Category: Uncategorized

Stonewalled

So that sucked, eh?

Tonight’s home loss to George Mason was pretty brutal viewing, and the numbers all back that up. 39.7% shooting. 7-of-25 from downtown. 11 missed free throws. 1-8 shooting for 8 points for Chaz. Three turnovers and just one hoop for DG. 91 points allowed. Yeesh. It’s like the half of the Mullins Center that didn’t show up got some kind of advanced notice.

And the late-game magic of recent memory? Absent tonight, thanks to clutch shooting from Sherrod Wright (one of the conference’s most underrated players) and UMass’s continued free-throw shortcomings. All of the good will from a coast-to-coast home win vs. La Salle followed by a gritty game on the road with URI dissipates with a loss like this. A few short weeks ago UMass was a lock for the NCAAs. Now, the odds are still ever in our favor, just with some added land mines that we’ve now planted for ourselves.

Dropping this one sends UMass’s RPI from 10 to 20, still in that fun “double dollar sign” range to which we look good on other teams’ resumes. Obviously, there’s now an uphill battle for that coveted top-four positioning that avoids a dangerous Thursday first-rounder in Brooklyn against an underachiever. But all is not lost! UMass can control its own destiny down the stretch with those head-to-head meetings with VCU, SLU and GW. The former two of those three are all at home, and will see sell-out crowds and a more energized Mullins Center where playing down to the competition like tonight won’t be an option. Plus, you can take the revenge factor out of it – both VCU and SLU beat UMass last year, the Rams getting us twice. GW on Saturday may be looking for revenge from Brooklyn last year (not to mention to bounce  back from getting routed by VCU tonight), but you get the picture. Mason was hungry to avenge what happened in Fairfax a few weeks back, just like the Bonnies and Hawks before them. The difference being UMass shouldn’t lose games like this at home, but what’s done is done. Nothing to do but try to bounce back.

If anything, the 2 1/2 years of the Chaz era have taught us the following:

1) UMass is capable of losing to anyone, anywhere,

2) There is next to zero momentum or continuity from game to game, either positively or negatively,

3) This crew brings their best efforts to the conference tourney.

So yeah, sixth place for the moment kinda bites, sure. Just the same, the next George on the schedule doesn’t scare me one bit. Let’s see what these guys are made of after their first home loss.

The Stretch Run: Q&A with a Fight Mass Dot Com Writer

Oh hey guys, what’s up? 

So life got busier again and I’ve found myself consistently putting off writing about the one thing that occupies much of my non-work week, the University of Massachusetts Minutemen Athletic Programs. It turns out it’s really tough to work full-time and travel around watching UMass play and write about said UMass. I think I might have mentioned that before.

Nonetheless, as both hockey and basketball gear up for the stretch run, I feel that now is the time to break the Fight Mass media silence (you know, besides our increasingly-popular Twitter account) for some long form opinion-sharing. I’ve decided to put this in the form of a Q&A, because it doesn’t matter why.

Let’s start with hockey. How are the prospects for these final few weeks looking?

Decidedly meh. Every time the team puts together a full 60-minute effort, they follow it up with a lackluster performance. This would have been fine had it been the story of their season, but instead we’re seeing a team play to its preseason expectation of mediocrity, after months of being sub-mediocre. Visualize trying to climb out of a deep dark hole, finally finding a ladder, and then curling up next to it and falling asleep. That’s basically UMass right now. Blow out Merrimack at home one night, blow a third-period lead at their place the next night. March into Matthews and put up 50 shots in a dominant 3-0 win one night, come home and lay an egg against Lowell the next. Four games remain: at Lowell (always a house of horrors), home against Northeastern (still looking like a tournament team somehow), and a home-and-home with a good Providence squad. Two wins might be the best we can hope for. UMass still has a realistic shot at hosting the opening-round playoff game, which would be the first since the Maine sweep my freshman year. It would be a good time, format be damned. It’s going to be real hard to see it happening if captain Troy Power remains out with what looked like a gruesome knee injury, but reports thus far indicate he’s not been ruled out just yet.

Did anything fun happen recently at games?

Oh yeah, we sat in front of Toot and noted Fight Mass fan James Marcou at Matthews last weekend. That was pretty cool. Also, we betrayed our roots and hung out up in the BU cheering section with our new buds Bloggin’ on Babcock at the recent comeback tie against them a few weeks back. Honestly, it was a blast to see how the “other half” lives. Gosh, their fans are just so much more coordinated with things like chants, yelling, and actually understanding what’s going on it a hockey game. And don’t worry, we were still happy when UMass rallied at the end, because we don’t get a higher draft pick if the team is bad so there’s no use rooting against them.

Okay, that’s enough hockey. Let’s get to shooty hoops. What’s gone wrong since that #13-ranked start?

