Tagged: ruining URI’s season: a yearly tradition

“And when we die, we’ll be Rhode Island-dead…”

Oh, the University of Rhode Island. No matter how bad things get for the UMass Minute-a-men baskettaball team (note: we’ve taken to the Josh Maurer pronunciations of the words “Minutemen” and “basketball” in case you haven’t noticed), you’re always there to brighten our spirits.

For whatever reason, since I became a part of the UMass community by enrolling in 2006, the Minutemen have not lost its season series to URI. Not once. As a freshman, when Stephane Lasme and Rashaun Freeman were walking through that door, UMass lost a nail-biter in Kingston, but routed the Rams in the Bill. The Minutemen ended up settling for the NIT that year, but we dragged the Rams kicking and screaming with us. Sign of things to come.

The following year, UMass squeaked by at home, then, in a game typical of the Travis Ford era, rallied from a late seven-point deficit to pull out a 98-91 win in Rhode Island. That was my (and Derek’s) first visit to the Ryan Center, during which I served as the “space” in a row of shirtless fans spelling out “Go UMass!” on our chests. Yes, Derek was at a basketball game, and there were UMass students present – and it was on the ROAD! (Seriously, there were about 40 students on that bus. It was epic. You’re hard-pressed to find that many students at a home game now, if you don’t count the band.) We countered the “U! R! I!” chant with “N! I! T!,” which didn’t go over well with the angry Rhode Islanders, who, again, would probably have been in the big dance had it not been for two losses to UMass on their resume. The Minutemen had two of the most painful losses in recent memory that year (the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre vs. Fordham, then a bunch of wins including the Rhody game to get our hopes back up, followed of course by the collapse against Charlotte in Atlantic City), but beating URI made it all worthwhile. I’ll never forget standing outside the Ryan Center in late February – still inexplicably shirtless – waiting for the players to board the team bus. I hugged Travis Ford that night. We all did. It’s one of the reasons we’re still so bitter about his betrayal, logical as it was. UMass went to the NIT finals that year, beating Florida before losing to a young Ohio State squad led by much younger versions of the David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale, etc. core of seniors that is now among the nation’s best teams. Rhody? Bounced in the first round of the NIT. Hah.

The next year, with Kellogg as head coach, the tandem of Chris Lowe and Tony Gaffney and an inexplicable win at Kansas couldn’t mitigate the difficulty of transition. UMass was bound to miss the postseason, with an abysmal record, and the NIT run’s fan  dwindling by season’s end. Indeed, DK lost his first game against Rhody, a 12-point defeat in Amherst that had Rhody once again poised to go dancing. All they had to do was beat us again, on their home floor, on senior night (well, afternoon). A much smaller contingent of UMass faithful made this trip, including a few of us holdovers from the year before. What we witnessed? Matt Glass setting a vicious, and probably illegal, pick. Chris Lowe driving coast-to-coast in the final seconds. And a near-sellout Rhody crowd, Lou Merloni and all, silenced once again, as they watched the Minutemen clinch yet another NIT berth for the Rams. And the 30 or so UMass fans in attendance were positively giddy.

Last year? Same story in reverse. Another transition year for Kellogg, another expected return to the dance for Rhody. The road trip was first, as Matt accompanied me to his first UMass road hoops game, and my last as a student. Only a few other students showed, a real testament to just how far the student support of this team has plummeted, and where it needs to return. Rhody dominated this game in the first half, but Anthony Gurley went off in the closing minutes to narrow the score to respectability and plant the seeds of momentum for the rematch. It was UMass’s senior day, the last game of the regular season, Rhody’s tenuous bubble hopes on the line yet again. You know what happens next. (Here’s a little trip down memory lane, complete with a Lost reference in the title and discussion of hockey’s playoff hopes to add to the 2010 nostalgia!)

