside
From 2010-11, Nelson worked under former UF assistant John Pelphrey at Arkansas. After Pelphrey was fired at Arkansas, Nelson spent two years at Drake and a year at Ball State before landing at his current job at Marquette.
“Everybody does things a little bit differently,” Nelson said. “I’ve been lucky, obviously. Playing for coach Donovan, there’s things that I was learning that I didn’t realize when I was playing that I still use to this day.”
As a player at Florida, Nelson lived up to his billing as a McDonald’s All-American out of St. Albans, W. Va. He still ranks 20th in UF’s all-time list in scoring (1,417 points), fourth in 3-pointers made (274) and ninth in assists (406). Nelson, who played at UF from 1999-2003, was a freshman when UF made its run to the NCAA Finals in 2000 and reached the NCAA Tournament in all four of his seasons. Four of his former UF teammates — Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Matt Bonner and David Lee — went on to long NBA careers.
“We were really deep,” Nelson said. “We had 10, 11 guys who could play at a high, high level. Every single day, not only in practice but in the summertime, whether it was pickup or in the weight room you were in the gym working out with one of your teammates, you were playing one-on-one. We were always competing. I think that’s where a lot of the foundation started or the culture of the program.”
Based on the success of those Florida teams, Nelson said competitiveness is one of the most important traits he looks for when recruiting prospective players.
“You’ve got to be talented enough to play, but are you a competitor?” Nelson said. “I don’t care whether the lights are on or if you are in the gym by yourself, whatever you are doing, you are competing, trying to be the best you could be, and we had a group of guys like that at Florida.”
In addition to being a coach, Nelson also is now a husband and father. He and his wife, Jamie, have a six-year-old son, Eli, who just completed his third week of basketball camp at Marquette. Asked if Eli shoots like his dad, Nelson responded: “Too early to tell. He loves to play. He plays all the sports. He’s at a great age right now.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.