Right, we were riding on cloud nine when we left you last, and since then we’ve seen that fun little number next to our name disappear and be replaced by enough lingering doubts to fill 40 pages of UMassHoops game threads. Unfortunately, that procrastinating-til-the-last-minute strategy, which many had hoped would provide enough close calls to finally wake the team up to the dangers of letting teams hang around, collapsed in their face in not one, not two, but three straight roadies against middling conference foes. We almost saw it happen again against a below-middling Rhody team over the weekend, but Chaz and the trademark general incompetence we seem to see every year from URI’s program bailed us out in the end. To be sure, UMass has kept every one of these games competitive. If you want to spin the excuse-o-meter, you’ll find hot Richmond shooting, shoddy officiating in Olean (and, for that matter, the first half in Kingston just to keep the Rams in the game), and self-inflicted foul wounds on Hawk Hill. I’m not convinced Richmond’s home crowd made a big difference, but the atmospheres in Philly and particularly up in Olean (where the students are literally on the court) certainly qualified as intimidating. Winning on the road is never easy in a good conference, and the A-10 has been much better than advertised this year outside of URI, Mason and Fordham.

But are we still going to make the tourney?

Yeah, I think that’s still a pretty safe bet. UMass hosts Mason tomorrow night, which should be safely in the “W” column. That would put us at 7-3 with this six-game gauntlet: at GW, vs. VCU, vs. URI, at Dayton, at Duquesne, vs. Saint Louis.

Home against URI should be another win, and Duquesne is hot garbage and provided we’re not a top-15 team again I can’t imagine their fanbase (?) making that an intimidating environment. That would get us to 9 wins, matching the total from the last two years. I think that in order to be contenders in Brooklyn, UMass would be wise to finish top-four and avoid a tiring first-round affair. So if UMass can find a way to split those remaining four, that’d be swell. George Washington has always matched up well against us, but I feel their record this year is a bit inflated by a weaker schedule, and they’ve got a few injuries to sort through. VCU isn’t the same away from home when they can’t run their “mug the fuck out of everyone” defense. Dayton started strong but has scuffled of late, but because there’s literally nothing else to do in Dayton, their fans show up at their needlessly large arena every single game and I could see that being a trap. And then we have senior day, Chaz’s (hopeful) final game at the Bill, what currently projects as the first legitimate opportunity to witness a Mullins court-storming since that UConn game before even I was a student. The Billikens will be a true test with their pace and style that will require our outside shooting to be on point to have a chance. I think 2-2 in that span is very much achievable. 3-1 (with a win over SLU) might be enough to win the regular-season title, depending on other outcomes. Let’s hope we can still have that conversation in a little bit.

What about football?

Hush your mouth. We’ll have all offseason to talk about Whipple.

 

Alright, that’ll be it for now. Back to watching random college basketball (SD State vs. Wyoming, yes I have a problem, shut up). Tune in to @FightMass for all your George Mason live-tweeting needs.

Yule Shoot Your Coach Out

Welcome back to UMass sports, guys! Hope you had a merry Christmas and also a non-denominational Happy Holiday, especially you, Nick Canelas. We now return to your regularly schedulWHAAAAAAAAAAAAT?

wow

Yeah, so I’ll admit, Charley getting das boot this quick was a bit of a surprise given that, oh I dunno, it’s almost January already and whatnot. But timing with coaching hires isn’t really the UMass way, is it? It does suck to take the focus off of the basketball success story by getting the local media all abuzz about how awful the football program is again (didn’t we just do this a few weeks ago?) but, as much as I wanted to see Charley succeed, the reaction from the players and donors seems to suggest that there was more to this than just the 2-22 record. I don’t think he buried the school the way Morris did – we had, and hopefully will still have, pieces to build around. Molnar’s lack of progress in year two suggests he might have just not been the right x’s-and-o’s coach for the job. Anyway, now begins the coaching search, so, you know, Nick Saban would be a good pick IMO. I’ll settle for Mark Whipple though. A lot of schools would settle for Mark Whipple.

I was tempted, by the way, to take down Dan Shank’s “column” for the Globe where he goes on and on about how happy he is to see UMass fail, but given his recent track record in sports predictions, maybe this is the best thing that could have happened to UMass. In which case, thanks for the reverse jinx! But seriously, #logoff.

So moving on to happier thoughts, the basketball team ah goddamnit they lost too didn’t they. Yes, in the world’s least aesthetically-pleasing game, played with rims made of granite on a sliding panel of styrofoam, the Minutemen suffered their first loss of the season 60-55 at the hands of Florida State last weekend. Nothing really went UMass’s way, from god-awful shooting from 3 and the FT line to lousy officiating (including a glorious missed foul at the end that could’ve been avoided by jacking up another 3, which we would have missed anyway, but still). In the good news column, the loss only dropped us to #2 in the RPI since Florida State is a much better team than people are giving them credit for, even if they did also play like dog shit. Whatever, we’re gonna have a packed house against Providence on Saturday, we’re still ranked. Feelin’ fine.

Anyway, I leave you with this. Good night, sweet world.