So here we are, 2011, Kellogg’s boys have climbed up to respectability, if still wildly inconsistent and not-quite-there-yet. Rhody seemed particularly vulnerable this year, its fans much less optimistic about the team’s tournament dreams, with the likes of Delroy James and Will Martell thrust into leadership roles, with few exciting players on the horizon (let the Nikola Malesevic era begin!), with Jim Baron’s job security in question now that his son (who, at best, struck me as a homeless man’s Mike Bibby) having graduated and moved on, and, most importantly, with Rhody Nation aware that no matter how much they try, URI cannot get those two wins over UMass that it will probably take for this program to ever make the big dance again. Granted, UMass will probably need to prove it can beat the likes of Saint Louis and St. Joe’s before the Minutemen break their tournament drought, but just the same. The Rams dropped their first game against UMass this year, and even though we hadn’t seen a win since then, you just had to figure the Rams are the cure for what ails the Minutemen. Always.

God, I love it when I’m right.

True, the first half felt like more of the same baskettaball for UMass. Notably, we’ve decided here at Fight Mass that Josh Maurer isn’t crazy when he pronounces it “baskettaball” instead of “basketball.” Indeed, he’s actually onto something. The horrific style of play that the Minutemen play, which is the end result of the DDM offense not being executed properly, is not basketball. It’s baskettaball. It entails a lot of passing the ball around the perimeter, taking awful 3-point shots, missing open layups and dunks, turning the ball over in the paint and just in general, standing around, and attempting at least one failed alley-oop (usually Correia to Sean Carter) per game, then hoping that somehow Farrell and Gurley will bail you out in the end. UMass played a lot of quality basketball during its 7-0 season-opening run, with only a few glimpses of the baskettaball of the past two years. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the four-game losing streak to the likes of Saint Louis, St. Joe’s, and George Washington, all teams UMass should be able to beat at this point, regardless of venue, was a return to baskettaball, which is unwinnable for UMass when the other team can shut down Gurley and Farrell. And that sucks to watch, because it would seem to indicate a regression. Besides, this team needs to be able to win without Gurley going forward.

Luckily for UMass, Rhody also seems to play a lot of baskettaball. They heave up awful 3’s, they commit silly turnovers, and their offense is just plain boring to watch much of the time. Also luckily for UMass, DK has finally turned Jesse “The Takeover” Morgan loose, in the absence of the injured Riley, as well as giving Raphiael Putney a lot more minutes. We saw them both on the floor for much of the second-half run, opening things up for Gurley to get his game going again, covering for Farrell who seems to be pressing things lately (he’s at his best when he’s left to do the little things well, hence the “Junkyard Dog” nickname), and just making better overall choices with the ball. Maybe watching the team’s recent malaise from the bench has been a boon for these guys, because they’re seeing what not to do. I know Matt and I have gotten some heat for being overly critical of Riley (even from Riley himself), but the fact is, if Riley used his abilities the way Jesse Morgan has in these last two games, he’d be a much better player. We don’t question Riley’s shooting ability, but Morgan seems to have a better grasp for when to fire his shots. He’s always in rhythm and he gets his role in the offense. If these two can build off of what the other is doing, we could have two absolutely deadly scoring threats from the outside next year, which in turn would make everyone else’s game more effective. The offense was a lot smoother for UMass in the second half (from what I heard – no video, sadly) and would have won by a lot more had it not been for the atrocious foul discrepancy coupled with some uncharacteristically-poor free throw shooting.

Really, as frustrating as those last four games were to watch, it’s been exciting to see Putney and Morgan starting to live up to some of the hype. Hopefully they continue to improve and the rest of the team follows their lead as the regular season winds down. UMass is just sitting outside that 5-8 range, and I think getting a home A-10 game would be a good step this year. I could still see this team making it back to the NIT as well if they finish 3-1 down the stretch and win a game or two(!) in the conference tourney. Just as easily, of course, I could see a 1-3 finish and a first-round exit in an A-10 road game. Either way, there’s obviously a lot of room for this team to grow, and the rest of the season affords them a fairly low-pressure opportunity to prepare for next year. They’ve shown that they’re clearly not ready to compete with the upper crust of the conference just yet, although the Temple game gives them one last opportunity to disprove that (and if they manage to somehow win that game, my expectations for the conference tournament will be a bit higher). If they have some momentum going into the offseason, with most of the core group returning and with Kellogg’s own guys finally comprising the entire team, I’ll feel a lot better about next year being the year all this rebuilding finally pays off.

