Catching up on our intrepid heroes’ escapades over the past week or so…
Okay, seriously guys (0:09 mark):
Tonight’s 72-66 victory over Northeastern is somehow the most lopsided victory to date for the 4-3 Minutemen, who might well be off to the worst 4-3 start in the history of hyperbolic overreactions. You can really make a case that this team deserves to be 1-6 at this point, getting outplayed badly in their three actual losses and getting lucky against injured teams against Harvard and Providence. (The Siena game, ironically, UMass actually significantly outplayed their opponent and fell victim to awful luck on missing wide-open shots in the first half while the Saints banked in wild threes.) The Miami game was particularly disappointing, given the large (if late-arriving) crowd on hand and the RPI bump it could have provided. The Minutemen actually looked solid for the first 15 minutes or so in that one, but a series of missed opportunities and a few questionable calls pulled the wheels off quickly.
Now, the Minutemen also have the added burden of the Cady Lalanne situation. Not that Cady was looking 100% to begin with, but his absence (coupled with DK’s apparent lack of any sort of trust in Tyler Bergantino to do, err, anything yet) makes a thin lineup even thinner. I mean, for Chrissakes, Sampson Carter was our starting center tonight. The Minutemen gave up 15 offensive rebounds to the Huskies. Absolutely mind-boggling. Luckily, Jesse Morgan finally seemed to come to life with some huge corner threes to spur the latest last-minute rally. UMass ended up shooting just shy of 48% for the game. At this point, we’ll absolutely take it.
11 days off now. The Season of Great Expectations (TM) is hanging together by a thread. The Minutemen’s at-large hopes are already in grave danger, and as cupcake as the rest of the non-conference schedule looks, this team doesn’t seem to have any interest in easy wins. It sucks to be so down on these guys, but the fact of the matter is that the fun and joy of Chazketball has given way to an all-too-familiar system of passing the ball around the perimeter, watching Chaz try to make everything happen, and chucking wild threes all day long. It looks an awful lot like the “bazkettaball” we lamented during the first few years of the DK era. If this team is going to go anywhere and beat anyone of note, it’s going to need to somehow pull back together, and quick. Here’s hoping Kellogg uses this week-and-a-half to refocus his guys before they take on Elon in Springfield.
Since the 8-2 debacle against Lowell, which occurred on a Sunday and starred Jeff Teglia (who has since turned up on numerous milk cartons) and therefore cannot really even be considered part of the official UMass canon, the hockey team has stabilized somewhat. They were able to grind out a pre-Thanksgiving win against seasonal foe Vermont, pulled a tie against a feisty Quinnipiac team, and now come off a home-away split with the Northeastern Huskies. The most recent weekend does seem a little maddening at first, with UMass dominating both games from start to finish, yet with drastically different results: on Friday at the Bill, they couldn’t buy a goal against Chris Rawlings and lost 1-0 on a fluke breakaway goal. On Saturday, where we and dozens of other maroon-and-white faithful got the last laugh on Teddy Bear Toss night, UMass put 45+ shots on the net and six of them went in, including one for HEA Rookie of the Week KJ Tiefenwerth, his first (finally!).
Looking at the standings, UMass is remarkably just one point out of a home ice slot. Are there legitimate concerns surrounding the Power/Rowe injury situation, the slow start of Mike Pereira, the dismal play of any goaltenders not named Boyle? Sure. But UMass still has one of the toughest strength-of-schedule rankings in the country, is still the only team in the nation to beat #1 UNH, and is in striking range in the Pairwise standings (currently 23rd). UMass closes the year with remaining non-conference games on the docket, and a strong showing could well propel this team into contention for an at-large bid. Colgate, the #24 team in the Pairwise, comes in for two this weekend (a chance to avenge last season’s first-round lacrosse disappointment!). UMass then heads to Yale next week, currently fourth in the Pairwise, and which is a team UMass has actually played well against in recent years. After a break, the Minutemen ring in the new year up in Hanover in the Dartmouth tourney, against dreadful Bemidji State and then a crack at either UNH (as a non-conference foe) or Dartmouth, who are 2 and 3 in the Pairwise respectively. If UMass can play well in this stretch – like 3-1-1 or 4-1-0 good – the second half schedule looks good for UMass. The two at UNH are daunting, and there’s still another trip to Chestnut Hill, but there’s only one more with BU (at Mullins), two cracks at Maine at home, a two-gamer up in Burlington, one more at Matthews, home-and-homes with Providence and Lowell, and of course all three games left with Merrimack. Again, while it’s more road-heavy than the first half, the fact that UMass has just one more each against BU and BC (and knows it’s capable of staying around with both teams) means that a vast majority of what’s left is against the rest of the “middle of the pack” teams that UMass is striving to differentiate itself from. I think now that Boyle’s the established starter, if he can continue to play at least as well as he did this weekend against NU, we could be in for a fun second half.