Four Score, and several years later

So it was that the fourth anniversary of your blogging/Tweeting heroes is met with the agony of a 5-3 defeat at the Mullins Center for the UMass hockey team, in front of literally dozens of fans in a driving snowstorm. The program is in a much different place than it was that fateful night four years ago tonight when I pulled up WordPress on my desktop in North A 309A and started writing my very first post. UMass was in the midst of what looked like a promising season, one which naturally fell apart for them pretty quickly. FBS football was a distant dream. UMass baskettaball was an abortion circus on the court. My time at UMass was coming to a close, and I wanted to have something to keep me tied to the university community.

Four years later, I live and work with my Twitter cowriter, I’ve been to dozens of games home and away, driven halfway across the country twice, experienced the finest hockey barns, college towns, and beer havens Hockey East has to offer. We’ve met lots of fun people along the way, made our fair share of internet enemies and, in most cases, frenemies. Fight Mass has been a major part of my life, and Matt’s life, and we’re both eternally grateful to the experience, warts and all. Thanks for being part of the ride, and here’s to more good times ahead. Hoops is ranked and unbeaten, football is in FBS and (we can only hope) on its way to not being a national laughingstock once our coach has a full array of recruits and scholarships as his disposal. Hockey, despite tonight’s roadblock, is coming off the program’s first-ever(!!!) three-game road winning streak, and for whatever reason, finally starting to buy in and play with a sense of pride. That includes the much-maligned seniors, whose apathy is at least understandable if still not exactly excusable, and so we remain hopeful for a strong second half against a somewhat less-intimidating conference slate. Happy days indeed, not the happiest days yet, but happy.

That sappy sentimental bullcrap aside, I’ll take this opportunity to deliver the previously-promised gallery and rundown of our trip to South Bend and Chicago, including a writeup for the new Travelogue section. Enjoy, and we’ll see you on the Twitter machine for tomorrow night’s showdown in Athens.

———

Travelogue: South Bend, IN (Notre Dame)

The Setting: So South Bend appears to be two different entities. In the first, the quintessential (Matt went so far as to call it the most quintessential) college campus, with rustic (albeit repetitive) architecture, sprawling quads, the famous landmarks. Encircled by strip malls seemingly stuck in the 80s, the Notre Dame campus is an oasis of college classicism.

And then there’s the entire everything else around it. Like I said, everything around the campus is the strip malliest of strip malls. Downtown South Bend, a quick jaunt down the road, sounded promising based on my experiences in classic midwest college towns like Ann Arbor and Madison. Sadly, there is nothing in downtown South Bend that remotely resembles either of those meccas. In fact, I’m tempted to say there is nothing in downtown South Bend, period. After Friday’s game, our only full night in town, we were planning on hitting up the best-reviewed Yelp bar in town, the Fiddler’s Hearth, for what we envisioned as a classier McMurphy’s with a better taplist and classic Irish food. Instead, we walked into a cramped saloon with nothing more interesting than Smuttynose (hey, we have that here!) on tap and but a single TV over the bar. I’m sure the food was fine, but that wasn’t the scene we were seeking, so we left the car nearby (after all, we figured it would be harder to get a parking spot where all the bars are!) and walked a half-mile through the freezing cold to…well, where were we going again? A cursory glance of the local spots revealed that most of the businesses were closed already (?!) and the few spots that were open? The best we found was some redneck bar with indoor smoking and pool tables, no good beer and no people. We assumed the students were all just away on break already? (They weren’t, we later learned.) I feel like even the tumbleweeds were afraid to come out. The desertedness of the town was so severe that we began to wonder if Manti Te’o may have imagined more than just his girlfriend.

The one saving grace, if you can even call it that, is the little shopping/apartment development that we later discovered over near the campus, which looks like it was put up in the past five years, leaving us to wonder what the fuck people did for fun before that. We did manage to find a relatively nice beer bar to enjoy my midnight birthday, and there appeared to be one or two bars in the more collegey vein with actual patrons, but still. Maybe things are different on football gamedays when people are all out on the town and out drinking (protip: I was here twice in my high school days with my ND family members, and though I couldn’t drink, the atmosphere is infinitely more festive around the campus). But as far as college towns are concerned, this is among the worst. (But, you know, Chicago is like an hour and a half away. So there’s that.)

