Oh, the University of Rhode Island. No matter how bad things get for the UMass Minute-a-men baskettaball team (note: we’ve taken to the Josh Maurer pronunciations of the words “Minutemen” and “basketball” in case you haven’t noticed), you’re always there to brighten our spirits.
For whatever reason, since I became a part of the UMass community by enrolling in 2006, the Minutemen have not lost its season series to URI. Not once. As a freshman, when Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman were walking through that door, UMass lost a nail-biter in Kingston, but routed the Rams in the Bill. The Minutemen ended up settling for the NIT that year, but we dragged the Rams kicking and screaming with us. Sign of things to come.
The following year, UMass squeaked by at home, then, in a game typical of the Travis Ford era, rallied from a late seven-point deficit to pull out a 98-91 win in Rhode Island. That was my (and Derek’s) first visit to the Ryan Center, during which I served as the “space” in a row of shirtless fans spelling out “Go UMass!” on our chests. Yes, Derek was at a basketball game, and there were UMass students present – and it was on the ROAD! (Seriously, there were about 40 students on that bus. It was epic. You’re hard-pressed to find that many students at a home game now, if you don’t count the band.) We countered the “U! R! I!” chant with “N! I! T!,” which didn’t go over well with the angry Rhode Islanders, who, again, would probably have been in the big dance had it not been for two losses to UMass on their resume. The Minutemen had two of the most painful losses in recent memory that year (the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre vs. Fordham, then a bunch of wins including the Rhody game to get our hopes back up, followed of course by the collapse against Charlotte in Atlantic City), but beating URI made it all worthwhile. I’ll never forget standing outside the Ryan Center in late February – still inexplicably shirtless – waiting for the players to board the team bus. I hugged Travis Ford that night. We all did. It’s one of the reasons we’re still so bitter about his betrayal, logical as it was. UMass went to the NIT finals that year, beating Florida before losing to a young Ohio State squad led by much younger versions of the David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale, etc. core of seniors that is now among the nation’s best teams. Rhody? Bounced in the first round of the NIT. Hah.
The next year, with Kellogg as head coach, the tandem of Chris Lowe and Tony Gaffney and an inexplicable win at Kansas couldn’t mitigate the difficulty of transition. UMass was bound to miss the postseason, with an abysmal record, and the NIT run’s fan dwindling by season’s end. Indeed, DK lost his first game against Rhody, a 12-point defeat in Amherst that had Rhody once again poised to go dancing. All they had to do was beat us again, on their home floor, on senior night (well, afternoon). A much smaller contingent of UMass faithful made this trip, including a few of us holdovers from the year before. What we witnessed? Matt Glass setting a vicious, and probably illegal, pick. Chris Lowe driving coast-to-coast in the final seconds. And a near-sellout Rhody crowd, Lou Merloni and all, silenced once again, as they watched the Minutemen clinch yet another NIT berth for the Rams. And the 30 or so UMass fans in attendance were positively giddy.
Last year? Same story in reverse. Another transition year for Kellogg, another expected return to the dance for Rhody. The road trip was first, as Matt accompanied me to his first UMass road hoops game, and my last as a student. Only a few other students showed, a real testament to just how far the student support of this team has plummeted, and where it needs to return. Rhody dominated this game in the first half, but Anthony Gurley went off in the closing minutes to narrow the score to respectability and plant the seeds of momentum for the rematch. It was UMass’s senior day, the last game of the regular season, Rhody’s tenuous bubble hopes on the line yet again. You know what happens next. (Here’s a little trip down memory lane, complete with a Lost reference in the title and discussion of hockey’s playoff hopes to add to the 2010 nostalgia!)