Remember: the two guys who carried this team last year, Sheary and Pereira, really haven’t even gotten going yet, nor has the expected biggest freshman contributor (Tiefenwerth). Did Saturday’s rout at Matthews mark a turning point? (Or was it when all of us passed through the inauspicious Stargate on the Northeastern campus?) Cautious optimism, people! CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM!
(P.S. Special thanks this weekend to: the Mullins Militia for accommodating me for the Miami game on my lonesome as Matt was working; Amy of the Bench Crew for hanging out with the gang and putting up with our shenanigans Saturday night, and also our good friend Roy for being the honorary Fourth Fight Mass Dude; and the Husky Hockey Blog fellows for crossing enemy lines to come meet us at the end of the game. And of course, congratulations to the Coogan family on their future addition! We suggest Douglas for the youngin if he’s a boy. Just sayin.)
Okay, I lied about this being up in a timely fashion, but in my defense…
1) Writing season postmortems sucks, it’s always sad to think that the next season is so far away,
2) I actually DID write this all up, was in the middle of doing some post-writing editing when my laptop monitor inexplicably shit the bed and I lost everything (I’m back up and running with my TV serving as a monitor now, it’s totally ghetto fabulous),
3) I just started a new job, the studying for which is going to occupy a great deal of my free time in the next month or two, and
4) When have I ever written anything in a timely fashion?
Basketball season’s been a wrap for about a month now, and there’ve been some developments that my putting this post off will enable me to cover now. Let’s start by just revisiting the NIT loss: Matt and I had an absolute blast. Seriously, if you’ve never been to NYC, make a trip down there this summer and just see the sights and sounds for yourself. We hit up NBC, toured the NHL Store, hung out in Times Square…good times everywhere you look. Obviously, our experience was a little different than hopping on a student bus like Derek and I did back in ’08, breaking out some, uh, tasty non-alcoholic beverages as we got into the city, and taking over Joe O’s and chanting “let’s go UMass” all the way into the Garden. Doing it from the outsider’s perspective felt a bit different, but still fun. We hope all of you who got to do the bus trip had a similar good time. I’m glad UMass will be coming back here a lot more in the coming years, hopefully just for the A-10 tourney in Brooklyn though. (Or the Big East tourney? Ahem, getting way ahead of myself here.)
We also got to meet Charley Molnar at the pregame festivities at Stout NYC (pretty solid bar, by the way). With all respect for Toot, who is actually quite friendly if you ever run into him outside of the Bill, Charley has more of that Derek Kellogg feel, recruiting fans and supporters just as he would recruit for his own team. Hairgel aside, there is nothing that felt forced or fake about his excitement and confidence. It’d be cool if he finds success faster than Kellogg, but I have no doubt in my mind that the football program is in good hands, if not right away then definitely within a couple years. But we have all summer to talk about them.
The game itself was a bit of a letdown, and not just because UMass lost. Minutemen-Cardinal was one of the worst-played basketball games I’ve ever seen in person. Both teams shot like shit in the first half, in one of those “first team to even start hitting just a FEW of their shots is going to win this” contests. And wouldn’t you know it, Stanford was that team.
1) It was ludicrous that the UMass student section (which, to be fair, we technically shouldn’t have been in, but hey look a distraction!) was separated the way that it was, with a large expanse of empty “reserved” seats that half of the students weren’t allowed to occupy because a half-empty arena was enforcing ticket rules as if it were a Knicks game. Even though the sections were, you know, all student tickets and thus the same price. You can’t blame the ushers for doing their jobs. You CAN blame MSG, though. Actually, let’s just all agree to disagree and blame John Lackey. That usually works.
2) That caveman guy on Stanford literally hurt his team every time he touched the ball. I mean EVERY. Any time he touched the ball, he either turned it over or fired a brick. Really, UMass has no excuse for losing to that.
3) We totally would have clobbered Minnesota in the finals. But at least we get a banner.
So that’s it and that’s all. A team picked to finish 12th out of 14 ends up tied for 5th and with a world of upside. It’s officially time to talk about the future. We’re not here to talk about the past. To beat the dead horse into a bloody pulp, here’s the rundown of what’s exciting about next year:
- Everyone who played major minutes is back except for Sean Carter.