The Venues: Most relevantly to UMass, Notre Dame joining Hockey East is a big boost for the league’s already-impressive collection of venues. Compton Family Ice Arena is a very different beast from what we’re used to, given the mish-mash of adorable small-time venues (MC/PC), classic barns (UVM/ME/NU), and mid-range but respectable sites like our own, Conte, Tsongas and the like. Compton, I suppose, can best be described as mixing the best of the two actually-in-Boston venues, with the shiny amenities and luster of Agganis coupled with the intimacy and balcony of Matthews. Our seats in the balcony to the left of the press box were probably among the “worst” seats in the house, and even those provided a very good view of the rink. The locals were loud and boisterous, though the student section wasn’t really distinctive like in, say, Matthews or Alfond. Overtaking them, of course, is the new best band in Hockey East (until we start playing at games, of course). The Band of the Fighting Irish is awesome, leading some classic (if derivative) college hockey chants and playing a good mix of new and old songs, in addition to the iconic fight song after every goal. The goal horn is a little jarring to hear on TV, but sounds much cooler in person than it does on TV, and probably jumps into 2nd place after Maine on the all-important Hockey East Goal Horn Power Rankings. The most impressive thing about the arena to us was the staff, which is far and away the most friendly and accommodating in Hockey East. It’s not saying much, between the completely ambivalent staffs of Northeastern, Merrimack and our own, to the aggressively unfriendly UNH/UVM/BC staffs and the draconian BU folks. But the charming old men and women of Compton never missed an opportunity to thank us for making the trip, catapulting them ahead of the friendly folks of Maine and Lowell in the welcoming rankings. The locals were nothing but friendly, too, even after UMass pulled off the upset Saturday. In fact, Matt, noted Notre Dame hater extraordinaire, came to the only logical conclusion there can be based on how friendly everyone was: if you hate Notre Dame, you’ve clearly never been. The people here are awesome. It’s the bandwagon fans in the Northeast (and elsewhere) who have no ties whatsoever to the school who root for it “cuz I’m Irish kehd and the feckin leprechaaaahn and go Irish kehd” who project all the suck that people these days associate with ND. Those people should suffer a horrible snake-related fate. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, A+ venue, for sure, and one Hockey East is lucky to have now.

Other venues in the area include the newly-renovated Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center, which looks like a very swell, very blue place to watch a basketball game, and that one football stadium I guess or whatever. I’ve been to Notre Dame Stadium a few times in the past thanks to my ND alumni family members brainwashing me at a young age, but it will obviously be a treat if we get a chance to come back here and watch UMass lose by 40 probably win somehow, thereby ruining Notre Dame’s season because I’ve seen more of that in my lifetime. But it really is great to see a classic football stadium with zero outside advertising outside of a single NBC Sports logo, no logos, just rows and rows of seats. It’s not as impressive as the Big House, but it’s iconic as hell and something all sports fans should see once in their lifetime. We’ll be back for you, Notre Dame Stadium.

Best Food: We weren’t in town long enough to make a good determination about this. However, consider this: Compton sells hockey helmet-shaped souvenir popcorn bowls.

Best Beer: So after our first night, where we settled on The Mark, a gastropub with a solid beer list but not much atmosphere, we did discover a few places the next day that had much better draft lists than anything downtown. We didn’t end up going to O’Rourke’s (also in that same little shopping plaza!) but it looked like a solid choice. Ultimately, we ended up watching UMass-BYU hoops at Legends of Notre Dame, which we initially dismissed as what we figured was a memorabilia shop, then realized was a bar/restaurant, and then upon taking a gamble, we got lucky with a killer beer list and $4 drafts of local craft (Three Floyds, Bells, and the like). The food there was mediocre – I enjoyed my sandwich enough but Matt had “the worst reuben he’s ever had” so let’s call it a draw – but the hospitality, cheap beer specials, and access to watch our game on a busy day (the overflow crowds from a day’s worth of basketball games showed up) made it the best choice.

Of course, as the pictures would profess, our biggest score in the state of Indiana was in Munster, IN, just outside of Chicago on the Illinois border, at the legendary Three Floyds Brewpub. Three Floyds is borderline Alchemist-status out there, only it never got destroyed, is in an infinitely more urban location, and makes more than one kind of beer now. But the hype factor is on par, and I would say the beer is, too. Their self-proclaimed flagship beer is the Alpha King, a solid pale ale, but their most famous offering in the beer world is their Zombie Dust, one of the finest beers either of us have ever had the pleasure of tasting. We bought a case because of course we did, and it’s a must-try if you’re able to get out there. Other offerings, such as the seasonal Alpha Klaus and the scotch ale Robert the Bruce, were quality choices as well. Chicago was a wonderful time for the brief 24 hours or so we got to spend there, and if you’re even remotely into craft beer, go here and have your mind blown, and come back and thank us later.

 

Alright, yay, we have enough of these things to open up a new page for them. Keep an eye out for a few more over the intersession break. In the meantime, thanks again for continuing to read the blog and Twitter. We love you all. <3

- Max

 

