Men’s hoops seeks to wash away rivals’ title dreams

By Tim Murphy

Men’s basketball has been eliminated from the UAA title race, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have a say in who wins.

After splitting a pair of must-win games last weekend, the Maroons will look to play the spoiler role against a bitter rival. Chicago (14–10, 7–6) takes on Wash U (17–7, 9–4) Saturday at Ratner in the final game of the regular season for both squads. The guests need a win and a Carnegie loss to claim the league title and the automatic playoff bid. For the home team, the contest will end an up-and-down season riddled with injuries, illnesses, and inconsistency.

“We would have liked to have done better,” said head coach Mike McGrath, who has a 5–7 record against the Bears during his seven years in Hyde Park. “It’s been a real rollercoaster year. Had we not gone through some of the trials, we’d have done better, but we were there at the end.”

Despite the challenges, however, the Maroons managed to secure their first winning record since 2002-2003, the first season on campus for Jason Hicks and the rest of Chicago’s fourth-years. After suffering through a pair of seasons that could best be described as mediocre, the Maroons clawed their way back to contender status this year. Behind the leadership of their seniors, the squad flirted with first place before falling back to the pack after dropping two critical road games at Rochester and Carnegie Mellon. The team’s improvements this year would not have been possible without the frontcourt play of Hicks and classmate Clay Carmody.

After entering the season with career averages of 1.5 points and 1.0 rebounds per game in limited action, Hicks obliterated those marks in his first season as a starter. He set career highs in scoring (8.8), rebounding (5.3), and every other major statistical category. With Carmody benched by illness, he became the inside presence that the Maroons sorely needed him to be.

“It’d be hard for Jason to exceed the expectations we had for him because they were so high,” McGrath said. “It took him a while to grow into his body. He’s learned how to compete over an extended period of time. He’s had a significant impact on our success this year.”

The emergence of the forward/center from Glendale, Wisconsin not only gave the team a boost inside, but opened up shots for the rest of his teammates. Hicks’s breakout performance came during the team’s road sweep through Cleveland and Atlanta. He submitted a pair of double-doubles in the win, including career-highs with 22 points and 16 rebounds in the victory over the Eagles. His work in the paint allowed third-year guard Jesse Meyer to get into a rhythm from outside.

Carmody, Hicks’ partner-in-crime in the paint, still managed to average 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in 16 contests, despite battling mono. In addition to his offensive contributions, Carmody has become a defensive presence in his last few years in Hyde Park.

“Clay more than anything did two things,” McGrath said. “He learned to understand the games more and that has helped him defensively. Secondly, his physical stamina is greater and he’s able to sustain his effort over an extended period of time.”

Saturday’s rumble at Ratner will also be the final game for forward Jon Todd and guard Uche Okonkwo, both fourth-years. Todd has provided a spark off of the bench for the Maroons, averaging 1.5 rebounds per game in only 5.8 minutes. Okonkwo, a shutdown defender when he’s healthy, will miss the Wash U game due to a knee injury that he’s struggled with since high school.

“It’s hard to think that this is it, because the four of us have been together on the hardwood for so long and we won’t have that experience anymore,” Todd said. “Even though we never won a UAA championship, we’re all walking away with a great experience.”

The fourth-years would like nothing more than to bury the Bears in their final game. The Maroons have gone 2–5 against their rival over the last four years, with both wins at home.

“From day one when we stepped on campus, all we’ve ever heard is ‘Beat Wash U,’” Todd said. “I got an e-mail today from Brian Cuttica, who graduated last year, telling me that we need to win this game to take away Wash U’s chance at winning the UAA. By the way some of the older players and coaches talk about the rivalry and the game, it almost sounds the same as if Duke and North Carolina were playing for the national championship.”

“They are usually always a good team and are hard to beat, and they have a rather arrogant coach who rubs it in when they win and is not graceful in defeat,” Hicks said. “We hate each other’s programs and teams and games against them are a big deal. Beating them at the end of our senior year would cap our collegiate careers rather nicely.”

From 1999–2002, when the Maroons posted a 39–5 record in league play, three of those five losses came at the hands of the Bears. The teams combined for four consecutive league titles from 1998–1999 to 2001–2002. Although those days of UAA dominance have passed, the contest retains its intensity.

“We were the two top teams for a while,” McGrath said. “Also, because we are in the same geographical area, we end up recruiting a lot of the same kids, and that always adds to [the rivalry]. But there’s a mutual respect.”

If the Maroons are to pull off the upset, they will need to shut down Wash U’s offensive attack that has them averaging 76.1 points per contest. In second-year forward Troy Ruths and fourth-year guard Scott Stone, the Bears have a dynamic inside-outside tandem that can stretch the floor and spread the opposition’s defense thin. The duo combined for 35 points and 19 rebounds in a 74–68 victory over Chicago earlier this season.

“They’re very balanced, and they like to run,” McGrath said. “We need to keep them from getting going, and keep them out of their comfort zone. They got off to a good start on us [last time] and we were hitting our outside shots. We didn’t have Clay.”

The Maroons will be looking for revenge Saturday. With pride on the line, they hope to leave the inconsistencies that plagued them behind and send their rival home for the winter. For Chicago, it would the perfect parting gift to a class that has given the team so much.

“Wash U has been a serious rival of ours for several years,” McGrath said. “A win would knock them out of UAA and NCAA contention. We want to see the fourth-years go out with a good win.”