- Key players who broke out this year like Chaz Williams, Jesse Morgan and Raphaiel Putney return a year older and wiser.
- Cady Lalanne and Sampson Carter will (knock on wood) be coming back healthy, with 3 and 2 more years (respectively) left of eligibility.
- Our top recruit (Jordan Laguerre) didn’t even play last year. He will join the rotation along with big man Tyler Bergantino and backup point guard Trey Davis.
- Even with BC pussying out and dropping what would almost certainly be another embarrassing loss from their schedule, the overall schedule will be more exciting next year, with a big Puerto Rico tournament, non-conf visits from an up-and-coming Miami (FL) team and the Ohio team that was just in the sweet 16, and oh yeah….
- Kids who actually give two shits what this team does next year.
It’s about damn time. I’ve been harping on it for years now (holy shit, it literally has been years now), but I’ll be damned if a student group didn’t finally step its game up and put together a posse of kids who demonstrate some sort of group leadership on the front lines, home AND (at least in the NIT, with a little online prodding from Matt) away. I’ve been verbally fellating (mother, phrasing!) them for the last few months, but I gotta hand it to ‘em – the Mullins Militia is what I’ve been talking about for a while now. By the way, glad I got to meet a few of ya down in NYC…hell, Chili even managed to not get screencapped flipping me off, so that’s a win right there. And no, this has nothing to do with self-subsistence or the fact that we know these guys read us. Well, maybe a little. But keep up the good work guys.
But mostly, as a whole, I’m pumped (and you should be too. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT. FEEL IT) that we actually had some games this year where the student section didn’t look like the luxury seats at a Yankees game. Sure, a lot of it has to do with…winning, duh. But starting 7-0 didn’t put butts in the seats last year. There was a slow buzz this year that grew and grew until it exploded in some seriously big home crowds for Saint Louis and Rhody. I’ve never been so happy to stand in line for something.
This year, UMass is a known quantity. The secret is out. If that season-opening tournament precedes the home opener, and UMass pulls off a couple big-name wins, we might actually start seeing hockey-esque lines to get into basketball home games, something I don’t believe has happened for a non-BC game since the 1900s. If it sounds like a pain in the ass, and a recipe for pink-hat-ization, well, trust me. It’s a good problem to have. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Minutefans. For now, the bandwagon is open to all comers.
And so the summer is upon us, gang. Season 3 of Fight Mass is pretty much a wrap. Thanks to everyone who reads us, and thanks to our contributors this season, Jarod and Cam. You guys, and anyone else who wants to, are way more than welcome to hit me up on Facebook or Twitter about writing a Contributor’s Corner article, either during the summer or next season. Next season will almost certainly be the first year where all three of us will no longer be in western Mass, so we’re gonna be depending on some student insight to keep the campus pulse for us.
I’ll try – key word there – to keep the page updated this summer, especially with the men’s lacrosse playoffs around the corner and with plenty to report on for football and for hoops and hockey. But you know better than to quote me on that.
Oh, one more thing. Is it October yet?
Let be forever known that on the 20th of March in the year 2012, the noble Minutemen of the Valley of the Pioneers, from the whimsical land of Amherst, vanquished a horde of Dragons, and claimed its rightful place among the Council of the Up-and-Coming in the Enchanted Garden of Madison Square.
Now, lest you think this was an easy road, sit and let me recall the tale. The Minutemen’s quest had thus far taken them through the vast, barren wastelands of Mississippi and New Jersey. As they arrived at the Cave of Daskalakis, they were tired, but remained steadfast and determined. Road-weary, the Minutemen had nonetheless acquired followers along the way, growing louder and more numerous as they trekked ever-closer to their goal.
And oh, their fearless leader Derek Kellogg, also known as Derek the Hairgelled, and Kellogg the Improving, had a quest of his own to take care of on the way to the Enchanted Garden. You see, the king of these dragons, Flint the Bruiser, was Derek the Hairgelled’s old friend and mentor, who had taken Derek under his wing when they were both young and under the wing of Emperor Calipari. (Look, I don’t care if that part makes sense or not, or whether Bruiser’s a man or a dragon in this case. Don’t make me start throwing midichlorians into this.) Now, old mentor Bruiser stood in the way of sure semi-glory for Derek. Both leaders knew the other’s strengths and weaknesses. It would be a true battle of wits.