A Volley Cheer

Make no mistake: we have been awfully harsh on our beloved hockey team in this space and, moreover, on our Twitter feed in the past month-plus. Really harsh. I think words such as “abortion” and “trainwreck” have been bandied about. In our defense, we’ve watched our team flounder about during possibly the most crucial stretch of its season, barely scratching out a couple of Hockey East points while getting its lunch handed to it on at least a bi-weekly basis. Granted, the runaway success of the hoops team has done wonders for our mental sanity as the diehard fans we are, but it’s still just been a tough season to watch. The biggest disappointment has not been that the team is merely underperforming – it’s been downright lackadaisical. As bad as the UNH camo game would have been had it actually happened and wasn’t just a horrible LSD-induced bad trip, the Vermont game was the absolute nadir of suck. The UNH game was a result of a goalie who wasn’t ready for the stage being pushed onto it like a sacrificial lamb wearing a shitty digital camo jersey, digging an impossible hole from which to climb, against a Wildcats team that needed a win badly. But to have a 2-0 loss, with your top goalie in net against a freshman and a far less talented foe, and to just completely mail in 60 minutes of haphazard, disinterested slop hockey, generating nothing resembling a constant attack, was so disheartening that I almost reconsidered Matt and I’s planned trip to South Bend. Why spend the time and money to see this team now (after all, we’ll be back in two years and we might not suck then! Right?), and miss out on a trip to Springfield (and Smith’s) to see a sellout crowd against the BYU Fightin’ Jimmers? Even some of our Twitter followers were teasing us for our choice. Why spend my birthday watching bad hockey?

Alas, with the vacation time already booked, we bit the bullet and drove 16 hours to the home of the Fighting Irish, with stops in Chicago and Munster, IN (I’ll explain) along the way. And not only did we have an absolute blast every step of the way, we also saw a UMass hockey team go toe-to-toe with one of the best in the nation for two straight nights, succumbing late in the first game, and grinding out an actual win in the second. In both games, so many aspects of the game were just plain better than we’d been witnessing, and we saw a lot more of the team that tied BC two nights (only getting credit for one, naturally) and a lot less of whatever the fuck the Vermont game was. Is there still lots of work to be done? Sure. Is this team going to magically turn it on in the second half and roll to a home ice position? Nah. Is Ben Gallacher a heart attack waiting to happen every time he touches the puck? Look, we’ve made our enemies in the past (ahem, Freddie Riley, cough, Mike Marcou) with our past criticism, and I know I sort of instituted a pseudo-ban on ganging up on individual players. We’re trying reaaaaaaaaaaaal hard not to let that happen, but then again both of those players ended up putting together not-the-worst senior seasons, so if that’s what it takes to get him to turn it around, then yes, Gallacher is the worst. (Sorry bud. You’ll thank us later if the past is any indication.)

We still think, warts and all, this team has potential. True, the performance from the GPS line of Gracel-Pereira-Sheary has been below expectations, but Gracel had himself a fine weekend and the other two looked more like their last-season equivalents again. We’ve had all kinds of baseless and somewhat-based speculation that the seniors on the team seem to be the biggest problem, tuning out a coach who didn’t recruit them and protesting the loss of their teammates cut in the preseason. But that didn’t seem like the case this weekend at least. And we still can’t sing enough praises for the second line of Pigozzi, Power, and Iacobellis, all of whom have bought into whatever Mick is teaching and who will be the core next year to build around along (hopefully) with Frank Vatrano. Long and short of it is that UMass still has just two wins and only nine conference games left, sitting in 9th despite by far playing the most games in the conference already. But with the new format this year, a finish in the 6-8 range earns home ice in the first round, and that is a goal this team can realistically achieve with a better second half. The potential is there – we saw it in the BC games, the Michigan State games, and now against Notre Dame. If Mastalerz can stay healthy (big if!), the pieces are there for a turnaround. UMass has plenty of time before they return to conference play, and these nonconference foes coming up offer a chance to build momentum for that.

Of course, it could just be a flash in the pan. We could have just seen the last of this team being competitive in 2013-2014, and maybe they’ll continue the disastrous path to 11th place and a first-round sweep by a middling team like, say, Vermont. But the journey, as always, remains worth it. Stay tuned for part 2 with the pictures and whatnot tomorrow night.

- Max

All Things Go

 

Well, it’s off to Chicago (and, subsequently, South Bend) for us. Make sure you tune in to @FightMass for all of the exciting updates from Compton Family Ice Arena as UMass hockey takes on the Fighting Irish, and also in things that are certainly going to be more fun, we’ll be exploring the Windy City for the first time (and livetweeting your prerequisite in-bad-taste Mormon jokes and whatnot) as we hopefully take in BYU vs. Chazketball in a South Bend bar.

See you in a few days!

- Max

This is Why We Fight

On this, the great drinking holiday of American culture known as Thanksgiving Eve, we here at the Fight Masspartment are thankful for so much. We are thankful, of course, for family, friends, prosperity, our respective mates, all that good stuff, etc. More importantly, though, we are grateful that we finally have a polished product to root for in Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen, even while the other two of the “big three” are firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode.

Not to get all apocalyptic on you all at such a festive time of year, but I’ve hinted for quite some time that I feel strongly that this season has some underlying importance beyond what meets the eye. We are in an era of great change in the college landscape. Conference realignment continues to separate the haves from the have nots. To borrow the most timely of pop culture metaphors, the FBS power conferences are the Capitol, and we’re basically District 12. And if we don’t do something quickly, we may be on the fast track to District 13. (Actually, I’m not sure how the third book plays out, nobody spoil it for me, I literally just got into this like a week ago. Also, sidebar – can we see the Hunger Games as a separate metaphor for instilling Euro soccer-style relegation into the conference landscape? Never mind, I just got lost in my own tangent. Moving on.)

