Battle with deep league begins now for men’s basketball

By Joe Katz

After a turbulent non-conference schedule marked by flashes of brilliance, spurts of inconsistency, and some mixing and matching in the starting lineup, men’s basketball will get the chance to show the rest of the UAA that they’re now on track.

The Maroons (7–4) kick off their league season at rival Washington (8–3) tomorrow afternoon in what promises to be a tough battle for the visitors. A win at the Field House would be the first for Chicago since 2000, and the Bears enter the game having won eight of their last nine.

“It’s a tough place to play. We’ve won a lot of games against them up here, and in my 14 years here we’ve only won down there twice. It presents a big challenge,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “But I fully think we’re capable of going down there and getting a win, and I don’t know if anyone would be surprised if we did.”

While this squad is probably not the equal of the 23–4 Chicago team that last bearded the lion in its den, it features a level of depth that hasn’t been seen in a Maroons uniform for some time. Eight players are averaging more than 10 minutes a game. The offense keys off its floor general, third-year Brandon Woodhead. The starting point is the second-leading scorer on the team with 11.3 points per game, 55 assists over just 11 contests, and recorded 19 steals. He is joined in the backcourt by classmate Jesse Meyer, the team’s ace from beyond the arc, who adds 10.8 points per game in his own right. In the front court, fourth-year big men Clay Carmody (12.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and Jason Hicks (7.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and second-year small forward Nate Hainje (6.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG) give the Maroons the size and strength to control the game in the paint. Second-year forwards Tim Reynolds (12 blocks, 60.9 percent from the floor) and Matt Corning (59 percent FG, 55.6 percent 3FG) have emerged as the first options off the bench over the early contests.

The Bears are led by fourth-year guard Scott Stone, who currently averages 16.3 points, 2.6 assists, and 1.5 steals per game and is shooting 45.6 percent, with a 43.9 percent mark from beyond the arc. He is ably assisted on offense by second-year forward Troy Ruths (18.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and third-year guard Neal Griffin (39 assists) and on defense by fourth-year center Mike Grunst (6.2 RPG, 22 blocks).

This Wash U squad has the veteran talent to be a force. They will also be one of the first Chicago opponents of the season that has the size to seriously challenge Chicago’s big men under the basket. This will put pressure on the Maroons’ guards to make things happen on the perimeter, where they have much more of a matchup advantage. Chicago also goes five men deep on the bench with its post players, an advantage against a shallow Bears squad.

Chicago will need to stay out of foul trouble against a squad that shoots over 76 percent at the stripe. They will also do well to continue their tendency to pull down more than their fair share of the boards under their own basket against a good shooting Wash U team.

“We will need to play a focused game. If we can hit our shots and control the tempo of the game, our chances of coming home with a victory should be good,” Reynolds said.

A big road victory to get things going in January would be significant in a league race that’s virtually impossible to predict. Going into the winter, it looked like any of six teams could win the conference. Incredibly, that supposition sold the UAA’s top-to-bottom strength short.

Chicago and Emory’s respectable 7–4 records in non-conference games were the UAA’s worst marks. NYU has won 10 straight to open their season, Rochester (7–2, 0–1) is currently ranked 18th in the nation, and 19th-ranked Carnegie Mellon (10–1, 1–0) became the second Division III school this season to beat a Division I team with a 51–46 win at Princeton December 28.

Chicago did the league proud in its own right in non-conference play. The Maroons gave top-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (10–1) all they could handle in a 71–67 defeat at Ratner December 3.

The home team came out strong, building a nine-point lead in the first eight minutes of play and forcing a 28-all tie at the break. The Maroons responded to IWU’s strength in the post by burning them from downtown, with Meyer leading the way with a 6-for-10 performance from beyond the arc.

The second half was a roller coaster ride for both sides, as the Titans came out swinging on a 7–0 run. A timely trey from Woodhead and a powerful performance in the paint from Corning pulled Chicago back within two, but they wouldn’t get closer, as IWU responded by building their lead back up to double-digits. A late Chicago run slashed the deficit to three, but the Maroons couldn’t finish the comeback.

While their respectable showing wasn’t enough to get them past IWU, the Maroons played one of their most complete games to date in their next showdown taking apart Kalamazoo (3–9, 0–1 MIAA) at home in a 79–59 win December 10.

“[IWU] was where everything we’ve been trying to do all season came together,” fourth-year big man Jon Todd said. “Against Kalamazoo, it showed.”

Unfortunately, the team faced some misfortune on a road trip that featured a 68–55 win at Concordia (5–6 at press time) December 13, a disappointing 67–50 loss to Coe (8–2, 1–0 IIAC) December 16, and a surprisingly tight 61–57 battle at Cornell (1–9, 0–1 IIAC) December 17.

Lineup shuffles were a mainstay over the winter break. An ill Carmody was forced to miss all three showdowns, and will still be out against Wash U, thrusting Reynolds into the starting five, and Hicks sat out the Maroon’s final game of 2005 with a sprained ankle as coaches experimented with bringing Meyer in off the bench, giving Todd and Corning their first starts of the year. While Reynolds in particular responded to the test with flying colors, averaging 12 points a game over that stretch, it’s been tough for the team to regain the consistency that elevated them against the Titans and Kalamazoo.

“We had a tough stretch with some injuries. I think we’ve answered some things in practice, and I expect us as the UAA starts to be the same team we were against Illinois Wesleyan and Kalamazoo on a much more consistent basis,” McGrath said.

The Cornell win was the team’s third away from the South Side, matching their total number of road wins for all of last year. The Maroons will need to pick their game up outside of Chicago if they hope to be competitive in the UAA, where virtually every team is a tough out at home.