So here we are, 2011, Kellogg’s boys have climbed up to respectability, if still wildly inconsistent and not-quite-there-yet. Rhody seemed particularly vulnerable this year, its fans much less optimistic about the team’s tournament dreams, with the likes of Delroy James and Will Martell thrust into leadership roles, with few exciting players on the horizon (let the Nikola Malesevic era begin!), with Jim Baron’s job security in question now that his son (who, at best, struck me as a homeless man’s Mike Bibby) having graduated and moved on, and, most importantly, with Rhody Nation aware that no matter how much they try, URI cannot get those two wins over UMass that it will probably take for this program to ever make the big dance again. Granted, UMass will probably need to prove it can beat the likes of Saint Louis and St. Joe’s before the Minutemen break their tournament drought, but just the same. The Rams dropped their first game against UMass this year, and even though we hadn’t seen a win since then, you just had to figure the Rams are the cure for what ails the Minutemen. Always.
God, I love it when I’m right.
True, the first half felt like more of the same baskettaball for UMass. Notably, we’ve decided here at Fight Mass that Josh Maurer isn’t crazy when he pronounces it “baskettaball” instead of “basketball.” Indeed, he’s actually onto something. The horrific style of play that the Minutemen play, which is the end result of the DDM offense not being executed properly, is not basketball. It’s baskettaball. It entails a lot of passing the ball around the perimeter, taking awful 3-point shots, missing open layups and dunks, turning the ball over in the paint and just in general, standing around, and attempting at least one failed alley-oop (usually Correia to Sean Carter) per game, then hoping that somehow Farrell and Gurley will bail you out in the end. UMass played a lot of quality basketball during its 7-0 season-opening run, with only a few glimpses of the baskettaball of the past two years. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the four-game losing streak to the likes of Saint Louis, St. Joe’s, and George Washington, all teams UMass should be able to beat at this point, regardless of venue, was a return to baskettaball, which is unwinnable for UMass when the other team can shut down Gurley and Farrell. And that sucks to watch, because it would seem to indicate a regression. Besides, this team needs to be able to win without Gurley going forward.
Luckily for UMass, Rhody also seems to play a lot of baskettaball. They heave up awful 3’s, they commit silly turnovers, and their offense is just plain boring to watch much of the time. Also luckily for UMass, DK has finally turned Jesse “The Takeover” Morgan loose, in the absence of the injured Riley, as well as giving Raphiael Putney a lot more minutes. We saw them both on the floor for much of the second-half run, opening things up for Gurley to get his game going again, covering for Farrell who seems to be pressing things lately (he’s at his best when he’s left to do the little things well, hence the “Junkyard Dog” nickname), and just making better overall choices with the ball. Maybe watching the team’s recent malaise from the bench has been a boon for these guys, because they’re seeing what not to do. I know Matt and I have gotten some heat for being overly critical of Riley (even from Riley himself), but the fact is, if Riley used his abilities the way Jesse Morgan has in these last two games, he’d be a much better player. We don’t question Riley’s shooting ability, but Morgan seems to have a better grasp for when to fire his shots. He’s always in rhythm and he gets his role in the offense. If these two can build off of what the other is doing, we could have two absolutely deadly scoring threats from the outside next year, which in turn would make everyone else’s game more effective. The offense was a lot smoother for UMass in the second half (from what I heard – no video, sadly) and would have won by a lot more had it not been for the atrocious foul discrepancy coupled with some uncharacteristically-poor free throw shooting.
Really, as frustrating as those last four games were to watch, it’s been exciting to see Putney and Morgan starting to live up to some of the hype. Hopefully they continue to improve and the rest of the team follows their lead as the regular season winds down. UMass is just sitting outside that 5-8 range, and I think getting a home A-10 game would be a good step this year. I could still see this team making it back to the NIT as well if they finish 3-1 down the stretch and win a game or two(!) in the conference tourney. Just as easily, of course, I could see a 1-3 finish and a first-round exit in an A-10 road game. Either way, there’s obviously a lot of room for this team to grow, and the rest of the season affords them a fairly low-pressure opportunity to prepare for next year. They’ve shown that they’re clearly not ready to compete with the upper crust of the conference just yet, although the Temple game gives them one last opportunity to disprove that (and if they manage to somehow win that game, my expectations for the conference tournament will be a bit higher). If they have some momentum going into the offseason, with most of the core group returning and with Kellogg’s own guys finally comprising the entire team, I’ll feel a lot better about next year being the year all this rebuilding finally pays off.
