"The team's coming together," second-year forward Mike Dolezal says. "It's starting to peak." He says it with a huge grin on his face. It's a grin his teammates share nowadays, one that has taken a long time to crack. But by tacking on two more UAA conference wins last weekend, a few of the men's basketball players are willing to hope. The Maroons (12-8, 8-1 in conference) came home from a northeastern road trip with two victories, defeating Brandeis University 82-49 on Friday and New York University 71-66 on Sunday.
In doing so, the Maroons narrowly missed widening their one-game lead over Rochester University, as the Yellow Jackets (17-3, 7-2 in conference) had to resort to a buzzer-beating lay-up to beat Emory 68-67. Chicago retains second place in the UAA, behind Washington University.
The Maroons began their road trip in Waltham, Massachusetts, completely dominating the Brandeis Judges from the get-go. Chicago held Brandeis to a single point in the first 8:46 of the game. A 43-24 halftime lead extended slowly, and the Maroons never led by less than 20 in the last 14 minutes. Scoring was lead by fourth-year captain Derek Reich, who had 40 points for the fourth time in a game this season. Reich's weekend performance was good enough to be selected to d3hoops.com National Team of the Week and the UAA's Athlete of the Week for basketball. It took Reich only 27 minutes of playing time to do it, and he added 14 rebounds on top of that. "Derek just took," Dolezal said.
Second-year guard Brian Cuttica finished with 12 points and led the Maroons with four assists and two steals in 28 minutes. Dolezal added four points, including his first collegiate dunk, and freshman Jay Morelock lead bench players with six points on 3-for-4 shooting.
The Maroons' stay in the Big Apple was a little more troublesome. Chicago was met by a determined NYU team supported by a fervent Cole Sports Center crowd. "NYU has definitely been the hardest place to play in," Morelock said. "[The Violets] played such a great game," Dolezal added. "Their execution was perfect."
If NYU was crisp, the Maroons started out anything but. Chicago shot a poor 31 percent from the field in the first half and 22 percent from behind the arc. Neither starting guard scored any points in the first half (although Cuttica did contribute five assists in the first 20 minutes), and the Violets limited Reich to seven points on 3-for-7 shooting. It was thanks only to shooting 78 percent from the charity stripe and the tenacious efforts of second-year Justin Waldie (five points, three rebounds, and one assist in the first half) that Chicago trailed by only five, 34-29, at the half.
After NYU built a 42-33 lead with 17:03 left in the game, it looked like Chicago's rebound season might be in jeopardy. The Maroons recovered, and briefly took the lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game with a free throw by Reich, but promptly lost it. NYU regained a seven-point lead with 5:23 left to play. Then Derek Reich took over.
Reich showed NYU why he deserved the Division-III Preseason Player of the Year award and why he deserves to be honored before this Friday's home game against Case Western Reserve. Reich scored 15 points and grabbed three boards in the last 5:35. He simply couldn't be stopped; he scored inside, from behind the arc, and was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line down the stretch. It was more than enough to lift the Maroons and give them a five-point lead.
From here, the road is both clear and hazy for the men's team. It's clear that they absolutely must win four of their last five games in the regular season to have any hope for the playoffs. Of these four wins, one must be against Rochester in New York one week from now. While this scenario, finishing an undisputed second-place in the UAA, would have normally been enough in past years to go to the tournament, even that is not fully assured this year. Of the 48 bids for the postseason tournament on March 2, 36 are automatically assigned to conference winners. With Washington University squarely atop the UAA, it's unlikely that Chicago has any hopes of making the tournament that way. Of the remaining 12 bids, five are at-large bids and seven are given to runner-up teams in their conference. These are assigned by the Division III men's basketball national committee, and the process of deciding who goes to the big dance and who stays home remains one of the great mysteries of competitive sports.
The Maroons' regional record gives them no hope of making one of the five at-large bids, which are assigned based on regional competition, but it's not clear how the committee would view the Maroons were they to land a second-place finish in the very competitive UAA. But even if they do not make the tournament, the turnaround has not been for nothing. It's redeemed a squad that people thought were squandering the best talent in Division-III basketball and given them the thrill of being back "in the race," as head coach Mike McGrath puts it. And that, at least for some players, seems a good enough reason to smile.