After months of play, two 20-minute halves are all that’s left between men’s basketball and the UAA crown. Get past them, and the Maroons hoist the trophy.
Of course, those halves come against seventh-ranked Wash U, the same team that thumped Chicago 76–50 back in January. The same team that features the Association’s leading scorer, fourth-year forward Troy Ruths, and the same Wash U that beat the Maroons in last year’s regular-season finale to deny Chicago an outright conference title.
Judging by all of that, the odds might not look good for Chicago as it heads into Saturday’s game. But this is a Maroons squad that has been defying expectations all along.
As the season got going, it looked like this might have been a rebuilding year for Chicago. The team was coming off an NCAA tournament appearance, but it lost five seniors and 45 average points per game from the 2006–2007 squad. The Maroons were good, but the UAA is a deep conference, and finishing in the middle of the pack would have been respectable.
Instead, the Maroons are one win away from the championship and an automatic bid to the postseason.
“Some people didn’t think we would be here playing for the UAA title,” fourth-year forward Nate Hainje said. “I think it just shows how hard we have worked and how far we have come this season.”
But to put the icing on an impressive conference run, Chicago will have to improve considerably on its last performance against the Bears. In that game, Wash U got out to a 15-point margin by halftime, and the Maroons never threatened after that.
“We had our worst performance of the year, and that’s meant to give them credit,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “It’s not like we went down there and played bad and they won. They outplayed us in a lot of different facets of the game.”
For starters, the Maroons have to tame Ruths, the Bears’ star player. The fourth-year poured in 26 points on 12–18 shooting when Chicago visited St. Louis earlier this year.
“We’ve got to come in there ready to do the best we can to limit Ruths and keep him in check,” McGrath said. “We’ve got a scheme to get help to stop him; we’ve just got to be better at it than we were at their place.”
Although stopping Ruths is big, the Maroons have to do more to cover Wash U’s other threats as well. In the January meeting, the Bears’ go-to man wasn’t the only one with stellar shooting numbers: As a team, Wash U went 62 percent from the field.
“We need to make sure we take away opportunities for them to get easy buckets by playing good transition D and post D,” Hainje said.
At the other end of the court, the Maroons have to settle in and make their own shots.
While the Bears were scorching the nets, Chicago connected on only 30 percent of its shots in the rivalry’s previous installment.
“Our loss earlier this season is what we are really focused on. We believe that we didn’t show them the team we really are,” second-year guard Jake Pancratz said of his team’s performance. “This is a very exciting opportunity for us and we look forward to playing out best.”
“The last time we played Wash U we had a horrible shooting day and they were at the other end of the spectrum,” Hainje said. “Now some of that was due to our shot selection. We need to make sure we get the ball inside and score.”
There are plenty of reasons to think the Maroons can play up to their potential this time around. After opening conference play 5–3, the team has strung together five straight wins, including one last weekend over sixth-ranked Brandeis. Chicago’s last loss came February 8, to then–3rd-ranked Rochester.
Much of that success is attributable to Hainje, who dropped 91 points over the last two weekends of UAA play. The hot streak has put Hainje over 1,000 points for his career, cementing his place in the history of Chicago basketball. Now Hainje, along with guard Kirk Ellsworth and forwards Zach Sheline and Tom Reynolds—the team’s other fourth-years—can make a little more history as their days at Ratner wind down.
“Every year it’s our team goal to win the league,” Hainje said, “It’s just nice that on our last home game we have the opportunity to achieve our number-one goal.”