…we’re Rhode Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiislaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand boooooooooooooooooooooound.
Matt and myself are making our sort-of-almost-annual Fight Mass road trip to the only A-10 venue within reasonable (read: sub-3-hour) driving range. The Rhody Rams are coming off their annual victory over Dayton, which now seems to come hell or high water for these guys, but make no mistake – they’re horrible. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First off, let’s talk about Saturday. Never have I been so happy to have to stand in line for a sporting event. Granted, the circumstances couldn’t have been much better – a top-50 RPI team with a well-known (in college hoops circles) head coach, coming in for the first UMass home game of the semester, with the news of the team’s renaissance finally making its way around (with a little help from that Putney alley-oop on SportsCenter that the school probably paid to get on the air – which, by the way, wasn’t even the best alley-oop in that particular game), with $6 Big Y tickets and with the school pushing the game as hard as possible to the fanbase. I’m especially glad they had the players show up to the Lowell game the night before and have Chaz talk to the crowd, although I was worried for a second that Hansen would put him in the box for two minutes for embellishment. But even the most optimistic UMass fans were talking up 7,000 as a reasonable goal – to get 8,399 for that game is just outstanding, even if the number got revised to 8,398 after they realized they counted Majerus as two people by mistake.
The team’s been pushing/pining/alright, complaining about the attendance for a while now, and when they finally got a good crowd, they sure did make the most of it. The first half was one of the best full halves of basketball I’ve seen in my nearly six years following this program, and one that surely made the older folks in the crowd reminisce about the good ol’ days of Lou Roe and Marcus Camby and, yeah, Derek Kellogg. Precision passing. Knock-down shooting. Stifling defense. The Minutemen raced to a 19-point halftime lead, showing every facet of their improved, fun-to-watch style along the way. If anyone in this crowd was turned off by the bazkettaball of the past few years, they were surely back on board here; if this was the first exposure to it, you couldn’t have asked for a better hook.
And then, sort of predictably, the Billikens crawled back in with some hot shooting, UMass carelessness, and yes, some questionable calls. I know what I just said yesterday about officiating, and let’s apply that here – unlike the hockey team, hoops did not let the calls get them down, and the lead never shrunk closer than two possessions. (Of course, the Minutemen finally a couple of make-up calls in the closing minutes, whereas Hansen’s crew had no such turnaround on Friday, but I digress.) While the team’s had a couple of fall-from-ahead moments this season (Fordham, East Carolina, and Charlotte all come to mind), and the last good UMass team had that same tendency come back and bite them in the ass (the NIT season when UMass blew a massive lead to Charlotte for a first-round A-10 exit that probably cost them a trip to the big dance, then later blew a 10-point lead to Ohio State in the NIT final), the good news is that so far, none of these lapses have actually resulted in a loss. I’d rather them be putting games away earlier, but the fact that the team is playing well down the stretch in this games and regaining control in the closing minutes is probably better practice for crunch-time situations to come.
So, big picture time. UMass is cracking all the “bubble watch” articles this week. They’re projected 14th in Joe Lunardi’s latest ESPN Bracketology, although that’s by merit of their being projected to win the conference (they hold a tie for the best record and the tiebreaker is highest RPI). UMass has their two “easiest” road games this week, which is not to say that either is a given. The Rams, as we said, just beat Dayton, which they do seemingly every year, just as UMass beats them seemingly every year, regardless of whether both teams are contenders, both teams suck, or some combination thereof. In this year’s case, Dayton and UMass are contenders, and Rhody really, really sucks. They hold three – THREE – “double question mark” losses, referring to RealTimeRPI’s mark of disgrace for losses to sub-200 RPI teams. This includes a loss at #301 Brown, a loss at home to Maine (haha, who does that?) and a narrow loss at Fordham. They do hold a double-OT win over Boston College, which just goes to show how bad BC really is this year, and their only home win is against the Chaz-less Hofstra Pride back in November.
All of that being said, rivalry games tend to bring out the best in bad teams. And to the uninitiated, make no mistake, this is a rivalry. These two teams play twice every year, and both fanbases come out in spades for these games. I predict Wednesday to be no different – well, maybe a little different, considering this year’s Ryan Center trip falls on a Wednesday, and this is as bad as the Rams have ever been since I started following UMass. Jim Baron’s job finally looks like it could really be in jeopardy, which is sad because it’s been fun watching his system lose to our alma mater year after year, but alas, his second white-trash son to play for the program isn’t going to be enough to save him unless things change drastically in a hurry. So there’s your caveat – maybe the man’s coaching for his job right about now.
That doesn’t qualify as an excuse for losing this game. There is none. The Minutemen should win this game and win it handily, although I have this sneak suspicion that they’re going to make it harder on themselves than it needs to be. If they lose, of course, you can say goodbye to any chance at an at-large bid barring a magical sweep of the Xavier-Dayton-Temple gauntlet that awaits at the end of the regular season. (Well, that and another date with the Rams, of course.)
Our program has had a habit of ruining potentially-special seasons for their program for years and years. Hopefully this isn’t the year that the Rams flip that script.