No Leap Just Yet

It’s not about this year anymore, right?

Ever since Cady Lalanne was basically ruled out for the season, I thought it was pretty clear that it was not to be for the Minutemen this year. The loss at Rhode Island, ghastly as it was, also served as a bit of a wake-up call – hey, they’re in over their heads, they could lose at any moment to any team, let’s not get carried away here, we’re still rebuilding, yadda yadda yadda. With the season visibly grinding Chaz and Carter mentally and physically (with no true backups at either position thanks to Cady’s injury and Laguerre’s ineligiblity), with bangs and bruises limiting the contributions of Hill and Farrell and sidelining Sampson Carter, it was hard not to see the Minutemen coming down to earth.

Indeed, heading into Philly for tonight’s duel with Temple, coming off an embarrassing rout at the hands of frigging Dayton of all teams, the Minutemen were 5-5 in their last ten, and almost sure to get run out of the building by just the second top-25 team they’ve faced all year. Our boys, once the darkest of dark horse bubble candidates, were now teetering on the brink of another .500 conference record, hoping that they could just survive this game with enough healthy bodies to avoid a second humiliation on Senior Night against Rhody.

For the first 30 minutes or so of game time tonight, it looked like UMass was going to make this a ballgame. They led by 5 at the break, the crazy three-pointers were falling, Chaz was dishing and driving and dicing up the Owl defense, and, despite a nearly-comical foul discrepancy, they were right there. Then, after a few more questionable foul calls (on top of that foul discrepancy, which, again, was nearing Adam Sandler levels of hilarity), all seemed for naught, as the Owls seemed poised to deliver the same killer blow that has carried them to a top-15 RPI all season long. When the lead was up to 9 with just a few minutes left, I even tweeted, “aaaand the team is done competing for the evening. shame.”

Then, as I also tweeted, the plot thickened. Chaz hit a 3. Stole the inbound. Hit a 3. 3-point game. It was seriously one of those College Hoops 2K8 moments that you never expect to actually see in a game, but there it was, the game was there for the taking. Then Sean Carter committed an over-the-back foul going for a rebound, which somehow led to another technical foul (it looked like it would be the latest awful flagrant call against the Minutemen this year, but somehow it was a technical on Freddie according to the Temple announcers) and the furious comeback was abated.

Or so we thought. All of a sudden, a wild Freddie Riley appeared, and he used “fire some random fucking threes because why not, I’m Freddie Riley!” Miraculously, it was super-effective. Mass finally got some missed free throws from Temple and a late lay-up to tie the game. Overtime in the battle of Bill Cosby’s alma maters! Jello Pudding Pops and free lobsters for everyone, ahh ahh ahh! Ahem – as you probably know by now, the fantasy finally came to a crashing end as the Minutemen couldn’t put away a six-point lead early in OT, nor a three-point lead in the final 90 seconds, and the Owls ended up winning the game on a pair of point-blank stops with a breakaway layup mixed in between. A chance to shock the basketball world goes by the wayside. Commence the endless bitching about the fouls and the Fire Kellogg chant. Blow it up, etc, etc.

Look, did UMass have – and blow – some chances to win this game? Of fucking course they did. I DID mention just now they were up six in OT, including 3 late, and had the ball in a tie game with under a minute to go.  And to the foul differential – yes, it was absolutely absurd that Temple had THIRTY more free throw attempts, but they did drive to the basket quite a bit more. UMass isn’t generally going to shoot more FT’s than basically anyone because of this shoot first, ask questions later offense, and they’re especially not going to do so against a team like Temple that plays a more aggressive and physical game. And, of course, that technical foul against DK is inexcusable in a tight game, and while you can’t assume the rest of the game would’ve gone the way it did (calling it “the difference in the game” because it was 2 points and they lost by 2 is ignorant of how timelines work, you nincompoop), it did seem like a turning point of sorts that led to Temple getting a big lead in the first place and forcing UMass to play catch-up.

Okay, back to the positives. I feel like I’m harping the same things, but honestly, they all felt amplified tonight:

-With apologies to Nicki Minaj, Chaz is a muthafuckin MONSTAH. Seriously. When he’s off, it can hurt the team big-time (see: Dayton, Rhody, Duquesne), but what he brings to the table would make him a force in any conference, and especially in THIS conference. Temple looked absolutely clueless as to how to stop him tonight at times, and this is with one of the conference’s absolute best coaches and no element-of-surprise to catch them off guard. He just really is that quick, and he’s got two more years left, so his game figures to only get more polished – especially if Laguerre lives up to even some of the hype and gives him a partner in crime.

-Sean Carter played a solid game, but he’s not “the guy.” He’s the only regular who’s graduating, and I feel pretty strongly that his production can be met, if not surpassed, by Cady, Esho, and Bergantino.

-Most importantly: the team played with heart. Last year’s team, aside from not having a chance to sniff a halftime lead, would’ve packed it in down the stretch. There was a level of fight in this team tonight that reminded me of – wait for it – Ford’s last year at UMass. And that was a year with a big NIT run and which set up what looked like a bright future, with the fanbase fired up and with some exciting players coming back the next year. And that was with Forbes and Milligan and Brower heading out the door and without nearly the same level of recruits coming in.

Really, what this all means is that UMass finally has a chance to get back to square one with this whole Ford debacle, where the school finally got the student and alumni base to care about – and get excited about – this team for a change, only for it to all fall back apart into “rebuilding mode” with Ford’s departure. Kellogg needed a few years to get there, but this sure feels like the precipice. Next year, they bring this entire core back a year older and wiser, with what almost has to be a more exciting schedule, a few complementary recruiting pieces, a healthy (fingers crossed) beast of a sophomore center, and of course the big question mark of what we really have with Jordan Laguerre if he can get his grades in order. I thought 20 wins was within reach if we had Jordan this year.

Now, in spite of the injuries and the bitter disappointment of having to wait for DK’s most touted recruit, 20 wins and a first-round home playoff game are on the horizon. And who knows? If they play like this, the Minutemen are a couple of lucky bounces in Atlantic City from making an even bigger leap.

One step at a time. Beat Rhode Island. Tear them limb from limb and get revenge. Otherwise, tonight’s near-win really will be as meaningless as anything else that happens on a Leap Day.

-Max

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