‘Twas an interesting weekend for the Big Two teams on campus this weekend.
As Matt so elegantly covered, it didn’t get off to the greatest start ever. That NESN Northeastern game was embarrassing, though maybe not quite the disgrace that I made it out to be on Twitter (notably, a half-pitcher of Sam Adams Winter from my favorite local hockey-themed bar may have had something to do with my reaction, or the fact that instead of TC’s commentary, I got to listen to something even worse the whole game: loud country music). I still think if they play that game ten times, nine out of those ten times Northeastern would have scored a LOT more goals than they did. Matthews is a tough place to play, though, and one relatively lopsided win there last year (with us present!) against their backup goalie should not obscure the fact that it’s a very tough place for visitors to play at.
Saturday night was a much better effort, plain and simple, and a game UMass easily could have won had Rawlings not stood on his head. That he was not named one of the three stars is truly a testament to how worthless the star-naming ceremony really is. He is singlehandedly the reason Northeastern was able to escape with a point, severely denting UMass’s chances of ascending to the sixth seed. Yeah, UMass’s power play unit, for the most part, was a pretty epic fail, almost dribble-drive-esque in its pure ineffectiveness. But the fervor with which the Minutemen attacked the Huskies net in overtime shows that, even with all the injuries, there’s still a lot of heart and energy with this bunch. Whether the youngsters’ skills are developing with all the experience of playing such close games week after week is the obvious question mark facing this team as the well-documented gauntlet of February and March (only one unranked opponent!) approaches. The good news is that John Muse and Joe Cannata are good, but they’re not Chris Rawlings. The bad news is that their respective teams score like nobody’s business, so here’s hoping the defense continues to play well, as they have since the near-collapse in Lowell.
Sunday, I got to take in my first basketball game of the season in person, with Matt and his dad. We sat near the center of general admission, rather than in the student section, marking the first time I’ve done that since my freshman year, an era where Stephane Lasme was blocking thirty shots a game, James Life was getting flown into games in three helicopters, and the NIT was a letdown, not a target. And I’ve got to say, we got pretty much what I expect from this team at this point against the rest of the middle-of-the-pack A-10 teams: a grind-out, ugly game, entertaining in spurts, which the Minutemen ultimately finished with a barely-double-digit victory.
And while I did indeed tweet that this game “set basketball back 30 years” during the stretch where UMass went some ten minutes without scoring and still managed to not trail in the first half, I can’t deny that I saw things that I liked. Gurley, Farrell, and the Carters grabbing rebounds almost at will at times. Vinson’s mobility getting better by the game. Hell, even CDP stealing the ball and getting perhaps the world’s ugliest “fast-“break basket of all time, one where it felt like he might not even beat the 35-second clock. And yes, I loved that the guys managed to get Martell and Malesevic in foul trouble within approximately five minutes, although that was more a product of URI playing too aggressively with an already-thin rotation as well as some overzealous refs on both sides. Most of all, the development of Gurley into a fringe NBA prospect – something absolutely unthinkable last year – has been really fun to watch. The Gurley Show taking over in the second half of games is becoming more and more common every week.
On the flip side, there’s that whole “setting basketball back 30 years” thing, so let’s get to the gripes. Like all the wide-open 3s that Rhody continued to get, particularly to Richmond, who was the closest thing they had to a hot hand the whole game. Like our team’s insistence on missing one or two alley-oop attempts to Hova and/or Big Skinny per game (even when they actually caught them this time, they had to come down with the ball first), and missing like three straight dunks in the second half when Rhody took its short-lived only lead of the game. Like the mind-numbing stretch where I felt like eight straight possessions consisted of “pass the ball around for 20 seconds, then have Riley chuck a contested three.”
Look, I knew without seeing a game in person that the relationship between him and the fans wasn’t great, but honestly – people were groaning every time he even touched the ball. And that’s before he missed that set of all three free throws. I don’t know how much of that is Freddie trying to shoot his way out of a slump, and how much is DK telling Freddie to shoot his way out of a slump. Right now, Riley is what he is – a knock-down shooter who can be absolutely dominating when he gets into his rhythm. What the coaches need to figure out is a way for this offense to be effective even with the point guards (Farrell included) in foul trouble, as was the case when the Riley chuck-a-thon began. Unfortunately, since it seems Traynham isn’t walking through that door, this is a problem that might not be fully resolved until next year, when Morgan is ready to play, Chaz is eligible and Laguerre arrives. But we’ll see. Riley was certainly more effective in his more traditional role in the second half, for what it’s worth.