And even if it doesn’t? At least we’ll have two games against Rhody on the schedule.
Yes, Virginia, the UMass Minutemen basketball team just won a game in the Atlantic 10 tournament. I’m going to repeat that: the Minutemen won an A-10 tourney game. In what top scientists are describing as “by a wide margin the least likely thing that has ever happened,” UMass, which managed in consecutive years to suffer a shocking upset in the first round of said tournament that ultimate cost Travi$ Fraud’s teams a pair of NCAA Tournament bids, second-year (and, for some reason, already-embattled) head coach Derek Kellogg took a 10-19 team that very nearly 0-3 against the Atlantic 10’s two worst teams, snuck into the conference tournament on a last-day victory, and proceeded to do what Ford’s teams, featuring the likes of Forbes, Harris, Brower, Milligan, Lasme, and Freeman never did. The Derek Kellogg statue is to be placed in between the Mullins and the practice arena, and will feature lifelike hair to be re-jelled on a daily basis. Oh, and let’s name the Champions Center after him too.
Okay, so dramatic hyperbole aside, the Minutemen were playing a Charlotte team tail-diving in a way that makes the Cahoon Swoon look tame by comparison. They also didn’t have to play in UMass’s personal house of horrors, Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. (No, really, I was so excited when I realized this game would be on Charlotte’s home court. I hate Boardwalk Hall; it’s right there with Safeco Field and Lawler Arena in the “places my favorite team should win but never seems to” pantheon, and it’s not even anyone’s home arena.)
Did UMass deserve to win this game? The defense in the first half and down the stretch was fantastic, though the lapse in the middle there nearly did them in. Derrio Green (and, really, the whole Charlotte offense) didn’t exactly set the world on fire from the field. And certainly, they got some help from the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen, a too many men technical foul. I’ve never seen that in a basketball game (that’s roughly seven full seasons of Celtics, four full years of UMass and countless pro and college games on TV in between). and I can guarantee you the crazies calling for DK’s firing would be louder than ever if such a thing happened with his team.
On the other hand, UMass, as if to continue the A-10 First Game tradition, tried their darnedest to lose this game. The team continues to struggle to hit open shots, although at least they’re getting more of them. Anthony Gurley, as the UMassHoops chat room can attest, had one of those frustrating games that has really epitomized his time here in Amherst. Bailey got lots of minutes. And yet they still pulled it off, thanks to the continued stellar rebounding effort and Ricky continuing to go out with a bang here.
So what’s next? A Richmond squad that UMass took to overtime on its own court, and could have beaten if Ricky hadn’t dribbled down the clock to about 1 on the final possession before heaving a terrible shot. On one hand, UMass doesn’t have to play them in Richmond this time. On the other hand…right. Atlantic City. Fuck. Well, that was fun. No, but seriously, this is two great wins in a row for DK and for this team going forward, regardless of how central Ricky was to them. If the guys can’t pull the victory and bring a 19-loss team into the NCAA tournament this year (which is like saying “if I can’t go try out for the Red Sox and make the starting rotation”), at least it’s nice to have not just A-10 Tournament experience for the kids, but also Boardwalk Hall experience going forward.
But hey, anything is possibbblllleeeee! (Except, again, that Red Sox scenario.)
Oh, other things to note…I caught the first half of UMass-Albany today, my first-ever men’s lax game at Garber Field. (I know, I’m a slacker, though in my defense, the home games always seem to be either a) during class or b) too far away for my hungover ass to walk on a weekend.) UMass came back from down 4-1 to win 11-6. I’m not even going to pretend to be a lacrosse expert, but I’ll do my best to keep an eye on Cannella’s talented young squad.
