Alright, time to get rolling with the actual meat of the content.
UMass Basketball vs. Memphis – tomorrow, 6 PM, TD Garden
I know it’s odd considering this is supposed to be a hockey blog, but tomorrow night, men’s basketball will be playing its highly-anticipated game in the TD Garden against John Calipari’s the Memphis Tigers. JTAM has the usual variety of local media links. Honestly, at this point, I’m more excited about the throwback uniforms, the national coverage, the venue, and the pre-game meetup at the Fours than I am about our chances of actually winning the game. Not to sound negative, but let’s face it, UMass is 4-5 on the season (the Fort Smith game doesn’t count toward RPI and, being a non-conference game, is therefore irrelevant), they’ve lost at home to Cornell, they’ve been smoked by mediocre Big East teams…UMass is not getting an at-large bid this year, period. The only way they make the NCAA tournament is if the team suddenly gels in A-10 play and they make a Cinderella run through Atlantic City, in a complete bizarro world take on how the T-Fraud era played out. So this Memphis game really doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of playoff implications.
But, let’s look at the positives. I actually think UMass can win this game. Memphis is 7-1, yes, but aside from Kansas (who beat them in a 2-point nailbiter), the Tigers haven’t exactly played, uhh, anyone. Jackson State, Tennessee Tech, Central Arkansas, Oakland, Arkansas State, Montana State, and Arkansas-Little Rock, with only that last one being away from FedEx Forum. Granted, Memphis is winning those games by a LOT, but there’s a reason that 7-1 record leaves them (barely) out of the top 25.
It is kind of sad that Calipari won’t be there; I think the whole point of having the game in Boston and not Amherst was that Coach Cal would bring a much larger crowd than the Mullins could hold, but this is still a great opportunity for the Minutemen, who really have nothing to lose in this game, to get the first “big win” for the freshman class. I look forward to seeing a lot of the usual Mullins maniacs one more time before break; I envision an atmosphere a lot like the NIT a few years ago, but with less students and more alumni. (In other words, a quieter, but perhaps more knowledgeable, contingent.)
UMass Hockey: Midseason Report
In the coming days, I’ll recap the schedule and look at the context of each game, and maybe a more in-depth look at the players, but for now, let’s take a look at where the Minutemen sit at the holiday break.
UMass is the #15-ranked team in both polls, after starting the season unranked and climbing as high as #9. They’re 4th in Hockey East, one point ahead of Lowell, 3 back of Maine, 4 back of BC and 6 back of UNH, but they’ve played two fewer games than the teams ahead of them. If the season were to end today, UMass would host Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals; if the NCAA was selecting teams today, UMass would probably make the field of 16.
…but, of course, that’s not how it works, and anyone who’s followed the team in recent years knows about the second-half crash and burn the team has experienced, especially the past two seasons. Two years ago, the collapse began after UMass swept through the Lightning tournament in Tampa Bay and shot up to 5th in the rankings, winning two games in the following two months. Last season, the only teams we seemed to be able to beat in the second half were Maine and Northeastern, and we all know how the latter exacted revenge in the playoffs.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the way this team could perform in the second half. One reason for that is the remaining schedule. After what has to be the easiest holiday tournament I’ve seen UMass play in my four years here, the schedule has them playing a road-heavy second half, with only 6 more games at the Mullins Center. However, their away schedule is full of games against teams they should beat, while their more challenging foes are the ones who will have to brave the Bill. On paper, UMass still has 3 games left against a struggling Northeastern team (2 away, 1 home) and 2 visits to Agganis to play that mess of a Terriers squad. They already won their only trip to Gutterson and will get Vermont here for a pair, and BC and Lowell still have to come here again.
