“And when we die, we’ll be Rhode Island-dead…”

Oh, the University of Rhode Island. No matter how bad things get for the UMass Minute-a-men baskettaball team (note: we’ve taken to the Josh Maurer pronunciations of the words “Minutemen” and “basketball” in case you haven’t noticed), you’re always there to brighten our spirits.

For whatever reason, since I became a part of the UMass community by enrolling in 2006, the Minutemen have not lost its season series to URI. Not once. As a freshman, when Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman were walking through that door, UMass lost a nail-biter in Kingston, but routed the Rams in the Bill. The Minutemen ended up settling for the NIT that year, but we dragged the Rams kicking and screaming with us. Sign of things to come.

The following year, UMass squeaked by at home, then, in a game typical of the Travis Ford era, rallied from a late seven-point deficit to pull out a 98-91 win in Rhode Island. That was my (and Derek’s) first visit to the Ryan Center, during which I served as the “space” in a row of shirtless fans spelling out “Go UMass!” on our chests. Yes, Derek was at a basketball game, and there were UMass students present – and it was on the ROAD! (Seriously, there were about 40 students on that bus. It was epic. You’re hard-pressed to find that many students at a home game now, if you don’t count the band.) We countered the “U! R! I!” chant with “N! I! T!,” which didn’t go over well with the angry Rhode Islanders, who, again, would probably have been in the big dance had it not been for two losses to UMass on their resume. The Minutemen had two of the most painful losses in recent memory that year (the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre vs. Fordham, then a bunch of wins including the Rhody game to get our hopes back up, followed of course by the collapse against Charlotte in Atlantic City), but beating URI made it all worthwhile. I’ll never forget standing outside the Ryan Center in late February – still inexplicably shirtless – waiting for the players to board the team bus. I hugged Travis Ford that night. We all did. It’s one of the reasons we’re still so bitter about his betrayal, logical as it was. UMass went to the NIT finals that year, beating Florida before losing to a young Ohio State squad led by much younger versions of the David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale, etc. core of seniors that is now among the nation’s best teams. Rhody? Bounced in the first round of the NIT. Hah.

The next year, with Kellogg as head coach, the tandem of Chris Lowe and Tony Gaffney and an inexplicable win at Kansas couldn’t mitigate the difficulty of transition. UMass was bound to miss the postseason, with an abysmal record, and the NIT run’s fan  dwindling by season’s end. Indeed, DK lost his first game against Rhody, a 12-point defeat in Amherst that had Rhody once again poised to go dancing. All they had to do was beat us again, on their home floor, on senior night (well, afternoon). A much smaller contingent of UMass faithful made this trip, including a few of us holdovers from the year before. What we witnessed? Matt Glass setting a vicious, and probably illegal, pick. Chris Lowe driving coast-to-coast in the final seconds. And a near-sellout Rhody crowd, Lou Merloni and all, silenced once again, as they watched the Minutemen clinch yet another NIT berth for the Rams. And the 30 or so UMass fans in attendance were positively giddy.

Last year? Same story in reverse. Another transition year for Kellogg, another expected return to the dance for Rhody. The road trip was first, as Matt accompanied me to his first UMass road hoops game, and my last as a student. Only a few other students showed, a real testament to just how far the student support of this team has plummeted, and where it needs to return. Rhody dominated this game in the first half, but Anthony Gurley went off in the closing minutes to narrow the score to respectability and plant the seeds of momentum for the rematch. It was UMass’s senior day, the last game of the regular season, Rhody’s tenuous bubble hopes on the line yet again. You know what happens next. (Here’s a little trip down memory lane, complete with a Lost reference in the title and discussion of hockey’s playoff hopes to add to the 2010 nostalgia!)