Last but not least (but certainly most obvious): the new layout is finally here! After finally getting some free time to mess around with GIMPshop (my new laptop, unlike my old PC, does not have the real Photoshop, and I’m not made of money), I was able to put something together with a shot Walsh took a few weeks back before a game. Accordingly, I switched up the blog template, and I think this one looks better; plus, I enjoy having the tags and author stuff BEFORE the post, so you guys know whose work you’re reading right away. We’d love to hear any input you might have on the layout; notably, we’d love to change the color scheme but WordPress only gives you so many templates, so we’ll just deal with what we’re given. Enjoy!
One more thing…we will most definitely on hand for this weekend’s festivities at Chestnut Hill University. Is it Friday yet?
Hockey has lost five of six and is seeing its home ice chances slipping away. Basketball has put together consecutive wins and, in their latest endeavor, looked – dare I say – dominant at times, albeit against a fairly bad St. Joe’s team. In fact, they won on national TV (being CBS College Sports, but still)…on Valentine’s Day.
…What the hell is this, bizarro UMass?
It’s been a weekend nobody would have seen coming about a month ago. Hoops rallied from 16 down on the road to force overtime, then from 5 down early in the extra frame to knock off Duquesne, and now three days later they’re looking at a tie for the 8th seed in the A-10, with plenty of momentum going into the home stretch. Hockey, meanwhile, got flustered by a hot freshman goaltender at home, then watched the defense and their own ace goalie give up another six-spot to a Boston team.
As big fans of the Hold Steady here at Fight Mass (well, Matt and myself, anyway), we live by the mantra “stay positive” around here – to the extent that I’ve seriously considered getting the band’s infinity/plus-sign logo in tattoo form. So I’d like to talk about the bright spots first, and in greater detail. The Hold Steady don’t have a song that adequately reflects how I witnessed the basketball game first-hand (and called it on the radio) while I only heard the hockey game on RNX, and even then only intermittently; however, I should mention that this also factors into the equation.
Regardless, DK’s defense was suffocating at times. Phil Martelli’s Hawks went nearly 11 minutes without scoring to close the first half. That’s over a quarter of the game. Granted, that team’s a mess right now; their top two players (Williamson and Govens) are glorified role players, their big guys (Hilliard and O’Brien) are foul-prone and they have basically zero depth. I’m not sure what they were trying to do on offense, but it involved a whole lot of dribbling and passing around the perimeter until the shot clock was down to 10. Still, you have to give UMass credit for all the flustering they managed to do. No D-1 offense could possibly be that bad on its own, and guys like Farrell, Vinson, Sean Carter, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even Correia were fiends on the defensive end.
The offense? Eh. ‘Twas sufficient. Another dazzling performance by Ricky, and Gurley once again decided to join us prior to the last couple minutes and knocked a few shots down. I thought Riley got a quick hook; he played sparingly in the second half so, baring an injury, it appears that he found his way into DK’s doghouse, which is surprising because now that City is finally there I’m surprised there’s any room….
Okay, sidebar time: Look, we (okay, I) feel really bad about this whole Big Shitty situation. It sucks to have to shit all over one of our own players. But really, if you haven’t seen a game yet (or if the only one you saw was Memphis), you have to watch him play to understand. He’ll play astronomically poorly for several minutes, making even the most routine rebound look like an ordeal, and then every so often he’ll dive for a loose ball or something and, because of how much better “making a fairly difficult play” looks than “botching a fairly easy one,” the crowd oohs and aahs. It’s like a Nickelback concert; their couple of I guess-they’re-serviceable hit singles sound like pure musical genius next to the rest of the shit they play. I’m sure he’s a great guy and all, and players have feelings too, but honestly – every time I watch him play I become less confident in his ability to play the game of basketball. DK finally appears to feel that way too, based on these last few games. It’s unfortunate, and I’m personally rooting for City to turn it around. Until he does, though, his minutes belong to Hov.