The Minutemen entered the cave with their supporters, facing extreme heat, a sea of yellow, and, umm, a giant inflatable dragon. They struggled early in their fight, as the dragons were far more formidable than the mere canines and Jack Sparrow impersonators they had faced thus far in their travails. But out of the Minutemen stepped leaders. Chaz the Unbreakable. Terrell the Much-Improved. Javorn the Unheralded. Even Freddie the Firehaired contributed his underrated defensive prowess. And just as their ancestors before them, led by legendary Travis the Turncoat against the giant Orange Men (or at least legend has it), the Minutemen stemmed the tide. (It helped that Frantz the Choker missed numerous chances to land the striking blow.)
And so it was that Bruiser the Flint and the Dragons of the land of Drexel were slain in that Cave of Daskalakis. The Minutemen and their supporters rejoiced, and much mead was consumed in the celebratory din. (I mean, a shitload of mead, you guys.)
There is work to be done when the Minutemen arrive at the Mystical Garden. But whether it’s a pack of wolves or, err, a forest of trees that the Minutemen will face when they arrive, we know one thing is true about these noble warriors:
Nothing is over until they decide it is.
Now then. Tuesday is just seven turns away? I wait six turns.
Worry no Moore. UMass procrastinated again, but the team handed in its year-long assignment the day before it was due this year.
Tonight, the pressure will be off up in North Andover, thanks to a 5-1 blowout that looked like it was destined to be another late-game classic between these two teams, who have played quite a few nailbiters over the last few seasons aside from the LAST time we saw “Moorsey” between the pipes. The last two trips to Mullins particularly for the Warriors have been decided by disappointing last-minute goals for the visitors, and when Shawn Bates tied the score early in the third last night, we looked back at the myriad almost-goals for the Minutemen – and the close calls they got away with – and couldn’t help but feel that more heartbreak was a-comin’.
But a funny thing happened. UMass didn’t fold, didn’t fret about what could have or should have been. Instead, they played possibly their finest period of hockey all season long, got monster goals from their senior offensive stars, and, with five minutes left to go and the Freeing of Moore imminent, Mark Dennehy pulled Cannata in desperation. Merrimack’s season, after all, was on the verge of slipping away, their tenuous hold on an at-large bid and home ice against the Black Bears very much at risk.
Two length-of-the-ice empty-netters later, we saw the most beautiful moment of the entire season.
I’ve only met Kevin Moore briefly, when he lived with the freshmen during my junior year in the same dorm. But by all accounts, the “Rudy” chants that were started last night were fitting. This kid’s worked his ass off the last few years, juggling all the same responsibilities his teammates do, with nowhere near the glory to show for it. Granted, if UMass was out of the playoff hunt, I’d have no doubt that Toot would’ve given Moore the start last night, because fuck it, why not. But this was a must-win game, something I don’t think all of the students quite understood when they booed Toot’s refusal to pull Boyle in a three-goal game with 2:30 left. But after the second empty-netter, there was no doubt in my mind that Toot would find a way to make it happen. And after a brief scare immediately following that goal, where Boyle was still out there, the first whistle inside of two minutes gave Moore his shot.
I know there’s that very small contingent of us who got to see Kevin Moore play last year in the infamous blowout game at Lawler, and the ovation he got from the 20-or-so UMass fans in attendance was a very cool moment indeed. But it’s hard to top last night. The team deserves props for putting themselves in a position to make it happen, and congrats to Moorsey for earning it. Unreal.
So here’s where things stand now. A loss tonight clinches 8th place, and a likely date with the white-hot Eagles, winners of 10 straight since their earlier malaise, unless they lose to Vermont and BU finishes a sweep of the now-eliminated Huskies. A win, however, sets up interesting scenarios. Lowell plays Providence tonight at Tsongas, and if they win as well, the Minutemen hop into 7th over the Friars. BC is most likely to win the division, though the aforementioned scenario could drop them to 2nd and they’d play UMass anyway. More likely is a BC win/tie and BU win/tie, setting up a date with the Huskies, a team UMass has held multiple-goal leads against three times this season, albeit only earning three points out of those three games. The Minutemen led 3-0 once at Agganis before a meltdown, and won their last trip there. And let’s not forget that the comeback in the first game was largely keyed by contributions from Trivino and Coyle, and the Terriers are also now without Max Nicastro on the blue line. And on top of all else, the Terriers would offer an opponent that isn’t, you know, BC again for the millionth year in a row.
