Despite men's basketball losing its last two conference games to put the team at a disappointing 7-9 overall, the Maroons are feeling pretty good about themselves lately.
"We are comfortable with our play as of late," head coach Mike McGrath said. "Compared to earlier in the season, we are much more disciplined and are playing much better basketball."
The Maroons' losses to Carnegie Mellon and Rochester dropped the team from first to third but left them still optimistic about their conference play. Led by the team's three fourth-yearsguards Justin Waldie and Brian Cuttica and forward Mike DolezalChicago rebounded from a horrific 3-7 start, winning four straight before last weekend's road bump.
"The three seniors have been the key to this team's chances," McGrath said. "With them in the mix, we are a tougher team, a better team."
Although disappointed with the losses, McGrath complimented the Maroons on their "good" but "not great" effort and performance against the UAA's first- and second-ranked teams.
"While the losses were disappointing, the effort was not. The team competed extremely hard and was in a position to win both games," wrote McGrath in his online column, "Coaches Corner." "If the team can figure out how to make the right plays offensively and defensively during these stretches, the Maroons could make the UAA race very interesting."
Major health issues plagued the early half of the Maroon season. Dolezal, who currently leads the Maroons in rebounds (5.9 per game) and blocks (1.3), missed seven games early in the season. The three fourth-years have played together in only 8 of 17 team games, with the Maroons going 4-4 in those situations, including three games against top UAA rivals Carnegie, Rochester, and Wash U (61-56 win on January 8). In games with one of the trio sidelined, the Maroons have gone a disappointing 3-5.
In addition to the tremendous play of the three senior leaders, the Maroons have also received tremendous support from second-year guard Brandon Woodhead and first-year forward Nate Hainje.
As one of only three players to start in all 17 of the team's games, Woodhead is currently the team leader in scoring with 11.2 points per game, largely thanks to his 40-for-42 free-throw shooting. Woodhead ranks second in total assists with 43, and trails only Hainje in field goal percentage, shooting an impressive 45.8 percent.
Hainje, playing in his first season of collegiate basketball, filled in nicely in Dolezal's absence, contributing almost eight points and five rebounds per contest. Apart from filling up the stat sheet, Hainje has also proved to be an extremely efficient player, shooting a team leading 47.8 percent from the field. In addition to his outstanding inside game, Hainje can also take his defender outside the arc, connecting on more than 40 percent of his three-point shots.
If the Maroons are to be competitive in their next few contests, Waldie and Woodhead will likely have to continue their hot play from the guard position. Woodhead averaged 17 points per game over his last three games, while Waldie has scored in double figures in three of his past four games. On the defensive end, Dolezal's return is continuing to pay big dividends, with the senior forward averaging seven rebounds since coming back from back injury.
Currently ranked third behind CMU and Rochester in the conference standings, Chicago needs to perform well in the next two games at NYU and Brandeis this weekend. The Maroons have not played well on the road, going 2-6 in road contests.
The Maroons then return home to host NYU and Brandeis next weekend, in reverse order. If the Maroons figure to at least compete for the league title, a split will be necessary to keep them in the tight race.
"Although our biggest goal is to have a strong, tough, and close team, I believe that we can be a factor in the UAA race," said McGrath. "We have the talent, and if we play up to our potential, I believe that we are capable of reaching every single one of these goals."