Ahem, as I was saying, Riley didn’t play much, and the same goes for Sampson, but the dribble drive looked refreshingly effective. It’s easy to get carried away with a couple wins when it’s literally been nearly two months since the last time they did it, but if – and I repeat, IF – they can put a nice little run together, and 3-2 is certainly doable in the last five games, then I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Minutemen hosting that new first-round campus site home game in the A-10 Tournament. Lord knows UMass can’t win in Atlantic City to save their lives, but if UMass can hold onto or even improve on that #8 seed, the Minutemen have a chance to do something Travi$ never did: win a goddamn conference tournament game. In a rebuilding year, you can’t understate the importance of postseason experience, however fleeting it may be.
Now, going from the light at the end of one tunnel to the trainwreck on the side of the tracks, the Mass Attack Express got derailed pretty hard this weekend against the red-hot
Chris Rawlingses N’Eastern Huskies. Having not been there, I’ll have to defer you to Ben’s wrap-up, but let’s just say that the last thing the struggling Minutemen needed was a game dictated by horrendous officiating (though it’s tough to say whether Toot’s bench minor-worthy outburst was fueled by the blue-balls-inducing tease of UMass’s offense the last few games).
But the fact of the matter is this: UMass has now given up 6 or 7 goals a remarkable five times in the second half of the season. To say that the defense lost it completely with Lecomte and Kublin sidelined is an understatement, and even with Lecomte and Langeraap back to bolster the size, experience, and physicality up front, the blue line is still in disarray. Kublin’s not a game-changer the likes of, say, Jeremy Dehner for Lowell (quick side note: UMass’s own struggles, aside from pissing us off as UMass fans, have severely limited the amount of enjoyment we’ve been able to draw from the ugly sister’s epic collapse). Just the same, though, his absence has had a trickle-down effect on his fellow blue liners. Mikey Marcou, while continuing to surprise on offense, has been a disaster the last few games defensively, which is a huge regression for someone who had been playing well earlier in the year. Bronco had a good game Friday night, but has been maddeningly inconsistent. Younger guys like Irwin and Rowe are, like Mikey, good offensive d-men who have struggled on D at times. Kessler’s a mixed bag, and Donnellan hasn’t gotten enough playing time to make a name for himself yet. The only constant has been Nolet, and you simply can’t get by with just one consistent defenseman. Not in this league.
So here we are with five games left, one at home, two being against a suddenly-hot Merrimack team, a game in Chestnut Hill against a BC team that might not be quite as amped up about it, and then two more up in Maine, whose freshmen want revenge for the Wilson series and whose hick fans want “revenge” for She-Man-Gate.
As UMass fans, we’re used to this script: the Cahoon Swoon, the fade to black at the end, the whimper and then, nothing.
That’s the beauty of sports, though…you never know when the script will get flipped. Here’s hoping that this Bizarro Weekend is a harbinger of said script-flipping.
Almost two years ago, the UMass men’s basketball team was in the mix for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament behind what looks like a loaded team by today’s standards: Forbes, Harris, C-Lowe, Milligan, Brower, and guys like Gaffney coming off the bench. On Valentine’s Day, UMass hosted lowly Fordham in a nationally-televised contest on ESPN2 (I think…it may have even been ESPN itself though). It was the boys’ chance to strut their stuff on a national stage, during an otherwise slow week for sports. Marketing even drummed up support with t-shirts. If you’re fairly new to UMass, you may be wondering where the “UMass ❤ ESPN” t-shirts came from, which I’ve seen at least a couple of at literally every UMass sporting event since then (whether ESPN was involved or not). Well, now you know. And now I will make you hate those shirts.
Y’see, the Minutemen inexplicably failed to show up for that game, letting Fordham hang around for the first half and falling apart down the stretch to let the A-10’s typically less-dangerous Rams embarrass us on national television. I call it the Valentine’s Day Massacre, even though we only lost by a few points. It felt like a blowout loss to a real team (and remember, these were the glorious times of just a few short years ago when the Minutemen actually beat inferior teams at home). Instead of rolling into the A-10 tourney, the Minutemen had the pressure of needing to win one to keep hopes of an at-large bid alive, and, well, we all know how that worked out in the Travi$ Fraud era.