And even if it doesn’t? At least we’ll have two games against Rhody on the schedule.

-Max

Opportunities, both lost and found

‘Twas an interesting weekend for the Big Two teams on campus this weekend.

As Matt so elegantly covered, it didn’t get off to the greatest start ever. That NESN Northeastern game was embarrassing, though maybe not quite the disgrace that I made it out to be on Twitter (notably, a half-pitcher of Sam Adams Winter from my favorite local hockey-themed bar may have had something to do with my reaction, or the fact that instead of TC’s commentary, I got to listen to something even worse the whole game: loud country music). I still think if they play that game ten times, nine out of those ten times Northeastern would have scored a LOT more goals than they did. Matthews is a tough place to play, though, and one relatively lopsided win there last year (with us present!) against their backup goalie should not obscure the fact that it’s a very tough place for visitors to play at.

Saturday night was a much better effort, plain and simple, and a game UMass easily could have won had Rawlings not stood on his head. That he was not named one of the three stars is truly a testament to how worthless the star-naming ceremony really is. He is singlehandedly the reason Northeastern was able to escape with a point, severely denting UMass’s chances of ascending to the sixth seed. Yeah, UMass’s power play unit, for the most part, was a pretty epic fail, almost dribble-drive-esque in its pure ineffectiveness. But the fervor with which the Minutemen attacked the Huskies net in overtime shows that, even with all the injuries, there’s still a lot of heart and energy with this bunch. Whether the youngsters’ skills are developing with all the experience of playing such close games week after week is the obvious question mark facing this team as the well-documented gauntlet of February and March (only one unranked opponent!) approaches. The good news is that John Muse and Joe Cannata are good, but they’re not Chris Rawlings. The bad news is that their respective teams score like nobody’s business, so here’s hoping the defense continues to play well, as they have since the near-collapse in Lowell.

Sunday, I got to take in my first basketball game of the season in person, with Matt and his dad. We sat near the center of general admission, rather than in the student section, marking the first time I’ve done that since my freshman year, an era where Stephane Lasme was blocking thirty shots a game, James Life was getting flown into games in three helicopters, and the NIT was a letdown, not a target. And I’ve got to say, we got pretty much what I expect from this team at this point against the rest of the middle-of-the-pack A-10 teams: a grind-out, ugly game, entertaining in spurts, which the Minutemen ultimately finished with a barely-double-digit victory.

And while I did indeed tweet that this game “set basketball back 30 years” during the stretch where UMass went some ten minutes without scoring and still managed to not trail in the first half, I can’t deny that I saw things that I liked. Gurley, Farrell, and the Carters grabbing rebounds almost at will at times. Vinson’s mobility getting better by the game. Hell, even CDP stealing the ball and getting perhaps the world’s ugliest “fast-“break basket of all time, one where it felt like he might not even beat the 35-second clock. And yes, I loved that the guys managed to get Martell and Malesevic in foul trouble within approximately five minutes, although that was more a product of URI playing too aggressively with an already-thin rotation as well as some overzealous refs on both sides. Most of all, the development of Gurley into a fringe NBA prospect – something absolutely unthinkable last year – has been really fun to watch. The Gurley Show taking over in the second half of games is becoming more and more common every week.

On the flip side, there’s that whole “setting basketball back 30 years” thing, so let’s get to the gripes. Like all the wide-open 3s that Rhody continued to get, particularly to Richmond, who was the closest thing they had to a hot hand the whole game. Like our team’s insistence on missing one or two alley-oop attempts to Hova and/or Big Skinny per game (even when they actually caught them this time, they had to come down with the ball first), and missing like three straight dunks in the second half when Rhody took its short-lived only lead of the game. Like the mind-numbing stretch where I felt like eight straight possessions consisted of “pass the ball around for 20 seconds, then have Riley chuck a contested three.”