All-in-all, though, these are pretty good times. UMass has won 4 out of 5, which ESPNBoston thought highly enough of to call “rolling!” Kind of like my eyes right now! Nah, I’ve got to say I’m fairly pleased with the squad as a whole. They’re beating who they should beat, an upgrade over last year for sure, and they’re able to even win games like this one in spite of the kinks. For the most part, the defense is doing a real nice job. The energy level of the team? That’s there, too. Dunking, free throw shooting, and shot selection…those are things DK can draw from this game as fodder for what needs to get fixed.
Next up on the docket: at Saint Louis, at Saint Joes, home vs. George Washington. Two roadies against bad teams, then a home game against that oft-mentioned middle tier. This is the warmup for the Next Huge Home Game (TM), a visit from the unbeaten-in-conference Duquesne Dukes. If, if if if if if if if if if, UMass continues to play like they’ve been doing lately, they can be 7-2 in league play when the Dukes come a-calling.
P.S. I have a lot of observations – not all of them are negative! – about the student sections, marketing department, and the game presentation in the Mullins Center in general, but since this is already a TL;DR kind of post, I’ll save that for a bit later in the week. Probably Tuesday-Wednesday when this incoming snowpocalpyse hits.
This season of UMass basketball has been alternated between relieving, frustrating, encouraging, discouraging, fun to watch and eye-melting. Sometimes, all of the above in the same game.
Tonight’s 78-69 triumph in Olean, where UMass refused to let a flight scare and a broken-down team bus sidetrack them from their goals, is another step in the right direction for a team that can’t seem to decide which direction it is headed in, but which has so far taken slightly more steps forward than backward this year.
UMass led this game wire-to-wire. They got out to a blistering start, shooting extremely well and holding Bonnies star Andrew Nicholson in check. They proceeded then to nearly give the game away in the early part of the second half, a continued recurring theme this year (see: Quinnipiac), but the strong first half gave UMass enough of a safety net that they were able to right the ship with a big run and put the game away.
What I liked about tonight’s game is that, from what I could see on the choppy ChannelSurfing feed, the dribble-drive offense was actually successful. UMass had absolutely no trouble gaining penetration, letting Gurley drive to the hoop over and over again, or dishing out to guys like Correia and Riley for threes, or finding Sean Carter for easy finishes. It was important for the Minutemen to establish their outside game early tonight, hitting 4 of their first 5 threes. When the team comes out cold, they tend to stay cold, and the D can concentrate on closing down the middle without worrying about leaving guys open outside. UMass needs to improve on its “plan B” for when the shots aren’t falling early, but in their recent wins, shooting has been great early.
And making up for their lack of practice, I thought the guys came out running tonight. Guys were beating their men down the court in transition, even Vinson (who looks a LOT better in the last few games, and I think the injury woes are behind him) had a few Tommy Point moments. Hell, even Census-Designated Place knocked down a hook. Even with all the Traynham drama, this team is a lot more organized and defined than last year’s mess. Gurley is finally becoming the brilliant scorer we always knew he could be (like Harris before him, and Gaffney before him, and Forbes before him…damnit, why does every UMass star only seem to flourish as a senior?!), and Farrell is becoming a quality #2 scoring threat who does a little of everything. Sean Carter also continues to impress with his energy and it seems like every game he’s more and more in control of what he’s doing on the court.
The non-conference struggles seem to be behind this team. Losing by 29 at CCSU seems to be more of an aberration than anything else, a case of a team being totally unprepared to play and taking a solid road opponent lightly. There’s been much more of a spark under this team ever since then, even in the blowout losses to Richmond and Xavier, both of whom look like they’re headed to the big dance this year. UMass has shown that it can win on the road against middle-to-low tier A-10 teams, carving out a spot in the 4-8 range of upper-middle tier squads in the conference, with the likes of URI, Dayton, and George Washington.
If they continue to progress, I think UMass’s ceiling for this year at this point is a home game in the first round of the A-10 tourney, a possible home game in the NIT first round, and I don’t see why they couldn’t make a bit of a run in either tournament. They’re not there yet, despite what the 7-0 start had many of us hoping. But (if you like to count D2 wins) they’ve already matched last season’s win total, are 1 away from matching last year’s conference win total, and they’ve already played two of the three best teams in the conference. If they can continue to compete like this night in and night out, 20 wins is a possibility, and that would be quite the accomplishment for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the league.
The team returns home to face Rhode Island on Sunday at 4 PM. Other than the fact that we play Temple later in the year, there’s NO REASON why this shouldn’t be the biggest home crowd of the year. Tell everyone you know. We’re certainly going to do what we can to hype this up. For chrissakes, even St. Fucking Bonaventure in the frozen tundra of western New York had a large and lively student section. I know, I can’t fault many for their skepticism. “These are the same old Minutemen. They’re gonna just let us down again. They never build off of big wins.” Trust me, I’ve thought it too. But the worm has to turn eventually. It’s 2 hours, guys. The Minutemen just risked life and limb to secure a win for our school. We can at least give them a warm welcome back. FTFB!