Now, normally, when your favorite team suffers a soul-crushing defeat, you’ll want to erase all memory of that game and move on. I don’t think I’ve seen a single Red Sox 2003 ALCS shirt, or a Patriots 2007 AFC Champions hat. Yet, for whatever reason, clueless UMass fans continue to wear these shirts recalling the Valentine’s Day Massacre, as if they have no idea what actually happened on the court, and just came to the game for the t-shirts. Oh, wait. That’s because they did. This is something that has pissed off many a true Minutefan for the last several years: the people who come for the free t-shirts and leave before halftime (or, in a few cases, before the game even starts). Now, granted, when it comes to college sports, it’s better to have a mix of fairweather and hardcore fans than no fans at all (see: the Mullins Center this year for basketball), but if you can’t be bothered to stick around to see your team play for at least the first half – and even that’s pretty lame – it’d probably be better for you to just not come at all. The point of the shirts is so that you’re seen on TV wearing them, not walking around campus next week, or two years later. One of my buddies – let’s just say he’s one of the more prominent student fans at basketball games – came up with the idea of proving a point by making Facebook events promoting free t-shirts for games where that isn’t the case. Ethical? No. But he’s got a point; a midweek t-shirt game against an A-10 dreg would probably draw a bigger crowd than a weekend game against an upper-tier team like Richmond or Dayton with no free swag.
A little disclosure here: I was held up by something, I don’t recall whether it was class or work obligations but I was definitely late to the game, juuust late enough to miss out on getting a t-shirt. (As in, literally the person in front of me walking in got the last one.) But I’m preeetty sure part of drowning our sorrows after the game would have included some sort of shirt-burning ceremony. I wanted nothing to do with that game; I wanted to get that memory purged, Eternal Sunshine-style. (And for that matter, sophomore year, I wanted the memory of Leemire Goldwire purged, too. And hockey’s entire second half. And the Super Bowl. And, uhh, maybe a couple of hookups. Man, sometimes I wish that movie was real.)
Anyway, rant aside, the Rams are paying their first visit to the Bill since that awful, awful night two years ago. No national coverage, and probably a lot lower stakes, as the Minutemen are coming off two consecutive disappointing losses and Fordham is beyond awful this year. They’ve lost last year’s breakout star Jio Fontan to USC, they’ve won just twice all year, they already fired their coach, they have two guys averaging double figure scoring. If UMass wants to do anything in conference play this year, they cannot lose this game, because really, everyone UMass has played this year (including Dowling and Arkansas-Ft. Smith) should be able to rout the Rams at home. I have a lot of loyalty for the hockey team. A LOT. They could lose every game down the stretch, change their fight song to a Keith Urban song, have the UMass Republican Club sing the national anthem, replace Matty G with Glenn Beck, and replace the pucks in the Chuck-a-Puck contest with kittens, and I’d still follow every game. Basketball? Yeeeah, they don’t exactly have that from me yet, and besides, losing to Fordham would be far more egregious than all of that combined.
I’ll be back on hand to call the game on WMUA (the stream is right here or just tune your old-fashioned radio-mabobber to 91.1 FM at about 7:15 or so) and Matt’s gonna be there too, so you can probably expect a blog post from him at some point.
And there better not be any UMass ❤ ESPN t-shirts, or so help me Cosby, there will be consequences.
Alright, time to get rolling with the actual meat of the content.
UMass Basketball vs. Memphis – tomorrow, 6 PM, TD Garden
I know it’s odd considering this is supposed to be a hockey blog, but tomorrow night, men’s basketball will be playing its highly-anticipated game in the TD Garden against John Calipari’s the Memphis Tigers. JTAM has the usual variety of local media links. Honestly, at this point, I’m more excited about the throwback uniforms, the national coverage, the venue, and the pre-game meetup at the Fours than I am about our chances of actually winning the game. Not to sound negative, but let’s face it, UMass is 4-5 on the season (the Fort Smith game doesn’t count toward RPI and, being a non-conference game, is therefore irrelevant), they’ve lost at home to Cornell, they’ve been smoked by mediocre Big East teams…UMass is not getting an at-large bid this year, period. The only way they make the NCAA tournament is if the team suddenly gels in A-10 play and they make a Cinderella run through Atlantic City, in a complete bizarro world take on how the T-Fraud era played out. So this Memphis game really doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of playoff implications.