But here’s the most intriguing scenario: UMass win, BC win or tie, BU loss, Lowell win. It’s not at all out of the question, with the Huskies having nothing to lose on senior night against their most hated rival, and with Lowell playing its own senior night against the lackluster Friars. Lowell, much like Merrimack before last night, is just 2-1-3 in their last six, and would also provide the least expensive travel option for yours truly. I have my reasons, obviously, but how sweet would it be after what’s happened this season if UMass ruined Lowell’s magical year? (Although, to be fair, playoff wins vs. ANYONE would be sweet, and if the alternative plotlines are “avenging the last few years against BC” or “beating the team that had the scumbag rapists,” you really can’t go wrong with any of ‘em.)
Of course, any hope of getting not-the-Eagles rests on a win tonight, unless you think Vermont can beat BC tonight (in which case I presume you also think Newt Gingrich might be our next president). The last time UMass took the ice at Lawler was a 2-1 nailbiter that ended with a Merrimack player getting away with the most blatant delay-of-game ever, covering the puck behind the ‘Mack net with his glove for a good 15 seconds. Last night convinced me more than ever that these teams have gone in opposite directions since that game – maybe not as dramatically as we’d hoped, but the Minutemen, at least for the last four games, have outplayed their opponents and in some cases dramatically so, while the league seems to slowly be figuring out Dennehy’s magic.
I keep telling myself this. And then I remember that Lawler/Volpe/University of Sears is an awful awful place in which the Minutemen never ever escape with a win, no matter how good or bad the home team is in that particular season.
So, sigh, bring on the Eagles again, maybe this time will be different.
Oh, also, baskettaball tonight. Walsh will be on-hand at Lawler for the whole game, along obviously with El Triangle (pronounced “tree ON glay”). Matt and I will be live-tweeting on @FightMass from the Rhody Rematch, and if the game’s a blowout we’ll leave at halftime to catch puck drop; otherwise we’re shooting to get up to Merrimack for period 2. Either way, EVERYONE GO TO THE FUCKING BASKETBALL GAME TODAY IT’S THE LAST ONE EVEN THOUGH REALLY IT’S ALMOST ASSURED THAT THERE WILL BE A PLAYOFF GAME HERE TUESDAY. WHICH YOU SHOULD ALSO ATTEND. Either way, this is the real “senior night” so let’s send Big Sean and Daddy Hill off with a 20-win season.
P.S. Let’s go ahead and jump on the “props to the Bench Crew” bandwagon for making #FreeMoore a success. Frankly, Toot doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, but also frankly, there was no chance Moore wasn’t going to play last night if the opportunity arose. But more importantly is that it’s social media outlets like the Bench Crew that get kids excited about games and, gasp, knowledgeable about what’s actually going on, like the student fans at the other nine schools in Hockey East. THIS IS WHAT WE NEED MORE OF.
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.
…we’re Rhode Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiislaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand boooooooooooooooooooooound.
Matt and myself are making our sort-of-almost-annual Fight Mass road trip to the only A-10 venue within reasonable (read: sub-3-hour) driving range. The Rhody Rams are coming off their annual victory over Dayton, which now seems to come hell or high water for these guys, but make no mistake – they’re horrible. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First off, let’s talk about Saturday. Never have I been so happy to have to stand in line for a sporting event. Granted, the circumstances couldn’t have been much better – a top-50 RPI team with a well-known (in college hoops circles) head coach, coming in for the first UMass home game of the semester, with the news of the team’s renaissance finally making its way around (with a little help from that Putney alley-oop on SportsCenter that the school probably paid to get on the air – which, by the way, wasn’t even the best alley-oop in that particular game), with $6 Big Y tickets and with the school pushing the game as hard as possible to the fanbase. I’m especially glad they had the players show up to the Lowell game the night before and have Chaz talk to the crowd, although I was worried for a second that Hansen would put him in the box for two minutes for embellishment. But even the most optimistic UMass fans were talking up 7,000 as a reasonable goal – to get 8,399 for that game is just outstanding, even if the number got revised to 8,398 after they realized they counted Majerus as two people by mistake.
The team’s been pushing/pining/alright, complaining about the attendance for a while now, and when they finally got a good crowd, they sure did make the most of it. The first half was one of the best full halves of basketball I’ve seen in my nearly six years following this program, and one that surely made the older folks in the crowd reminisce about the good ol’ days of Lou Roe and Marcus Camby and, yeah, Derek Kellogg. Precision passing. Knock-down shooting. Stifling defense. The Minutemen raced to a 19-point halftime lead, showing every facet of their improved, fun-to-watch style along the way. If anyone in this crowd was turned off by the bazkettaball of the past few years, they were surely back on board here; if this was the first exposure to it, you couldn’t have asked for a better hook.