With all due apologies to The Gurley Show, Census-Designated Place (our new nickname for the downsized Big City Bailey), Coach Kellogg’s hair, and the rest of our slightly-improved basketball team, it is time to take hockey coverage into full gear. (Frankly, I have no desire to talk about that Richmond game anyway.)
UMass has won 3 out of 4, they’ve returned to respectability in conference play after that god-awful start, and the bandwagon is looking as inviting as ever. Could this be the year they pull a reversal, and have a monster second half after an awful first half instead of vice versa? …Okay, even our glasses aren’t that maroon. But a glance at the standings will show that our boys have slowly been creepin’ on up the ladder the last few weeks:
(EDIT: formatting sucks. Just go here. Yes, I’m lazy, but so are you if you can’t click a link.)
As you’ll notice, the Minutemen, thanks to a 5-1-0 record against the Lowells and Vermonts of the world, are actually above the 8th place position they so calamitously backed into last year(EDIT: we ended up 7th last year, Max is a JV blogger -Matt). Notably, we were picked to miss the playoffs, along with Lowell, by seemingly every season preview. Instead, the team could find themselves as high as 5th (!) depending on the outcome of this coming weekend, with two games against Northeastern (and Merrimack getting Vermont twice).
Now, objectively, we know that we can’t expect UMass to take these two games against Northeastern, and that hoping for a split is the most rational thing. But we’re optimists, damnit, and we also just watched UMass unleash an epic ass-whooping on Vermont sans two players (Lecomte and Phillips) who had been playing quite well offensively in past weeks. We see guys like Syner and Pereira emerging as offensive forces, while Hobbs and Langeraap are finally starting to show live up to their recruiting hype as scoring threats. It hurt to watch highlights of last year’s similar shellacking at Gutterson and seeing just how fun Jimmy and Casey were to watch when they were playing well, but with the mix of young and old, this team makes up for its pure star power with a much more balanced attack. Different guys are stepping up on different nights. Last year, it was the SWARM line, or Will Ortiz, or nothing.
We’ll have more specifics later in the week on the Huskies. But UMass, save for the Jekyll-Hyde act of Rob Madore shutting them down on Friday night, has seemed to make big strides since the debacle a few weeks ago at the Mullins Center, where they let a seemingly easy win slip away in a snap. You know the boys are gonna want revenge. They have had some recent success at Matthews in past years, and they’ve got a hopefully raucous crowd awaiting them for the first home game of the semester Saturday night. Go out and do your part as always to FTFB (fill the fuckin’ Bill! I’m coining it) and hell, if you live in the Boston area, or even if you don’t, round up a posse and make the roadtrip. Matthews is a great arena to visit, and there’ll always be plenty of UMass fans in a Boston-area game. We certainly are considering it depending on how things shake out schedule- and money-wise. UMass has a real opportunity here, just 3 points back. A sweep would not only secure a season series tiebreaker and likely put more distance between UMass and the dreaded playoff spot cutoff, but remember – UMass has two games in hand on Northeastern, and obviously still will after this series. Again, it won’t be a cakewalk against a hot goalie like Rawlings, but the defense and Dainton have been mighty impressive the last 3 games after that near-meltdown in Lowell.
Looking further down the line, UMass admittedly has its work cut out for it. 3 games against BC are gonna be a chore, but we’re due for at least one win against them after the last few years. One more big home game against a very beatable BU looms as well. We can beat NEU and PC at home. It’s the three games left against Merrimack (the next foe in the way, provided this weekend goes well) that loom the biggest, I think. Two of those are at Lawler Arena, a historic house of horrors for the Minutemen, and the Warriors are legit…but again, sometimes, you just gotta believe. The last two of the season are at home against Maine, and if things continue to go well for UMass, well, who knows? I’ve seen that scenario determine home ice between these teams before. Current students, I guarantee you – you’ve never seen the Bill rock like it did that weekend.
All of this being said…it’s my job to get ahead of myself. It’s UMass’s job to do just the opposite, or all of this speculation will be for naught. Personally, I think there’s a bright future ahead for this core of young players, and if nothing else, it’s been fun watching them improve and mature as the year’s gone on. But my co-writers are seniors, and thus not around for the magic of the NCAA run in 06-07. I just hope they – not to mention Langeraap, Kublin, Dainton, and the rest of the seniors – somehow get the opportunity to see this team do something special before they graduate. (D’awwwwww.)
P.S. The title is a reference to this. Note to self: somehow get the other writers to watch Parks and Rec so that Ron Swanson can become our official mascot. #impossibleisnothing