But, let’s look at the positives. I actually think UMass can win this game. Memphis is 7-1, yes, but aside from Kansas (who beat them in a 2-point nailbiter), the Tigers haven’t exactly played, uhh, anyone. Jackson State, Tennessee Tech, Central Arkansas, Oakland, Arkansas State, Montana State, and Arkansas-Little Rock, with only that last one being away from FedEx Forum. Granted, Memphis is winning those games by a LOT, but there’s a reason that 7-1 record leaves them (barely) out of the top 25.
It is kind of sad that Calipari won’t be there; I think the whole point of having the game in Boston and not Amherst was that Coach Cal would bring a much larger crowd than the Mullins could hold, but this is still a great opportunity for the Minutemen, who really have nothing to lose in this game, to get the first “big win” for the freshman class. I look forward to seeing a lot of the usual Mullins maniacs one more time before break; I envision an atmosphere a lot like the NIT a few years ago, but with less students and more alumni. (In other words, a quieter, but perhaps more knowledgeable, contingent.)
UMass Hockey: Midseason Report
In the coming days, I’ll recap the schedule and look at the context of each game, and maybe a more in-depth look at the players, but for now, let’s take a look at where the Minutemen sit at the holiday break.
UMass is the #15-ranked team in both polls, after starting the season unranked and climbing as high as #9. They’re 4th in Hockey East, one point ahead of Lowell, 3 back of Maine, 4 back of BC and 6 back of UNH, but they’ve played two fewer games than the teams ahead of them. If the season were to end today, UMass would host Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals; if the NCAA was selecting teams today, UMass would probably make the field of 16.
…but, of course, that’s not how it works, and anyone who’s followed the team in recent years knows about the second-half crash and burn the team has experienced, especially the past two seasons. Two years ago, the collapse began after UMass swept through the Lightning tournament in Tampa Bay and shot up to 5th in the rankings, winning two games in the following two months. Last season, the only teams we seemed to be able to beat in the second half were Maine and Northeastern, and we all know how the latter exacted revenge in the playoffs.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the way this team could perform in the second half. One reason for that is the remaining schedule. After what has to be the easiest holiday tournament I’ve seen UMass play in my four years here, the schedule has them playing a road-heavy second half, with only 6 more games at the Mullins Center. However, their away schedule is full of games against teams they should beat, while their more challenging foes are the ones who will have to brave the Bill. On paper, UMass still has 3 games left against a struggling Northeastern team (2 away, 1 home) and 2 visits to Agganis to play that mess of a Terriers squad. They already won their only trip to Gutterson and will get Vermont here for a pair, and BC and Lowell still have to come here again.
There are things on that schedule that scare me, though. After UConn, they have a HUGE three-game road swing, taking on the two bottom-dwelling Boston doggies, but with a visit to UNH in the middle. If we can win two of those three, I’ll be pretty confident that this team can avoid the second-half swoon, that all this talk of better leadership and team cohesiveness and other coaching jibber-jabber is for real. As bad as BU and NU are this year, though, they’re still Hockey East teams, with an incredibly tough Whittemore trip in the middle…a recipe for a season-crippling trip. They follow that up with a home-and-home with the ugly sister, a consistently mediocre squad in the past few years that just seems to have our number, regardless of how the teams perform against anyone else. This year’s been no different; even though UMass has basically the same record as Lowell and has played a tougher schedule, the River Hawks snapped a 3-game skid with a convincing comeback win against us at Tsongas. The fact that they followed that up by barely splitting a weekend series against an awful Princeton squad says that, even if UML continues their tailspin into the second half, our two-game series could get them back on track in a heartbeat. Their #3 ranking may be a distant memory, but their 10-3-2 record in the last 15 against us is disturbingly real. On top of everything else, the two games are going to be at the tail end of break, and since traditional dorms don’t open until Sunday, the student section for Friday is going to be limited to commuters and us nine-month housing students (yay North Apartments!). Lowell fans travel well, and I have no idea when their semester starts, so I fear they’ll be very audible at the game – not that these things matter, of course. It’s the principle of the thing that bugs me.