And then, sort of predictably, the Billikens crawled back in with some hot shooting, UMass carelessness, and yes, some questionable calls. I know what I just said yesterday about officiating, and let’s apply that here – unlike the hockey team, hoops did not let the calls get them down, and the lead never shrunk closer than two possessions. (Of course, the Minutemen finally a couple of make-up calls in the closing minutes, whereas Hansen’s crew had no such turnaround on Friday, but I digress.) While the team’s had a couple of fall-from-ahead moments this season (Fordham, East Carolina, and Charlotte all come to mind), and the last good UMass team had that same tendency come back and bite them in the ass (the NIT season when UMass blew a massive lead to Charlotte for a first-round A-10 exit that probably cost them a trip to the big dance, then later blew a 10-point lead to Ohio State in the NIT final), the good news is that so far, none of these lapses have actually resulted in a loss. I’d rather them be putting games away earlier, but the fact that the team is playing well down the stretch in this games and regaining control in the closing minutes is probably better practice for crunch-time situations to come.
So, big picture time. UMass is cracking all the “bubble watch” articles this week. They’re projected 14th in Joe Lunardi’s latest ESPN Bracketology, although that’s by merit of their being projected to win the conference (they hold a tie for the best record and the tiebreaker is highest RPI). UMass has their two “easiest” road games this week, which is not to say that either is a given. The Rams, as we said, just beat Dayton, which they do seemingly every year, just as UMass beats them seemingly every year, regardless of whether both teams are contenders, both teams suck, or some combination thereof. In this year’s case, Dayton and UMass are contenders, and Rhody really, really sucks. They hold three – THREE – “double question mark” losses, referring to RealTimeRPI’s mark of disgrace for losses to sub-200 RPI teams. This includes a loss at #301 Brown, a loss at home to Maine (haha, who does that?) and a narrow loss at Fordham. They do hold a double-OT win over Boston College, which just goes to show how bad BC really is this year, and their only home win is against the Chaz-less Hofstra Pride back in November.
All of that being said, rivalry games tend to bring out the best in bad teams. And to the uninitiated, make no mistake, this is a rivalry. These two teams play twice every year, and both fanbases come out in spades for these games. I predict Wednesday to be no different – well, maybe a little different, considering this year’s Ryan Center trip falls on a Wednesday, and this is as bad as the Rams have ever been since I started following UMass. Jim Baron’s job finally looks like it could really be in jeopardy, which is sad because it’s been fun watching his system lose to our alma mater year after year, but alas, his second white-trash son to play for the program isn’t going to be enough to save him unless things change drastically in a hurry. So there’s your caveat – maybe the man’s coaching for his job right about now.
That doesn’t qualify as an excuse for losing this game. There is none. The Minutemen should win this game and win it handily, although I have this sneak suspicion that they’re going to make it harder on themselves than it needs to be. If they lose, of course, you can say goodbye to any chance at an at-large bid barring a magical sweep of the Xavier-Dayton-Temple gauntlet that awaits at the end of the regular season. (Well, that and another date with the Rams, of course.)
Our program has had a habit of ruining potentially-special seasons for their program for years and years. Hopefully this isn’t the year that the Rams flip that script.
The students are back on campus, intersession is in the books, and the pivotal second semester of the seasons is about to get into full swing for the Minutemen, on the ice and on the hardwood. Both teams have performed above preseason expectations (for the latter, significantly so), and now it’s time to see what both teams are truly made of, as pivotal conference matchups will determine the postseason fates of both sets of Minutemen. It all starts this weekend against some familiar foes who happen to be seasonal “favorites” of the boys of The Fight Mass Blog Starring Mike Marcou, if by “favorites” you mean we like them about as much as Tim Thomas likes big government. (TOPICAL ZING)
For hockey, it means two games against the Angry Birds of
UMass Lowell. I’ll skip the early-season reverse-jinx gimmick this time around and stick to the fact that Rowdy’s gang has wharrgarbled their way to a 9-6-0 start, a year after occupying the basement of Hockey East and occupying it hard. The University of Massachusetts ran off a five-game winning streak against its estranged crack whore sister coming into the year, then for some reason loaned their uniforms to the AIC Falcons and sent them on a bus to the Tsongas Tscenter in late November for a 4-0 loss that was never really that close. Even in the days of pro agents and scouts at ice level juggling flaming swords to distract Marcou, Irwin and Wellman, I’ve never seen a Minutemen team as disinterested in a game as they did back in November. Those were very bad times.