What’s crucial at this juncture for UMass is that they’re in a relatively good spot. Despite struggles on the ice as we transition fully to the Mick era, the hockey team seems unlikely to go anywhere in what is at the very least one of the top 2 conferences in the sport, and adding UConn next year gives them a local rival who they can actually beat up on. Football has found itself in a more stable position than, say, staying in the FCS as it crumbles around them. Midweek #MACtion is a certified phenomenon, and for the moment, the MAC, anchored by Northern Illinois but with contributions from not-awful Ohio and Bowling Green and Buffalo and the like, is a solid step above laughing-stock territory. The awful attendance question has been sidestepped by a good-enough year, and the return to campus next year should be a big help, as Gillette is relegated to the higher-end opponents while the stadium upgrades and time off will bring people back to McGuirk. (Not to mention an improved team! Right, Charley? Right?)

As for basketball? These are crucial times. With the breakoff of the Big East, everyone seems to be waiting for the next big moves to materialize, namely what will happen to UConn and Cincinnati who are both unlikely to remain in the AAC forever. Meanwhile, the rumors swirling about more Big East poaching of teams like Dayton and Saint Louis, or even (gasp) VCU.

These are uncertain times, but what’s not uncertain is that the teams in the have-not conferences are on display. (I could really easily tie this into that Hunger Games metaphor what with the Tributes showing off for the sponsors, but I’d rather Marty Peretz not have to revoke the nice words he said about my writing so I’ll stop now.) A year or two of success in these uncertain times can be all it takes for a program to hop up to the next level. UMass sold its recent FCS success to the MAC to buy their upgrade. Schools like Xavier and Butler have turned timely success in recent years into their tickets to the next level, and the rumors on VCU (which, remember, wasn’t much of anything before Shaka Smart came to town five years ago) and Saint Louis (which has made the NCAA’s six times since 1954) are further signs that this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.

Am I suggesting that UMass will get invited to the Big East with a Sweet 16 run this season? Not exactly. What I’m saying is that this is the time when you need to put your program in the absolute best position to succeed, come whatever may in the college sports landscape in the next few years. A return trip to the tourney in March with a couple of wins in the Dance would not only help the team’s athletic image and standing in the area immediately, but coupled with the construction of the Champions Center, it would help our recruiting prospects for the immediate future too to help make this good feeling sustainable, not just a flash in the pan.

So you’re damn right we’re grateful. Grateful that, in this uncertain time, DK, Chaz and the gang have given us something to root for. Now go out there and enjoy yourselves, and we’ll see you after the weekend.

- Max

Hiiiiiighwaaaaay Tooooo theeeee Lalanne-ger Zoooooone!!!

So this is pretty neat, eh?

UMass is the #24 team in the land after a trio of hard-fought wins over quality, if not world-beating, competition at the Charleston Classic. Central to all of the wins was the continued emergence of Cady Lalanne as – sorry, there’s no other adequate sports cliche – an absolute beast, the best-case scenario we all envisioned for him when he first burst onto the scene his freshman year with flashes here or there. Mind you, we’re UMass fans, so we’re not used to seeing guys turn that occasional flash of brilliance here or there into something stellar. Yet here we are, with three guys legitimately doing that exact thing with Cady and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Carter and Putney. Then you throw in the two transfer guards who have both been solid from their first minute in the maroon-and-white, an adequate bench crew in Davis, Bergantino and Esho, and a stable of talented freshmen waiting in the wings for the first chance to jump in should anyone bite the injury bullet (oh UMass pls don’t let that happen btw k thx). And maybe biggest of all, you have Derek Kellogg looking at confident and comfortable at the helm as we’ve seen him yet. Granted, having his full complement of weapons and three fifth-year seniors in his starting lineup can’t hurt that cause, but just the same, he’s actually been coaching circles around his counterparts all year long now and that hasn’t always been the case. 

What does this formula provide? Why, UMass’s first national ranking in college basketball in 15 years, of course. And damn doesn’t it just feel like the best feeling ever? Yeah, UMass has cracked the top five in hockey in my eight years of following the program, and men’s lacrosse was even #1 in the very recent past, but those sports don’t draw eyeballs the way hoops and football do, and lordy are we ever far from the top 25 in the latter. (But I’ll save that for a future post. This is a fun positivity post which is why I am also going to hold off on addressing the on-ice disaster we’ve been subjected to the past few weeks.) Being ranked in lax or even hockey gets you on the scrolling scorebar on ESPNU, maybe, if you’re lucky, between women’s hoops, fencing, and Quidditch.