UMass has a couple trap games left on the schedule, too. A visit to Providence looks inviting, but we all know how easily Alex Beaudry can steal a game for the Friars – he might as well have been wearing his Martin Brodeur costume on Halloween. And as thoroughly as we put to bed all the talk about Merrimack’s improvement the other night (4-1 doesn’t even begin to describe how much UMass dominated that game, but more on that in the game-by-game recap next week), Lawler Arena is to the Minutemen what Safeco Field is to the Red Sox – a place where we never, ever seem to win, no matter how awful the home team is. At least we only have to go there once.
Finally, those last two games against Maine loom pretty large. Considering how much better the Black Bears have played since the bloodbath in Amherst, it’s not hard to envision those last two games being absolutely crucial when it comes to Hockey East standings, reminiscent of the famous “Wilson games” at the end of the 06-07 season. UMass rode those four huge points to home ice, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Dave Wilson ain’t walking through that door, and hopefully the Minutemen aren’t in a position where the season is riding on two games in Orono…
The overall performance of the team so far is promising. UMass’s power play has really been a pleasant surprise, a massive improvement over last year, and no longer is the “see ya, asshole!” followed by a collective groan when we realize that we were better off with 5-on-5 play. Really, I could go on about James Marcou, but there’s not much to say about him and Wellman that hasn’t already been said. It’s simply been a joy to watch him this season and, if he can start putting home a few goals to go with all the assists, that Hobey Baker award is a very real possibility. Overshadowed in all of this has been the stellar play of guys like Syner and Ortiz, the latter most definitely being the comeback player of the year for this team. He’s like the Tony Gaffney of this team; a guy who puts 110% into every play as well as someone who shocked everyone by putting it all together his senior season. On the other end of the spectrum, Chase Langeraap’s had a rough year, which is tough to say as someone who’s gotten to chat with him a bit off the ice – he’s a really nice guy and a class act. I’m hopeful that his performance is being affected by the nagging injuries from last year and that a few weeks of rest is what he needs to get back on track. Likewise, I hope that Lecomte and Carzo come back fresher after the break; they both had great starts to the season but haven’t been the same since coming back from injuries.
The defense has been a mixed bag…Nolet has been solid as always, Mikey Marcou and Kublin have stepped up nicely, and Donnellan’s shown some promise, but at the same time, Braun and Irwin have both been up-and-down at times. Thankfully Dainton finally looks like a top-notch goaltender; he’s giving us way fewer heart attacks playing the puck behind the net and has had some outright spectacular games. Meyers needs to start showing us something, though, because we can’t just ride Paulie the whole way; even if Mr. Movie Blog is a clear #2 at this point, we’re gonna need to start playing him more with all the two-game Hockey East weekends ahead.
I feel pretty good about this team going forward. 10-5-0 with one of the nation’s stronger schedules so far is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s comforting to know that the boys have yet to be blown out in a game (three two-goal losses which were all one-goal games until late in the third period; one game that Alex Beaudry stole from us, and the Q game, which was heartbreaking, but in which we did manage to erase a 3-0 deficit). This team, unlike the last few years, can rely on its offense and power play to get back into games, and I just can’t foresee a team with two of the nation’s best scorers struggling. That said, Hockey East is absolutely insane this year, and almost every team in the conference could realistically win the tourney, so it’s gonna be a thrill to see what the second half holds for the boys.
In a few days (probably Sunday but we’ll see) I’ll get started on the game-by-game season recap; I’m also going to work on a banner as soon as I can get Photoshop back on my computer. And again, lemme know if you want to contribute to the blog, or hit me up on Facebook.