That, obviously, can’t happen this weekend. The Minutemen are 7-0-3 on their home ice coming into Friday’s showdown. They have a massive rest advantage, having played just twice since Frozen Fenway, while Lowell will be playing their fourth and fifth games in eight days. UMass stands four points back with equal games played in conference, and a sweep, unlikely as it may seem for a team that hasn’t had a four-point weekend in seemingly forever, would catapult the Minutemen past the River Hawks in the standings with the tiebreaker. And this is not the Lowell team that was crushing folks back in November. Lowell was blanked 1-0 by Alex Beaudry and the Friars tonight in Providence, and since edging BC 3-2 in December, they’re just 2-3-0 in the conference, all against teams in the lower half of the standings, and one of those wins was literally handed to them by Northeastern.
The River Hawks’ success has largely come thanks to the emergence of Doug Carr, who (contrary to what Beaudry’s and Rawlings’s mothers would like you to believe) is probably the conference’s best goaltender this year. They’ve also gotten unexpectedly strong contributions from upperclassmen like David Vallorani and Matt Ferreira, who have thrived in new head coach Norm Bazin’s system, and youngsters like Scott Wilson and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who seems to be picking up where past Lowell defensive stars like Nick Schaus and Jeremy Dehner and Maury Edwards (when he was still good) left off.
Lowell, unbelievably, entered the night third in the pairwise, thought losing to Providence dropped them into a tie with – hey, lookit that – Boston College. The Minutemen are in 24th, which would be awesome if this was basketball RPI, but where only the top 16 make the tourney, there’s plenty of work to do. Still, UMass’s ability to take advantage of its few quality non-conference foes (Yale and Cornell) puts the team in a good spot. Almost every Hockey East game is good for the pairwise. As bad as the season started, the Minutemen are also just six points out of a home ice slot behind Maine, with three games in hand (and two more shots at the Black Bears on the schedule).
This weekend holds a world of importance for UMass, given the opportunity to improve their standings, improve in the pairwise, drop a hated rival, and get the student base fired up from the very first hockey weekend of the semester. If they can’t get fired up for at least the Friday game, it’s back to the “slightly bit concerned” mode for us. If they come out flying like they did against Vermont, though, and actually get some puck luck this time, and avoid penalties, I’m much more confident in this team’s ability to protect a lead. Lowell’s scored a grand total of three more goals than UMass this year in Hockey East play. Their edge, of course, is on the defensive end, which is why getting the lead early is key.
And would it hurt to win a fucking road game? Jeez. Anyway, the three of us will be there on Friday and Walsh and I will also make the tstrip to Tsongas on Tsaturday, so if you can’t make it to the games (for shame!) we’ll have some commentary for ya on @FightMass. Did I mention there’s no underscore anymore? There’s no underscore anymore, get used to it.
Now, ahem, basketball. The past week was down-and-up for the boys. Wednesday at Duquesne was one of those ugly, foul-plagued conference games that we’ve been so used to seeing over the last couple years under DK, and the Minutemen never got into any sort of rhythm in an 11-point loss to the Dukes. The team’s lack of depth with the Sampson and Cady injuries hurt them inside, forcing Sean and Putney to play soft, while Chaz had probably his worst game as a Minuteman, turning the ball over like it was going out of style. And worst of all, we had to endure the worst fucking commentary you’ll ever hear in a radio broadcast from the Dukes crew. And don’t give me that “well how can you complain about a pirated video stream” bullshit, I watched that game with my UMass All-Access Pass somehow, thank you very much. I pay like ten bucks a month for that shit.
And yet as much as I complain about the UMass broadcasts on Twitter and make fun of Maurer’s extra syllables and Hennessey combining hockey players’ first names into their last, at least both of UMass’s announcing crews call games in a fairly unbiased manner. I’ve always thought that, if you take Jack Edwards and Tom Heinsohn out of the equation, we Boston sports fans have some pretty fair announcing crews on both TV and radio, and even those two have Brickley and Gorman to temper their respective outrages. Duquesne, meanwhile, had this trifecta of failure mucking it up in the booth:
1) Old homer who clearly hasn’t left the Pittsburgh area in 60 years, seamlessly incorporating his own random thoughts into what is supposed to be straight play-by-play,
2) Token former player spouting random SportsCenter catch phrases without providing any actual useful observations,
3) “Stat boy” with a voice whinier than John Wallach’s (!) who has never touched a basketball in his life, doesn’t understand how travelling works, and shouts “CARRY!” every time Chaz touches the ball.
