Just a week ago, the question for the Minutemen was whether they could put up a strong enough showing against UNH and BC to give them momentum going forward into the easy part of their schedule. Even the most optimistic of fans (ahem…this guy) couldn’t have predicted that, a night after getting smoked by the Wildcats, UMass would go out and make their biggest statement in nearly two years by knocking off the top team in the country. They played – finally – a complete 60-minute effort and they reaped the rewards.
Now the question is how they can deal with this newfound success. UMass teams in the past have had trouble with this concept. In 06-07, they followed up both of their wins over BC with losses (one by blowout fashion at home to the same Eagles the next night, the other with the most embarrassing of possible hockey outcomes – a loss to Lowell). The next year, UMass beat #9 BC and lost the next game at Gutterson; they later swept a three-game stretch against top-7 teams (including beating Notre Dame and Colorado College in the Lightning College Hockey Classic) – and proceeded to lose their next five en route to an epic collapse. Three years ago this weekend, UMass blew out then-#1 BU (their last win over a top-ranked team) and proceeded to get shut out by Lowell the next night (remember when UMass used to lose to Lowell? That was fun). Later that year, the boys looked like they were going to emerge from the Cahoon swoon after a tie against #7 UVM at the Gutt and a win over #3 Northeastern at home…and then they lost four straight. (To be fair, that team was a goal away from reaching the Garden, and they beat a top-3 Northeastern team three times including the playoffs. Alas…’twas not to be.)
I could go on, but you get the point – the problem this program has had in the Cahoon era isn’t getting signature wins, it’s following up on them. (That and a propensity for second-half collapses, but those things kinda go hand-in-hand.) Momentum doesn’t exist for this team – they could be speeding toward a wall, and then they’ll go and sweep Maine to end a season. They’ll be riding the highest of highs, then suffer the lowest of…ehh, I won’t even go there, Lowell sucks.
This weekend is a chance for the Minutemen to pick up what should – and I wish there were more things I could do to emphasize this text – SHOULD!!!!!!! – be two easy wins. Holy Cross is, of course, an Atlantic Hockey team, and while they now-famously have a win over BU on their resume, that same BU team has played badly enough that UMass should frankly be embarrassed to only have one point against them, before you even take into account how those games went down. But come on, we’re talking about a school that produced Bill Simmons* and wears purple. How good can they be?
Then there’s a rematch with Northeastern, the first time since 2006 that I’ll be at a home game with neither Matt nor Derek present. (Eerie.) The Huskies barely stole a point on opening night against UMass, but have been pretty bad since, and hopefully won’t get the luxury of spending the entire third period on the power play this time. As Papa Triangle pointed out in his preview this week, while the Huskies’ power play was horrible in that game, the Minutemen couldn’t put together any momentum to get the put-away goal on the board because, oh let’s think, they had one (or two) fewer guys on the ice for much of the second half of the game. I’m optimistic that the guys’ opening-night jitters are behind them and they play a much more disciplined game.
That said, history suggests UMass is in for a letdown after that BC series. If UMass has to come away with just two points this weekend, though, let’s get real here – the Holy Cross game, as much as it would suck to lose, is an exhibition at this point. UMass’s shoddy start to the year has once again put them into Hockey East-or-bust mode, although I’m much more confident about this team’s chances of competing for a trip to the Garden than I was last year (obviously). They’d need a pretty remarkable second half to be thinking about an at-large bid. If UMass loses to the Crusaders, I’d be okay with it – provided they beat Northeastern tomorrow.
(But don’t let that stop you from going to the Bill tonight, kids. And don’t forget, game starts at 6!)
Oh, so hey, baz-ketta-ball starts tonight. As usual, I’m half-assing it with my whole “preseason preview” thing this year. Anyone who’s mentioned it to me lately should know, though, that I’ve been quite high on this team’s chances this year. Last year’s team was just not quite there yet. A lot of – ahem – “experts” think UMass might barely make the A-10 playoffs this year, but these are people who are looking at the stats, seeing Gurley’s points are gone, and predicting a fall-off. If anything, losing Gurley is the best thing that could happen to this team. Nothing against AG, he certainly had his moments and improved dramatically after a terrible first year in Amherst, but he’s the training wheels that this team needed to lose, the crutch that they kept falling back on. He led the team in scoring, but he took a remarkable number of shots to do it, and the team seemed to stand around waiting for him to do something far too often. This year, with DK finally seeming to concede that this team is better-built for a high-paced game rather than whatever the failed dribble-drive experiment had devolved to last year, I expect a much more balanced attack. I expect big things from guys like Putney and Morgan. I expect that having an actual point guard is going to facilitate a more potent offense. I expect Matt’s BFF Freddie Riley to finally break through. I expect Junkyard Dog Javorn Farrell will thrive now that he’s not forced to play out of position at the point. I expect one of the touted freshmen (Esho and Lalanne) to step up to the plate. I expect Terrell Vinson will come out motivated after a disappointing start to his career. And I expect that this team will breeze through a way-too-easy non-conference schedule and it will result in a team with a pretty good record that probably still has no shot at an at-large bid, but I’d be happy with a legitimate run in the conference tourney and a return to the NIT. I expect they’ll be good enough that even Derek, who loved UMass basketball but has sworn off UMass baz-ketta-ball, will be convinced to come to a game with us. Baby steps here.
Do I expect too much? Oh, of course. I’ve been burned by these guys before…we all have. But there are fewer question marks here than there ever have been in the past. Being away from campus, of course, I haven’t actually seen any of this team yet this season, so I suspect we’ll have a better grasp of what these guys are made of after tonight’s Cage match with Elon. Who, by the way, UMass should certainly beat, seeing as how they’re a reverse Nole(t).
See ya there.
* Nahh, Simmons is alright.