So here we are, 2011, Kellogg’s boys have climbed up to respectability, if still wildly inconsistent and not-quite-there-yet. Rhody seemed particularly vulnerable this year, its fans much less optimistic about the team’s tournament dreams, with the likes of Delroy James and Will Martell thrust into leadership roles, with few exciting players on the horizon (let the Nikola Malesevic era begin!), with Jim Baron’s job security in question now that his son (who, at best, struck me as a homeless man’s Mike Bibby) having graduated and moved on, and, most importantly, with Rhody Nation aware that no matter how much they try, URI cannot get those two wins over UMass that it will probably take for this program to ever make the big dance again. Granted, UMass will probably need to prove it can beat the likes of Saint Louis and St. Joe’s before the Minutemen break their tournament drought, but just the same. The Rams dropped their first game against UMass this year, and even though we hadn’t seen a win since then, you just had to figure the Rams are the cure for what ails the Minutemen. Always.

God, I love it when I’m right.

True, the first half felt like more of the same baskettaball for UMass. Notably, we’ve decided here at Fight Mass that Josh Maurer isn’t crazy when he pronounces it “baskettaball” instead of “basketball.” Indeed, he’s actually onto something. The horrific style of play that the Minutemen play, which is the end result of the DDM offense not being executed properly, is not basketball. It’s baskettaball. It entails a lot of passing the ball around the perimeter, taking awful 3-point shots, missing open layups and dunks, turning the ball over in the paint and just in general, standing around, and attempting at least one failed alley-oop (usually Correia to Sean Carter) per game, then hoping that somehow Farrell and Gurley will bail you out in the end. UMass played a lot of quality basketball during its 7-0 season-opening run, with only a few glimpses of the baskettaball of the past two years. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the four-game losing streak to the likes of Saint Louis, St. Joe’s, and George Washington, all teams UMass should be able to beat at this point, regardless of venue, was a return to baskettaball, which is unwinnable for UMass when the other team can shut down Gurley and Farrell. And that sucks to watch, because it would seem to indicate a regression. Besides, this team needs to be able to win without Gurley going forward.

Luckily for UMass, Rhody also seems to play a lot of baskettaball. They heave up awful 3’s, they commit silly turnovers, and their offense is just plain boring to watch much of the time. Also luckily for UMass, DK has finally turned Jesse “The Takeover” Morgan loose, in the absence of the injured Riley, as well as giving Raphiael Putney a lot more minutes. We saw them both on the floor for much of the second-half run, opening things up for Gurley to get his game going again, covering for Farrell who seems to be pressing things lately (he’s at his best when he’s left to do the little things well, hence the “Junkyard Dog” nickname), and just making better overall choices with the ball. Maybe watching the team’s recent malaise from the bench has been a boon for these guys, because they’re seeing what not to do. I know Matt and I have gotten some heat for being overly critical of Riley (even from Riley himself), but the fact is, if Riley used his abilities the way Jesse Morgan has in these last two games, he’d be a much better player. We don’t question Riley’s shooting ability, but Morgan seems to have a better grasp for when to fire his shots. He’s always in rhythm and he gets his role in the offense. If these two can build off of what the other is doing, we could have two absolutely deadly scoring threats from the outside next year, which in turn would make everyone else’s game more effective. The offense was a lot smoother for UMass in the second half (from what I heard – no video, sadly) and would have won by a lot more had it not been for the atrocious foul discrepancy coupled with some uncharacteristically-poor free throw shooting.

Really, as frustrating as those last four games were to watch, it’s been exciting to see Putney and Morgan starting to live up to some of the hype. Hopefully they continue to improve and the rest of the team follows their lead as the regular season winds down. UMass is just sitting outside that 5-8 range, and I think getting a home A-10 game would be a good step this year. I could still see this team making it back to the NIT as well if they finish 3-1 down the stretch and win a game or two(!) in the conference tourney. Just as easily, of course, I could see a 1-3 finish and a first-round exit in an A-10 road game. Either way, there’s obviously a lot of room for this team to grow, and the rest of the season affords them a fairly low-pressure opportunity to prepare for next year. They’ve shown that they’re clearly not ready to compete with the upper crust of the conference just yet, although the Temple game gives them one last opportunity to disprove that (and if they manage to somehow win that game, my expectations for the conference tournament will be a bit higher). If they have some momentum going into the offseason, with most of the core group returning and with Kellogg’s own guys finally comprising the entire team, I’ll feel a lot better about next year being the year all this rebuilding finally pays off.

And even if it doesn’t? At least we’ll have two games against Rhody on the schedule.

-Max

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