There are things on that schedule that scare me, though. After UConn, they have a HUGE three-game road swing, taking on the two bottom-dwelling Boston doggies, but with a visit to UNH in the middle. If we can win two of those three, I’ll be pretty confident that this team can avoid the second-half swoon, that all this talk of better leadership and team cohesiveness and other coaching jibber-jabber is for real. As bad as BU and NU are this year, though, they’re still Hockey East teams, with an incredibly tough Whittemore trip in the middle…a recipe for a season-crippling trip. They follow that up with a home-and-home with the ugly sister, a consistently mediocre squad in the past few years that just seems to have our number, regardless of how the teams perform against anyone else. This year’s been no different; even though UMass has basically the same record as Lowell and has played a tougher schedule, the River Hawks snapped a 3-game skid with a convincing comeback win against us at Tsongas. The fact that they followed that up by barely splitting a weekend series against an awful Princeton squad says that, even if UML continues their tailspin into the second half, our two-game series could get them back on track in a heartbeat. Their #3 ranking may be a distant memory, but their 10-3-2 record in the last 15 against us is disturbingly real. On top of everything else, the two games are going to be at the tail end of break, and since traditional dorms don’t open until Sunday, the student section for Friday is going to be limited to commuters and us nine-month housing students (yay North Apartments!). Lowell fans travel well, and I have no idea when their semester starts, so I fear they’ll be very audible at the game – not that these things matter, of course. It’s the principle of the thing that bugs me.
UMass has a couple trap games left on the schedule, too. A visit to Providence looks inviting, but we all know how easily Alex Beaudry can steal a game for the Friars – he might as well have been wearing his Martin Brodeur costume on Halloween. And as thoroughly as we put to bed all the talk about Merrimack’s improvement the other night (4-1 doesn’t even begin to describe how much UMass dominated that game, but more on that in the game-by-game recap next week), Lawler Arena is to the Minutemen what Safeco Field is to the Red Sox – a place where we never, ever seem to win, no matter how awful the home team is. At least we only have to go there once.
Finally, those last two games against Maine loom pretty large. Considering how much better the Black Bears have played since the bloodbath in Amherst, it’s not hard to envision those last two games being absolutely crucial when it comes to Hockey East standings, reminiscent of the famous “Wilson games” at the end of the 06-07 season. UMass rode those four huge points to home ice, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Dave Wilson ain’t walking through that door, and hopefully the Minutemen aren’t in a position where the season is riding on two games in Orono…
The overall performance of the team so far is promising. UMass’s power play has really been a pleasant surprise, a massive improvement over last year, and no longer is the “see ya, asshole!” followed by a collective groan when we realize that we were better off with 5-on-5 play. Really, I could go on about James Marcou, but there’s not much to say about him and Wellman that hasn’t already been said. It’s simply been a joy to watch him this season and, if he can start putting home a few goals to go with all the assists, that Hobey Baker award is a very real possibility. Overshadowed in all of this has been the stellar play of guys like Syner and Ortiz, the latter most definitely being the comeback player of the year for this team. He’s like the Tony Gaffney of this team; a guy who puts 110% into every play as well as someone who shocked everyone by putting it all together his senior season. On the other end of the spectrum, Chase Langeraap’s had a rough year, which is tough to say as someone who’s gotten to chat with him a bit off the ice – he’s a really nice guy and a class act. I’m hopeful that his performance is being affected by the nagging injuries from last year and that a few weeks of rest is what he needs to get back on track. Likewise, I hope that Lecomte and Carzo come back fresher after the break; they both had great starts to the season but haven’t been the same since coming back from injuries.
The defense has been a mixed bag…Nolet has been solid as always, Mikey Marcou and Kublin have stepped up nicely, and Donnellan’s shown some promise, but at the same time, Braun and Irwin have both been up-and-down at times. Thankfully Dainton finally looks like a top-notch goaltender; he’s giving us way fewer heart attacks playing the puck behind the net and has had some outright spectacular games. Meyers needs to start showing us something, though, because we can’t just ride Paulie the whole way; even if Mr. Movie Blog is a clear #2 at this point, we’re gonna need to start playing him more with all the two-game Hockey East weekends ahead.
I feel pretty good about this team going forward. 10-5-0 with one of the nation’s stronger schedules so far is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s comforting to know that the boys have yet to be blown out in a game (three two-goal losses which were all one-goal games until late in the third period; one game that Alex Beaudry stole from us, and the Q game, which was heartbreaking, but in which we did manage to erase a 3-0 deficit). This team, unlike the last few years, can rely on its offense and power play to get back into games, and I just can’t foresee a team with two of the nation’s best scorers struggling. That said, Hockey East is absolutely insane this year, and almost every team in the conference could realistically win the tourney, so it’s gonna be a thrill to see what the second half holds for the boys.
In a few days (probably Sunday but we’ll see) I’ll get started on the game-by-game season recap; I’m also going to work on a banner as soon as I can get Photoshop back on my computer. And again, lemme know if you want to contribute to the blog, or hit me up on Facebook.