Look, I knew without seeing a game in person that the relationship between him and the fans wasn’t great, but honestly – people were groaning every time he even touched the ball. And that’s before he missed that set of all three free throws. I don’t know how much of that is Freddie trying to shoot his way out of a slump, and how much is DK telling Freddie to shoot his way out of a slump. Right now, Riley is what he is – a knock-down shooter who can be absolutely dominating when he gets into his rhythm. What the coaches need to figure out is a way for this offense to be effective even with the point guards (Farrell included) in foul trouble, as was the case when the Riley chuck-a-thon began. Unfortunately, since it seems Traynham isn’t walking through that door, this is a problem that might not be fully resolved until next year, when Morgan is ready to play, Chaz is eligible and Laguerre arrives. But we’ll see. Riley was certainly more effective in his more traditional role in the second half, for what it’s worth.

All-in-all, though, these are pretty good times. UMass has won 4 out of 5, which ESPNBoston thought highly enough of to call “rolling!” Kind of like my eyes right now! Nah, I’ve got to say I’m fairly pleased with the squad as a whole. They’re beating who they should beat, an upgrade over last year for sure, and they’re able to even win games like this one in spite of the kinks. For the most part, the defense is doing a real nice job. The energy level of the team? That’s there, too. Dunking, free throw shooting, and shot selection…those are things DK can draw from this game as fodder for what needs to get fixed.

Next up on the docket: at Saint Louis, at Saint Joes, home vs. George Washington. Two roadies against bad teams, then a home game against that oft-mentioned middle tier. This is the warmup for the Next Huge Home Game (TM), a visit from the unbeaten-in-conference Duquesne Dukes. If, if if if if if if if if if, UMass continues to play like they’ve been doing lately, they can be 7-2 in league play when the Dukes come a-calling.

If.

-Max

P.S. I have a lot of observations – not all of them are negative! – about the student sections, marketing department, and the game presentation in the Mullins Center in general, but since this is already a TL;DR kind of post, I’ll save that for a bit later in the week. Probably Tuesday-Wednesday when this incoming snowpocalpyse hits.

Let’s just hold all of our practices in plane terminals from now on.

This season of UMass basketball has been alternated between relieving, frustrating, encouraging, discouraging, fun to watch and eye-melting. Sometimes, all of the above in the same game.

Tonight’s 78-69 triumph in Olean, where UMass refused to let a flight scare and a broken-down team bus sidetrack them from their goals, is another step in the right direction for a team that can’t seem to decide which direction it is headed in, but which has so far taken slightly more steps forward than backward this year.

UMass led this game wire-to-wire. They got out to a blistering start, shooting extremely well and holding Bonnies star Andrew Nicholson in check. They proceeded then to nearly give the game away in the early part of the second half, a continued recurring theme this year (see: Quinnipiac), but the strong first half gave UMass enough of a safety net that they were able to right the ship with a big run and put the game away.

What I liked about tonight’s game is that, from what I could see on the choppy ChannelSurfing feed, the dribble-drive offense was actually successful. UMass had absolutely no trouble gaining penetration, letting Gurley drive to the hoop over and over again, or dishing out to guys like Correia and Riley for threes, or finding Sean Carter for easy finishes. It was important for the Minutemen to establish their outside game early tonight, hitting 4 of their first 5 threes. When the team comes out cold, they tend to stay cold, and the D can concentrate on closing down the middle without worrying about leaving guys open outside. UMass needs to improve on its “plan B” for when the shots aren’t falling early, but in their recent wins, shooting has been great early.

