The Dukes, a Hazard

While our hockey team plays the deja vu game with its third straight first-round trip to Conte Forum, here’s another familiar sight: UMass the 8 seed hosting a first-round playoff game against the 9 seed.

Here’s where things are different: the Minutemen backed into the 8 seed last year, with a 2-7 stretch to finish at 7-9 in the conference jumping out of the gates 5-2. That includes a humiliating wire-to-wire loss at Fordham that snapped a stunning run of ineptitude in conference play for the Rams and pushed the anti-Kellogg hordes to the brink. This was followed by a crushing, but predictable, rout at the Bill at the hands of Dayton. Let’s stop talking about this before I break something.

A casual glance at the Minutemen (say, the same casual glance of the no-nothings who thought “hmm, team with mediocre record losing an overrated me-first scorer, let’s rank them 12th in the conference!!!1) would suggest parallels with last year’s finish. Yes, the Minutemen stumbled a bit after a hot start, closing conference play with a disappointing 2-4 run, but apart from this year’s Dayton debacle, UMass’s finish wasn’t nearly as crushing. The competition was certainly much stronger; they lost a heartbreaker at Temple instead of last year’s home game against the Owls which wasn’t as close as the final score would indicated. And this year’s finale against a horrible Rams team wasn’t pretty, but the result earned DK and the gang a 20-win season for the first time since Ford’s departure. No, UMass definitely didn’t back into the 8-seed this year – they tied for 5th and drew the shortest straw in an unfortunate tiebreaker situation. Long story short: we’ll take it.

This year’s 8-9 duel brings the Duquesne Dukes into town, a team that took advantage of horrendous officiating and cold UMass shooting on its home floor to take care of the Minutemen a few months ago, and which has done very little since. They did pull off a win at Dayton, but so did Rhody this year. They also got blown out at Saints Bonaventure and Louis, and got handled on their Senior Day by the Billikens. They also lost at GW along the way. Are they pushovers? Of course not. But this is the caliber of opponent UMass has handled at home all year long, en route to a 14-1 home record tarnished only by a one-point loss to La Salle fueled by one player catching absolute fire.

Work is going to make a Tuesday night trip to the Bill a no-go for the Fight Mass crew. But if you’re on campus, or anywhere close, or, eh, unemployed…you should be there. The fan support down the stretch this season has been spectacular, and gives me a lot of hope for next year (which should be helped by home games against BC, Miami, Dayton and Temple, and hopefully a couple more big names if DK can pull off quality scheduling). But we all know how fickle these fans are about hoops. It’ll take some sustained success to keep these crowds coming, just as hockey has continued to ride the ’04 and ’06 runs despite their Garden-trip drought.

I honestly, truly believe that any of the top 8 teams in the A-10 tourney have a chance of winning it all this year, UMass included. Barring that, if UMass can at least make a nice run and earn itself a top-4 NIT seed (they’re currently a 6), we’re talking more home games, and maybe another run to Madison Square. This team will be a big-dance contender next year, and we have to be patient and understand that. Anything they get this year is a bonus. But it’s a bigger bonus if there are extra home games involved. All of that starts tomorrow night. Go out, fill the Bill again, and let’s send the boys off to Atlantic City.

If nothing else, let’s shut those awful Duquesne radio guys up. Seriously, they’re the worst.

– Max

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Oh by the way, look who’s ranked in the top 5 this week. Lax plays Albany at Garber tomorrow at 3. If you’re out of class early and/or in the area, go check out what is arguably this school’s most successful sports program of the past half-decade.

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