When these guys weren’t bemoaning the lack of calls in Duquesne’s favor (even though the fouls were going their way at like a 2-to-1 ratio for almost the entire game), the three of them decided by halftime – based on one bad performance – that Chaz must be the worst point guard of all time (you know, even though he’s 23rd in the nation in assists) and that “this is why Hofstra didn’t want him.” OMG that’s just classic, y’all are hilarious!!1 Hey, remember that last time you guys were in the NCAA tourney in 1977? No, and neither does anyone else. Shut up, dipshits.
…Ahem, but here’s the beauty of this season: the “bazkettaball” is the exception, no longer the rule. Case in point – UMass came out three days later and pulled off a good road win at Richmond in front of a surprisingly solid crowd (and I say this because basically everyone else in the A-10 has a solid home crowd by our standards). Chaz bounced back and carried the team down the stretch with some ridiculous passes, everyone played great defense in the second half, Carter had one of his better offensive games, and the team once again got enough offense from enough different sources to win.
No disrespect to Gurley, but part of last year’s struggles (besides the glaring hole at point guard) was that the Minutemen couldn’t develop a consistent second scorer to support AG, who took it upon himself to take too many shots trying too hard to carry the scoring load. Without him, the Minutemen have been forced to spread the wealth (and, again, having a real point guard who himself is a scoring threat has been a massive help in that regard). Rarely this year has one guy clearly been the lone offensive weapon, although Chaz himself is the team’s leading scorer. Some nights it’s Jesse, some nights it’s Putney, but for the most part, the scoring has been very evenly distributed when the team is playing well.
So let’s keep that ball rolling. The Minutemen are 15-5, 4-2 in conference play, and with the season 2/3 of the way down, can rack up 20 wins just by playing .500 ball down the stretch. That said, the competition gets fiercer, with seven of these games against teams in the RPI top 100. The Minutemen can – and kind of need to – win the other three, which are two against a hilariously-bad Rhode Island team and then a roadie against a not-good-at-all George Washington. Of the other seven, here’s what’s left:
Home: Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, La Salle, Xavier
Road: St. Joe’s, Dayton, Temple
A 20-win season, provided they notch those three cupcake wins, means winning just TWO of these seven games. They can make this process a lot easier on Saturday when Fat Majerus and the Billikens come to town. Last year, the same Billikens got a white-hot three-point shooting performance at home to down the Minutemen. This year’s team has some quality-ish wins against low-level major conference teams like Villanova, Washington, and Oklahoma, but all either at home or neutral-site. They’ve hung around in some tough roadies against New Mexico and Dayton, but are overall unimpressive away from the Gateway Arch, which I should point out is nowhere near the Atlantic Ocean. (Really, the Billikens were trailblazers in this whole “play in a conference that makes zero geographic sense” trend.) This would be by far their most impressive road win. UMass is unbeaten at home. I say these trends should continue.
Saturday afternoon needs to be the biggest home crowd of the season. Needs to. The athletics department has been pimping this game out hardcore to students and locals alike. It’s the first home game after the long break, during which UMass actually won a televised game (albeit on a channel that nobody really gets). It’s a 2:00 start, which gives students zero excuse – you can part Friday, go to the game Saturday, and it’ll be over long before anything is going on again Saturday night (AND it gives the hardcore fans plenty of time to make the drive to Lowell with time to hit up Lowell Beer Works before the nightcap!). The midweek loss against Duquesne probably went unnoticed to much of the student body – in fact, let’s not talk about that game anymore, it never happened, don’t tell anybody. And the Billikens may not be the biggest draw on the schedule (that’d be Xavier, recent struggles notwithstanding) but Majerus is a big enough name and Saint Louis is at least more recognizable than, say, La Salle or St. Bonaventure. And the team is fucking 15-5. It’s time to stop with the negative stigma around this team. As Don Orsillo would say, they’re back and they’re back big.
Hockey fans who scoff at the basketball team ads on the jumbotron, I implore you – just go to the game. Unless you absolute despise the game of basketball, which means you’re not an American anyway so it’s cool. But otherwise, go. Yell your brains out. It’s a fucking Saturday afternoon, no excuses, you’ve got no other plans. Bring other people. This might not be an NCAA tournament team this year – not quite yet – but I think we’re finally, finally seeing the emergence of something special in this Kellogg era. Be part of it, or get left in the dust when the bandwagon takes off next year.
That’s all I got for ya. We’ll try to record another FightCast this weekend, maybe. Until then, enjoy the games. I know I will. It’s about time this program had two teams playing meaningful conference games in the second semester.