And making up for their lack of practice, I thought the guys came out running tonight. Guys were beating their men down the court in transition, even Vinson (who looks a LOT better in the last few games, and I think the injury woes are behind him) had a few Tommy Point moments. Hell, even Census-Designated Place knocked down a hook. Even with all the Traynham drama, this team is a lot more organized and defined than last year’s mess. Gurley is finally becoming the brilliant scorer we always knew he could be (like Harris before him, and Gaffney before him, and Forbes before him…damnit, why does every UMass star only seem to flourish as a senior?!), and Farrell is becoming a quality #2 scoring threat who does a little of everything. Sean Carter also continues to impress with his energy and it seems like every game he’s more and more in control of what he’s doing on the court.

The non-conference struggles seem to be behind this team. Losing by 29 at CCSU seems to be more of an aberration than anything else, a case of a team being totally unprepared to play and taking a solid road opponent lightly. There’s been much more of a spark under this team ever since then, even in the blowout losses to Richmond and Xavier, both of whom look like they’re headed to the big dance this year. UMass has shown that it can win on the road against middle-to-low tier A-10 teams, carving out a spot in the 4-8 range of upper-middle tier squads in the conference, with the likes of URI, Dayton, and George Washington.

If they continue to progress, I think UMass’s ceiling for this year at this point is a home game in the first round of the A-10 tourney, a possible home game in the NIT first round, and I don’t see why they couldn’t make a bit of a run in either tournament. They’re not there yet, despite what the 7-0 start had many of us hoping. But (if you like to count D2 wins) they’ve already matched last season’s win total, are 1 away from matching last year’s conference win total, and they’ve already played two of the three best teams in the conference. If they can continue to compete like this night in and night out, 20 wins is a possibility, and that would be quite the accomplishment for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the league.

The team returns home to face Rhode Island on Sunday at 4 PM. Other than the fact that we play Temple later in the year, there’s NO REASON why this shouldn’t be the biggest home crowd of the year. Tell everyone you know. We’re certainly going to do what we can to hype this up. For chrissakes, even St. Fucking Bonaventure in the frozen tundra of western New York had a large and lively student section. I know, I can’t fault many for their skepticism. “These are the same old Minutemen. They’re gonna just let us down again. They never build off of big wins.” Trust me, I’ve thought it too. But the worm has to turn eventually. It’s 2 hours, guys. The Minutemen just risked life and limb to secure a win for our school. We can at least give them a warm welcome back. FTFB!

- Max

Pushing the button

Well, another weekend, another disappointment for UMass athletics. The 12th-ranked men’s lacrosse team managed to falter on the road to an inferior Yale team, killing any sort of mome…

Hold the phone.

What’s this you’re wharrgarbl-ing on about?

Hockey SWEPT Maine? Basketball BEAT Rhode Island?

….PLAYOFFS? You can talk to me about playoffs, because both teams won a game (and then, in hockey’s case, another game)?!

Okay, so we at Fight Mass will admit, we had higher hopes for both of these teams than “barely sneaking into their conference tourneys on the last day of the season.” Particularly after basketball beat Memphis and looked poised to at least improve on last year’s in-conference performance, and after hockey got up to #9 in the country with the harder half of their schedule seemingly in the rear-view mirror.

Regardless, the Mass Attack took advantage of Scott Darling’s mysterious suspension and roughed up Shawn “The New Wilson” Sirman two nights in a row, then had to withstand the storm of a furious comeback bid by the Black Bears last night, and nearly doubled their all-time Alfond win total in a 26-hour span. The offense woke up again by running through the points, with Justin Braun and Matt Irwin exploding onto the scene in a manner eerily similar to last year’s near-shocker at Matthews Arena. Paul Dainton was magnificent in holding Maine’s potent offense to 5 total goals in two nights. In what can only be described as “Derek being proven triumphantly right,” the defense gelled around the return of Doug Kublin from mono. And Brett Watson of all people provided two more goals.

