The Maroons just might have received the best New Year's gift they could have hoped for last weekend.
Missing the past eight games with a back injury, fourth-year forward Mike Dolezal has resumed practicing with the team, and should be available for this Saturday's match against UAA rivals Washington.
In the eight games without Dolezal, the Maroons (4-7) managed three wins and five losses. However, despite the loss of a key scoring and rebounding force, the Maroons remained confident, finishing the year off with an 89-64 blowout of Denison in their last game.
"It was frustrating losing some close games that could have gone either way," said second-year guard Brandon Woodhead, who is the team's second-best scorer with 9.9 points per game. "We never stopped believing in ourselves, and we needed to prove to ourselves we could win, which we accomplished against Denison."
If the Maroons do indeed bounce back and challenge for the UAA crown, the Denison game will be the turning point of their season. Having lost five straight games, men's basketball took the lead from the tip-off and never looked back. Denison got within one point of the Maroons at halftime, but never led in the contest.
Although Chicago was unable to contain Denison center Dan Hodgkinson, who exploded for a career high 35 points in 26 minutes, the Chicago defense limited all other Denison players to single figures in scoring. On the offensive end, five Maroon players scored in double figures, leading a balanced attack on the road.
"During that losing skid, we were disappointed that we lost some games we could have won," Woodhead said. "We knew we needed a win to boost our confidence and to show ourselves we could still win."
One of the major problems bothering men's basketball has been its inability to finish off close games. Chicago's last two losses, coming against Kalamazoo and Ohio Wesleyan, were decided by a total of eight points. According to Woodhead, finishing down the stretch will be crucial to the future success of the team.
"I think the biggest challenge will be how well we react to close games. We are not the most athletic team in the conference and that means we won't blow teams out," he said. "We will be in close games and that means how well we play at the end of the game will determine how successful we are in our conference."
Having finished the non-conference schedule, the Maroons now host heated competition against UAA rivals Wash U (8-3) on Saturday at 3 p.m. Ranked second in the UAA preseason rankings, the Bears will provide a major test for Chicago, picked to finish fourth in the conference.
However, the prospect of facing a higher ranked opponent does not scare any of the Maroon players, as they're confident heading into the most crucial part of their season.
"We feel the conference is up for grabs this year, and we are confident that we can be one of those teams to win the title," said Dolezal, one of five Maroons returning from injury. "We are going to take it one game at a time, because you can't overlook anyone in the league this year."