Maroons close out non-conference play still looking for first win

After stumbling through 11 non-conference games, men’s basketball heads into UAA competition still looking to return to last season’s winning ways.

By Jordan Holliday

It figures that the men’s basketball team would need some time to get past losing Nate Hainje (A.B. ’08), who was an All-American and the 2008 UAA Player of the Year. And it makes sense that the Maroons would take awhile to adjust to their young roster, which is almost half first-years.

But once a team gets to 0–11—winless throughout its entire non-conference schedule—as head coach Mike McGrath put it, “That isn’t just growing pains anymore.”

Granted, three of Chicago’s losses have come against teams currently ranked in the top 25 nationally, including a 58–57 loss to Augustana (11–2) that wasn’t sealed for the Vikings until guard Jordan Delp hit a 17-footer with five seconds to play. The Maroons have lost three games by one point, and their seven closest losses have come by a combined 14 points. They’ve lost in single and double overtime. They’ve lost narrowly to teams they should have beaten, but also to teams that should have beaten them.

Still, no matter how you look at it or how many silver linings you find, this wasn’t how things were supposed to go for the Maroons, the defending UAA champions who entered the season ranked 22nd-nationally.

Statistically, the drop-off from last season has not been huge. The Maroons, who take almost half their shots from behind the arc, are shooting 32 percent from distance this year, compared with 38 percent last year. Meanwhile, opposing teams are shooting 51 percent overall on Chicago this year, up from 45 percent in the previous season. But slight downturns on both sides of the court have combined into a major reversal of fortunes for Chicago, who was 7–4 at this point last year.

McGrath and the Maroons have been tweaking their system all year long, trying to find the combination of tactics that can get them over the hump. They’ve asked first-year guard Michael Sustarsic to take over more of the ball-handling duties, allowing third-year guard Jake Pancratz, who averages 12.5 points a game, to focus on scoring. The team has also emphasized keeping up their level of play until the final buzzer, which they haven’t always done.

“Losing so many close games has been unfortunate,” Sustarsic said, “but we’ve given our opponents a lot of opportunities at the end of games.”

The mental impact of losing 11 straight games could make it difficult for a team to improve its play, but McGrath said the Maroons are as motivated and enthusiastic to play as ever. The only mental issue he foresaw was keeping the players’ confidence up.

“After awhile, guys can start looking over their shoulders,” McGrath said.

In case confidence is flagging for any of the Maroons, they could give themselves a shot in the arm when Wash U comes to town this weekend—an occasion for which motivation is never an issue. The Bears will enter the game ranked third nationally, doubtless with memories of how their last visit to Ratner went.

In that game, played last March, Wash U lost 74–66 to a Chicago squad it had beaten 76–50 earlier in the season. The game, which was a high point for Maroon basketball, cost the Bears a UAA title (though, admittedly, they did recover and go on to win the national championship).

This time, Chicago will be up against a very different Wash U team than the one they saw 10 months ago. That squad was led by forward Troy Ruths, who averaged better than 20 points a game and before the season was out, won the Josten Award, which is given to the best player in DIII. Containing Ruths when he got the ball down low was always a priority for any team he played.

Luckily for the rest of the UAA, Ruths graduated last spring, and Wash U’s squad is more perimeter-oriented this year. The Bears’ leading scorer is guard Aaron Thompson, who is shooting almost 45 percent from three and totaling 18 points per outing. Limiting Thompson and the rest of the Bears’ opportunities from deep won’t be easy for Chicago, but it will be a welcome break from handling Ruths.

And Maroons fans can take heart, because there is reason to think Chicago will be more competitive against the highly touted Bears than the rankings and records suggest. Augustana, which the Maroons nearly beat, took Wash U into overtime before losing 87–82. And although the Bears get a lot of love in the polls, they did lose 82–75 to 10th-ranked Elmhurst, so they aren’t unstoppable.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, the Maroons have to look at the opening of UAA play as a chance to start over with a clean slate. They are still in the running for the conference title (and the free NCAA bid that comes with it). There is a lot left to play for and no reason to write this year off, and that’s the approach McGrath and his players are taking.

“Our focus is always on this season,” McGrath said. “Even if we are 0–24, our focus will be winning that 25th game.”