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.
Anyway, tonight, the Mass Attack enter what has been a house of horrors for them, Lawler Arena, and Fight Mass will be making a trip there as well. It’s sort of an unofficial trip, since it’ll only be Matt and I, but damnit, it’s a presence nonetheless. UMass presently holds a 3-point lead over Providence for 7th place in the conference. They trail Northeastern by 5 in the race for that 6th place spot. The difference between 6th and 7th this year is the difference between “playing a BC or UNH team having an all-time great season” and “playing a pretty damn good Merrimack team or an inconsistent-but-still-Satan-coached BU squad.” Needless to say, I like the Minutemen’s chances in the latter over the former, but even with 2 games in hand, that’s a lot of ground to make up against a team holding the tiebreaker.
Still, you have to have goals besides “make the playoffs in a league where 8 out of 10 teams make the playoffs and one of those 10 teams is fucking Lowell.” And so the Minutemen soldier on, with the odds squarely against them thanks to this brutal schedule. Fortunately, their recent injury woes are starting to subside, with guys like Marcou and Concannon coming back. They’ll need all the help they can get against a top-15 Merrimack team that is playing extremely well and comes off last night’s overtime comeback against the previously white-hot Huskies. Dainton is gonna have to continue his very strong season, and the offense is going to have to break out of this slump one way or another.
Overly optimistic? Nah. At this point wins are gravy. We’re looking for progress here. Lowell and Vermont are brutal enough this year that I’m not overly concerned about either of them (facing similarly harsh schedules, although they play two at the end of the year in which we may actually have to root for Lowell) going on a run this year. UMass probably needs to steal a game or two here just to be sure to spare themselves the embarrassment of missing the playoffs, but it’s not panic-button time yet. There’s three games left against these Warriors. Let’s see how the teams match up tonight.
On the flip side of the coin, basketball takes on St. Joe’s tonight. Losing at Saint Louis was ugly, but not humiliating. Sometimes the shots don’t go, and a bad team like the Billikens can catch fire from 3 long enough to fluster a young team like the Minutemen. The truth of it is, this squad plays too low-scoring of a style to fall behind or spend too much time struggling from the field. Ford’s teams, you could never count out because of the high-speed tempo, but you never felt comfortable with their defense, either. Kellogg’s Minutemen have exhibited tenacious D for much of the game almost the entire year, with a few notable exceptions. They don’t have enough scoring talent right now to take a game over if Gurley gets neutralized. Between Riley, Farrell, Putney, Morgan, and Laguerre, I envision the offense becoming more balanced next year. Until then, we need to understand that this offense, despite their occasional successes, is very much a work in progress, and doesn’t have the consistency to avoid games like Wednesday’s 100% of the time. That said, the Hawks are once again atrocious this year, and considering the competition, getting a top-4 (read: #3 or #4) seed for these guys is probably out of the question if they lose tonight. (Of course, I’m not convinced this team is capable of winning the A-10 tourney this year regardless, at least not right now, and if that’s the case, wouldn’t we rather have a round-one home game to try and generate buzz? Just a thought.)
We’ll have reax to both games, Lawler Arena impressions, and my overdue take on the current state of student athletic marketing at UMass in the next few days. Until then, don’t forget to follow me (@bittym87) and Matt (@blindspots) for personal reactions as we take in the game tonight.