Being ranked in men’s basketball, on the other hand, gets you into the big show, as silly as it sounds. Every single major sports outlet shows top-25 scores, and most radio news recaps will mention them. Monday, UMass was the #3 story on ESPN.com’s right-hand scrollbar and dominated the actual write-up for the historic return. (We’re still the #1 story on the NCAA men’s basketball tab when you scroll over it!) Hell, even the Globe felt compelled to…errr, throw in a link to the AP story, buried under Red Sox hot stove coverage. But hey, you gotta start somewhere. And for the college basketball and sports media world as a whole, that little #24, as silly as it sounds, makes all the difference. Lots of teams start with undefeated runs. Missouri State is 5-0. So is Saint Mary’s. And Incarnate Word. Hell, just a few years back, even we were 7-0! And not a single shit was given that day, nor is it today about the other teams I mentioned. (Someone game Saint Mary’s a few votes in the coaches poll, but….yawn, what were we talking about again?) UMass’s 6-0 start this year stands out because its competition has been legitimate: four major conference teams, last year’s #2 RPI squad, and a better-than-advertised mid-major. The reward? Publicity, and plenty of it, and nothing could be better for recruiting.

With great power, of course, comes great sports cliche-ability, in the form of targets on your back, bulletin board material, trap games, blah, blah, blah. If any UMass team in my memory, in any sport, has the mental fortitude to not let fame, fortune, and platinum records go to their heads, this would be it. It starts next week in Ypsilanti of all places, against one of the only foes this team blew out last year. Eastern Michigan will have its students back from break, and the allure of the elusive ranked foe applies to the have-nots as well. UMass will have more tests against bigger names Providence, Florida State, and BYU before 2013 is done. (And they also play Northern Illinois and, who knows, maybe the Huskies will have Jordan Lynch suit up for the hoops team too, he’s just that good.) So the temptation to look past this game to BYU, for instance, is very real – and that makes this a great test for the team.

It just feels unfair to have to wait until then, especially if UMass ends up getting leapt-over by a few of the also-receiving-votes teams, but whatever. The drought is over, and I think you’ll agree this is as legit a team as this school has had in any of the Big Three major sports since Marcus Camby was here. Bask in the glow, because this is really happening and we’re along with you for the ride.

- Max

Haight to Say I Didn’t Tell You So (also, Chazketball vs. Nebrasketball)

I’ll admit things have been (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a bit busy of late, so I apologize we haven’t had a chance to weigh in on the recent happenings in UMass sports. Here’s a quick rundown:

- On Friday and Saturday, the hockey team defied all logic and played the vaunted BC offense very tightly, Mac Haight (whom I wrote about a month ago would definitely be the 3rd stringer all year and would likely not see any ice time) won all of our hearts with a serviceable, damn-near-great at times pair of performances, and UMass played both games to 2-2 ties. Of course, they only got one point out of it, thanks to some Bunyon Magic inventing a new exciting rule change that allows for the overturning of an offsides call. Was Power ultimately offsides? Sure, after seeing the replay. But it was the kind of bang-bang play that happens all season long in the Hockey East conference slate, so it’s nice to know that BC was able to get a point out of the weekend on a play that has now been confirmed to be non-reviewable. There is now approximately a 405% chance that UMass will proceed to lose a game this year on a goal that is offsides that they will not be able to review. Book it.

Honestly, though, the Minutemen had their chances to bury backup netminder Brian Billett and a BC team that, as they so often do, didn’t put forth a full 60-minute effort against UMass. The sad truth is, UMass has played the most conference games already at 7, and have frustratingly little to show for it. Vermont presents an opportunity to turn things around against another middling team, but – again, this is sounding like a broken record – it’s not always as easy as “hey, they played super-well against one of the best teams in the country so of course if they play like that they’ll beat the bad teams.” That said, between the supposedly-recovering Mastalerz and the competent Haight, we’re comforted in the knowledge that we won’t see Wakaluk again in a meaningful game until he shows he can actually handle the spotlight. So there’s that.

Let’s move on to the more fun thing on the docket: UMass football hahahaha no. Basketball moved to 3-0 with a workmanlike home victory over Youngstown State, the second-best of the three teams they’ve faced this year, and the buzz is in the air. All of a sudden, you’re hearing things like “receiving votes” and “underrated” and “likely tournament team” from various sources. Swell.

Now the Minutemen face what has been their undoing in the previous two hyped seasons: the infamous Preseason Tournament in a Strange Venue During the Day With Basically Nobody Present Against a Pretty Good Set of Teams, trademark pending. Luckily, they get it out of the way this year before Thanksgiving, so I don’t have to tell the same family members for the third year in a row how good my alma mater is going to be this year as they promptly get stomped. To be fair, I have a level of confidence in this team that I didn’t have the last two times around. The Penguins game wasn’t exactly the wild rout it appeared to be on paper when the schedule was announced, but in Kellogg’s defense, YSU actually looks like a pretty solid small-conference foe who could easily roll to a low-20s win total and an RPI in the low top 100. (You know, unlike a certain other school in Massachusetts which will be lucky to win 10 games this year at the rate they’re going.) There was some good that came from it, though – Putney’s slam at the end of the game has gone much further than I ever expected in generating buzz for the team. Hey, I’ll take it, even if when it happened I wasn’t really watching YSU’s press and figured it was an unnecessary garbage-time showboating act. 

