Men’s hoops in must-win after sweep

By Joe Katz

Two games took men’s basketball from the driver’s seat to being driven. But with the season still young and parity looking even more like the rule than before, the next four matches will give them the chance to get back in control of the road.

After Brandeis (8–7, 1–4) and 24th-ranked NYU (14–2, 3–2) took advantage of the Maroons’ hospitality and handed the squad a sweep in their first home weekend in league play, Chicago (9–7, 2–3) will look to get right back in the mix hosting 14th-ranked Carnegie Mellon (14–2, 4–1) on Friday and Rochester (12–4, 3–2) on Sunday. With the Appalachian swing of the home-and-home series going through the Palestra and Pittsburgh next weekend, this weekend will set the pace for a quickly advancing UAA season. The team is now a surprising 4–4 in their own house.

“I think people were angry that we lost, but I think people were a little more angry that we lost at home,” third-year guard Jesse Meyer said. “There’s something about protecting your home court, especially in conference play. The road games, you might not win them all, but in the home games you take care of business. Hopefully, we’ll recognize that [tonight] and Sunday.”

The results in the Maroons’ first league home games weren’t up to expectations, but the out-of-town scoreboard kept them very much in the UAA picture. Case (10–6, 2–3) earned a gritty 72–69 win against the Tartans Friday night to keep co-league leaders Carnegie from separating themselves from the pack too much. Emory (8–8,1–4) dropped two on the road to keep them from moving up on Chicago, and Wash U (12–4, 4–1) helped out the Maroons’ cause with a 61–52 win over Brandeis to keep them in the basement. While Rochester leapt past Chicago, the Maroons are still just two games out of first, and they will get a shot to gain some ground and at least recover a winning record at the conference’s halfway point.

“The way the league shapes up, we can’t get too despondent, because a couple wins this weekend puts us right back in the mix,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “We can’t let it drag us down.”

Opportunities won’t mean anything, though, if the squad can’t convert them. The Maroons will need to close the gap starting tonight against Carnegie. Despite their loss, they’re still a formidable foe with no identifiable weaknesses. The squad is led by fourth-year forward Nate Maurer (19.1 PPG), who was “limited” to 12 points and 9 rebounds in the loss to Case. Maurer is a danger from everywhere on the floor, shooting 46 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from downtown.

He also helps his squad move the ball around, as he and fellow fourth-year forwards Clayton Barlow-Wilcox and Marques Johnson all have more than 45 assists on the year. Carnegie has had more than a few big wins on the year, most notably beating Division I Princeton on their own court 51–46 December 28 and NYU 89–85 in overtime in Manhattan January 8.

“I don’t think that there’s one area that we can take away from them. We’re trying to pick up tendencies that can help us and have some good possessions,” McGrath said. “They’re very capable and very balanced, and they’re playing with a lot of energy. We’ve got to meet that energy.”

While bouts against Carnegie tonight and February 5 will likely pose the biggest challenge, squashing the Jackets twice in six days won’t be a breeze. Rochester took the Tartans to the limit in a 72–71 loss December 3 and is riding high after a league sweep over the weekend. Their game is exemplified by their team leader second-year center Jon Onyiriuka, who averages just 10.9 points per game but chips in 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks too. The Yellowjackets bring lockdown defense to the floor, holding opponents to 54.6 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting. This squad beat Brandeis at Waltham January 8 despite scoring just 48 points.

“I don’t think you can look to records to indicate how good a team is. As Rochester’s sitting at 1–2 [before last weekend] in the league with a one-point loss to Carnegie Mellon and a tough loss to NYU, I don’t think we looked at them and said, ‘they’re not pretty good,’” McGrath said. “We’ve got to find a way to score against them. Like Carnegie, they’ve got some big, strong guys that rebound really well, and we’ve got to hold our own there.”

With both of these squads ahead of the Maroons in the league standings, and Wash U faced with the same schedule, a timely hot streak could transform last weekend’s woes from a mountain into a molehill.

“You string a couple of wins together here, not only are you winning some games, but you’re tagging the guys ahead of you with a couple of losses. In a span of four games, especially considering that there isn’t anybody in any given weekend who’s guaranteed two wins, things can change quickly,” McGrath said.

While several Maroons posted quality numbers against Brandeis and NYU–Meyer averaged 14 points per game on the weekend, fourth-year big man Jason Hicks busted out for 19 on Friday and now-healthy fourth-year forward Clay Carmody chipped in 13 on Sunday–all-in-all the watchword for the Maroons was inconsistency. The squad is still struggling with its season-long tendency to lapse into complacency, allow opponents to go on big runs, and have problems recovering. A pair of big treys right out of the locker room for Brandeis allowed them to create an 11-point swing in the first five-and-a-half minutes of the second half, and third-year forward Michael DeCorso and third-year center Jason Boone combined for four easy layups to lead NYU out of the break on Sunday.

“It shook our confidence as they made a little bit of a run,” McGrath said. “What matters is how we respond to that. There are stretches throughout the course of either one of those games where the other teams makes their shots and makes some plays. Once it happened, we began to look over our shoulder a little bit.”

After having two league wins fall out of reach, the Maroons have to play the full 40 minutes over the next two weekends. Four wins in a row would establish this squad as the team no one wants to play and likely put them no worse than one game behind the league leader. At the same time, some lukewarm performances could quickly turn this into a lost season.

“If we don’t get these two we’re in a world of hurt,” Meyer said. “We can’t have too much urgency this weekend. These two are a must for us.”