So yeah, next weekend, UMass gets to return to the Conte Forum, where we’ll likely see the bizarre sight of a noticeable BC student section at home against the Minutemen. The Iggles haven’t played a truly meaningful game in a couple of weeks now and are, naturally, considered the runaway favorites in the series. However, if the Minutemen play as well as they did last weekend, and are able to catch a couple breaks and ride the momentum of this Maine sweep, and Dainton is on his game…okay, that’s a lot of if’s. But “if” is a fun word to toss around when, just a few days ago, things were as grim as they were. There’s hockey yet to be played, and that’s all we can ask for.

Meanwhile, the basketball team (unlike hockey, those bastards) send out the seniors in style, continuing the annual tradition of ruining Rhody’s season. This is the third year in a row; two years back, the Minutemen dragged URI kicking and screaming into the NIT (and then damn near won it). Last year, UMass marched into the Ryan Center and made little Jimmy “Date Rape Baby” Baron cry on his senior day, the game we will always know as the C-Lowe/Matty Glass Game (I could watch that Glass pick on Ulmer every single day until the end of time). And now, the year in which the gap between the teams is the greatest, where URI is a win away from the NCAA Tournament and UMass needs a win just to make the conference tourney in which only 2 of 14 teams miss it, and yet history just continues to repeat itself with these two. If the roles were reversed, I think we might hate URI even more than we hate BC here. And we hate BC a lot.

Honestly, it wasn’t a pretty game. At one point, when the teams were trading fast-break misses back and forth, someone near me likened it to a hockey game, with the near-misses coming fast and furious – only there’s no goalies in basketball, and the scores aren’t supposed to be that few and far between. The officiating — horrendous, but it was bad both ways, and we’re used to that by now. And the thing that struck me the most was that URI really does not have a go-to guy. They’ve got a lot of pretty good players, sure, but they had no answer for Ricky Harris, who woke up in a big way after a just-okay first half. It’s worrisome that the future of this team will bank on someone (Freddie? TV?) stepping up and becoming the new face of the team next year, and although I think that taking the Ricky crutch out of the equation will speed up the process, there’s no doubt that he will be missed. 3rd all time in school history in scoring, no matter how you look at it, is fantastic. Ricky’s the one guy who played for all four of my years at UMass, and for that, I’m certainly grateful.

The URI student section was impressive (although not unexpected given that this is pretty much the only sport they have), but I saw hope for us as well. Sure, a number of kids were coming over from the Rec Center to grab t-shirts and promptly leave, but for the most part, I felt like kids were into it. They should definitely try to schedule more Saturday afternoon games next year if that’s at all possible; this was definitely the best student section of the year even having to compete with the Blarney Blowout over in town, and the end of the game was as loud as I’ve seen the Mullins for basketball in quite some time. Hopefully the kids who came out for this one were sold on this team’s potential and will be more inclined to see more games next year as a result, but, of course, the guys need to win games to attract fans, simple as that.

And so now the Minutemen survive to play Tuesday at Charlotte, a team in freefall mode, and whom UMass owes some revenge from a few years back. At the very least, Ricky gets one more game, and the freshmen get their first taste of playoff basketball together. This can only be a good thing.

Unlike hockey, whose expectations were understandably a lot higher (both at the beginning of the year and, especially, after their stellar first half), basketball’s fate for much of year has been a first-round road game and likely exit from the A-10 Tournament. A strong showing against Charlotte, and especially a first-round shocker (and I can’t stress enough how due this team is to be on the other side of that equation), could do wonders for this team going forward.

And if they lose by 30 in Charlotte? We’ll always have that senior night. Sad to think I will never again set foot in the Mullins Center as a UMass student, but the memories from my tenure here will live forever, and my entry into the alumni club – my graduation to the other side of the arena (not that I won’t be general-admissioning it up and joining the student fray for a few more years, naturally) is an exciting prospect that is just beginning.

So, not to crib that whole “live together, die alone” theme that Rocks has been using lately, but the countdown to the weird red hieroglyphs and the accompanying disaster has been, for the moment, put on hold. UMass typed in the Numbers and hit execute. Now, the road ahead is wrought with challenges. But for at least one more week, there is a road ahead.

-Max