To put it mildly, it’s been a tough season for men’s basketball, and unfortunately, things won’t get any easier for the Maroons’ final game of the year.
The Maroons (6–18, 6–7), who started the season ranked but lost their first 12 games and have long since dropped from the polls, take the court for the last time this season tomorrow, at second-ranked Wash U (22–2, 12–1). The defending national champion Bears, winners of 13 straight before losing to Rochester (16–8, 7–6) last Sunday, beat Chicago 74–62 in the teams’ previous meeting this year.
For the Maroons, though, that was then and this is now. Going into that game, Chicago had lost all 11 games it had played, and going into tomorrow’s game, they’ll have won five of eight. In that game, the Bears shot better than 57 percent from the field, but the Maroons have held most of their opponents well below 50 percent since then.
“When we first played Wash U, they shot well, but during that stretch of our season, every opponent shot the ball well against us,” fourth-year forward Adam Machones said. “Our defense is much improved since then. We are forcing opponents to take tougher and more pressured shots. Not surprisingly, our field-goal defense has improved.”
The strides Chicago has made on defense will be key in this game. Unlike in years past, when Wash U could feed the ball inside to Troy Ruths, the 2008 D-III National Player of the Year who was nearly unstoppable down low, these Bears make their living on longer shots and perimeter play. As a team, they’re among the UAA’s best from beyond the arc, and guard Aaron Thompson is the UAA’s second best three-point shooter.
“Everyone they put on the floor can shoot it and they are very unselfish,” Machones said. “If we pressure shots and keep their penetration out of the lane, we should be in good shape.”
And although the result of January’s game was disappointing, for all of their struggles prior to that match-up Chicago played impressively well at times. After trailing by double-digits in the first half, the Maroons surged after halftime, and twice got within two points.
That run was highlighted by a dunk from fourth-year forward Matt Corning which elicited raucous cheers from the Chicago faithful. Corning, who led the Maroons with 18 points, played well throughout, and aside from a lay-up from second-year forward Paul Riskus with two seconds left, he had the team’s only points in the last 10 minutes.
And with Corning as the only Maroon scoring, Wash U was able to pull away again.
“I’ve been watching the film of the first game the last couple days, and I think it was a case of we didn’t get the stop we needed defensively, on certain possessions, to keep our run going,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “We let them score too easily, and we’ve definitely improved upon that.”
Corning won’t be available for Saturday’s game, but in recent weeks, several other Maroons have stepped up their offensive production and made Chicago’s attack much more potent and consistent than it was early in the season.
Third-year forward John Kinsella is one of the players the Maroons have begun counting on for scoring. He had just eight points in the previous Wash U game on 2–6 shooting—not bad, but not as good as the numbers he has put up of late. Machones has also been a spark on offense, as has third-year guard Jake Pancratz, who has had more freedom to shoot now that first-year guard Michael Sustarsic does much of the ball handling.
Many of these improvements can be attributed to more patience and passing when Chicago has the ball, and those are the changes the Maroons need to be competitive at Wash U.
“On offense we’ve been getting much better ball movement and a lot of our shots are coming inside out,” Machones said. “Wash U plays a frantic defense with no real rhyme or reason, and if we have good ball movement we should get real good looks.”
While it remains to be seen how Chicago’s strategy will fare this time around, there’s no doubting the team’s motivation. A rivalry game against Wash U is always a big occasion, and even more so when it is the final game of the season and, for fourth-years like Machones and forward Tom Watson, the last game of their Chicago careers.
“The last four years have been great and it would be nice to leave on a high note,” Machones said. “After such a disappointing season, a win at Wash U would mean a lot to me.”