Nebrasketball is up next, and they come into Charleston 3-0 by blowing out a trio of really bad teams. (Sorry, Dunk City minus its mastermind doesn’t count as a quality foe). Like UMass, the Huskers have played all of their games at home (TD Garden is a home, if you didn’t notice) and that home is the shiny new Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln, to which I want to go to there someday. So it’ll be an adjustment for both teams to play in unfamiliar territory in front of a largely-empty venue. There’s been some talk about UMass generating energy by feeding off the crowd, but I’d say Nebraska may even see more of this effect given that they’ve played to sellout crowds in their first three games whereas UMass hasn’t even played a home night game yet and has drawn a bit more sparsely.

The Huskers are led in scoring by guards Ray Gallegos and Deverell Biggs, both of whom were suspended for the first two games but who put up 18 and 17 points respectively in their last game against SC State. It’s hard based on that body of work to get a good gauge on who Nebraska really is, which is scary, but they’re also the preseason pick to finish dead last in the Big Ten. In other words, this is a win on paper. But remember, so was last year’s game against a Providence team with six scholarship players available, and that was nearly a disaster. The key on Thursday is for UMass to separate themselves from last year’s shortcomings. They must see the opportunity presented here, to not only add another major-conference foe to their resume, but to get that all-important meeting with New Mexico on Friday afternoon. The goal this year is to not sleep on anyone. We’ll soon see how that goes against the Huskers.

-Max

BC Preview: They Come in Like A Wreeeeeeecking Baaaaaaaallllllllll

While we eagerly await the Most Eagerly-Anticipated Sporting Event Ever to Feature Youngstown State, we’d be remiss to forget about tomorrow night’s clash on the ice between the BC Fightin’ Gaudreaus and yoooooouuuuurrrrrr Miiiiinute….huh? Guys? Where’d everybody go? Come baaaaaack I’m not doooooone!

Truly, the task ahead is daunting. BC’s much-touted freshman class has come in and decided to just skip clear over the whole “adjustment phase” freshmen usually have to go through. Up and down the stat sheet, they’ve gotten some great production from their latest stable of talented stud players. Again. Sigh. Let’s be grateful their other “big two” programs will never see anything remotely similar to this level of competency on the recruiting front, though York, bless his classy little heart, just re-upped through 2020. This, to the uninitiated, is the equivalent of the groundhog coming out during a total solar eclipse and dying immediately. Seven more years (at least!) of this shit. And we were hoping he’d retire due to those eye problems. Hahahahaha kill me.

But of course, we can’t forget the headliner, junior sensation Johnny Gaudreau, whose name is pronounced “good ROW” for a reason because he’s good and he’ll probably score a multitude of goals in a row in the next two nights. His nine goals and nine assists are both tops on the team, though he’s had plenty of help from cohorts Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes, but there’s no question he’s the runaway favorite for the Hobey Baker.

In goal for the Eagles, the ace has been the freshman who will call you when he’s soft, Thatcher Demko We assume Steve Mastalerz is a no-go for this weekend’s games, though the last somewhat-optimistic indicator from Mark Chiarelli in the Daily Hampshire Gazette said Mick is calling him “day to day” so who the hell knows. We’re going to go ahead and prepare for the worst and assume we’ll be seeing either the embattled Wakaluk or the slightly-less-embattled Haight. Maybe even one for each game.

Look, UMass has played a lot of great games against the Eagles in recent years, including a triumphant win last season at the Heights for the first time in seemingly forever. But nothing we’ve seen from either freshman gives much confidence that either will turn in the kind of stellar performance that has been instrumental in most recent wins over BC. Then again, sports have a funny way of handling the type of situation where a team that just lost by nine goals faces a team that won by 11. (That has to be a combined record for teams going into a game against each other, in terms of margin of their previous games, right?) Add that to the odd start time (to accommodate Saturday’s finale at Gillette for the football team) and that one time when Kevin Garnett said that anything was possible, and you have a recipe for…probably just a closer loss than everyone expects. But UMass, the team in HEA that has already left the most points on the table in conference play, can ill-afford many more 0-fer weekends like the last one.

Fascinatingly, the game is being marketed as an “Operation 8K,” as the team pulls out all the stops with free t-shirts and other marketing resources thrown at a game that would likely draw a significant crowd regardless (we’ve been harping about this for days and it’s getting old so whatever). You’d think after how the last home game went, we’d be lucky to draw half that many fans, but this might actually work given that many of the students are likely tone-deaf to just how poorly the last few games went for this team. On the downside, you just know many groan-inducing “Seven Nation Army” and “Fuck BC” moments are in store, and if things get out of hand early, the number of maroon seatbacks visible will be many.

Hey, at least they won’t be wearing the camo jerseys again. There’s nowhere to go but up.

- Max