Opportunities, both lost and found

‘Twas an interesting weekend for the Big Two teams on campus this weekend.

As Matt so elegantly covered, it didn’t get off to the greatest start ever. That NESN Northeastern game was embarrassing, though maybe not quite the disgrace that I made it out to be on Twitter (notably, a half-pitcher of Sam Adams Winter from my favorite local hockey-themed bar may have had something to do with my reaction, or the fact that instead of TC’s commentary, I got to listen to something even worse the whole game: loud country music). I still think if they play that game ten times, nine out of those ten times Northeastern would have scored a LOT more goals than they did. Matthews is a tough place to play, though, and one relatively lopsided win there last year (with us present!) against their backup goalie should not obscure the fact that it’s a very tough place for visitors to play at.

Saturday night was a much better effort, plain and simple, and a game UMass easily could have won had Rawlings not stood on his head. That he was not named one of the three stars is truly a testament to how worthless the star-naming ceremony really is. He is singlehandedly the reason Northeastern was able to escape with a point, severely denting UMass’s chances of ascending to the sixth seed. Yeah, UMass’s power play unit, for the most part, was a pretty epic fail, almost dribble-drive-esque in its pure ineffectiveness. But the fervor with which the Minutemen attacked the Huskies net in overtime shows that, even with all the injuries, there’s still a lot of heart and energy with this bunch. Whether the youngsters’ skills are developing with all the experience of playing such close games week after week is the obvious question mark facing this team as the well-documented gauntlet of February and March (only one unranked opponent!) approaches. The good news is that John Muse and Joe Cannata are good, but they’re not Chris Rawlings. The bad news is that their respective teams score like nobody’s business, so here’s hoping the defense continues to play well, as they have since the near-collapse in Lowell.

Sunday, I got to take in my first basketball game of the season in person, with Matt and his dad. We sat near the center of general admission, rather than in the student section, marking the first time I’ve done that since my freshman year, an era where Stephane Lasme was blocking thirty shots a game, James Life was getting flown into games in three helicopters, and the NIT was a letdown, not a target. And I’ve got to say, we got pretty much what I expect from this team at this point against the rest of the middle-of-the-pack A-10 teams: a grind-out, ugly game, entertaining in spurts, which the Minutemen ultimately finished with a barely-double-digit victory.

And while I did indeed tweet that this game “set basketball back 30 years” during the stretch where UMass went some ten minutes without scoring and still managed to not trail in the first half, I can’t deny that I saw things that I liked. Gurley, Farrell, and the Carters grabbing rebounds almost at will at times. Vinson’s mobility getting better by the game. Hell, even CDP stealing the ball and getting perhaps the world’s ugliest “fast-“break basket of all time, one where it felt like he might not even beat the 35-second clock. And yes, I loved that the guys managed to get Martell and Malesevic in foul trouble within approximately five minutes, although that was more a product of URI playing too aggressively with an already-thin rotation as well as some overzealous refs on both sides. Most of all, the development of Gurley into a fringe NBA prospect – something absolutely unthinkable last year – has been really fun to watch. The Gurley Show taking over in the second half of games is becoming more and more common every week.

On the flip side, there’s that whole “setting basketball back 30 years” thing, so let’s get to the gripes. Like all the wide-open 3s that Rhody continued to get, particularly to Richmond, who was the closest thing they had to a hot hand the whole game. Like our team’s insistence on missing one or two alley-oop attempts to Hova and/or Big Skinny per game (even when they actually caught them this time, they had to come down with the ball first), and missing like three straight dunks in the second half when Rhody took its short-lived only lead of the game. Like the mind-numbing stretch where I felt like eight straight possessions consisted of “pass the ball around for 20 seconds, then have Riley chuck a contested three.”

Look, I knew without seeing a game in person that the relationship between him and the fans wasn’t great, but honestly – people were groaning every time he even touched the ball. And that’s before he missed that set of all three free throws. I don’t know how much of that is Freddie trying to shoot his way out of a slump, and how much is DK telling Freddie to shoot his way out of a slump. Right now, Riley is what he is – a knock-down shooter who can be absolutely dominating when he gets into his rhythm. What the coaches need to figure out is a way for this offense to be effective even with the point guards (Farrell included) in foul trouble, as was the case when the Riley chuck-a-thon began. Unfortunately, since it seems Traynham isn’t walking through that door, this is a problem that might not be fully resolved until next year, when Morgan is ready to play, Chaz is eligible and Laguerre arrives. But we’ll see. Riley was certainly more effective in his more traditional role in the second half, for what it’s worth.

All-in-all, though, these are pretty good times. UMass has won 4 out of 5, which ESPNBoston thought highly enough of to call “rolling!” Kind of like my eyes right now! Nah, I’ve got to say I’m fairly pleased with the squad as a whole. They’re beating who they should beat, an upgrade over last year for sure, and they’re able to even win games like this one in spite of the kinks. For the most part, the defense is doing a real nice job. The energy level of the team? That’s there, too. Dunking, free throw shooting, and shot selection…those are things DK can draw from this game as fodder for what needs to get fixed.

Next up on the docket: at Saint Louis, at Saint Joes, home vs. George Washington. Two roadies against bad teams, then a home game against that oft-mentioned middle tier. This is the warmup for the Next Huge Home Game (TM), a visit from the unbeaten-in-conference Duquesne Dukes. If, if if if if if if if if if, UMass continues to play like they’ve been doing lately, they can be 7-2 in league play when the Dukes come a-calling.

If.

-Max

P.S. I have a lot of observations – not all of them are negative! – about the student sections, marketing department, and the game presentation in the Mullins Center in general, but since this is already a TL;DR kind of post, I’ll save that for a bit later in the week. Probably Tuesday-Wednesday when this incoming snowpocalpyse hits.

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