Going into this season, men’s basketball knew it was going to get silky-smooth crossovers and pinpoint passes from fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead. It could take it for granted that classmate Jesse Meyer would score a host of threes and provide solid rebounding. And the squad could count on third-year forward Nate Hainje to make his presence felt on defense while slashing to the basket on offense. While these three returning starters have contributed as expected, the Maroons (18–4, 9–2 UAA) are atop the UAA and well within the NCAA tournament bubble because of the breakout performances of a pair of late-blooming seniors.
Thanks to the leadership and selfless play of point guard Drew Adams and forward Jason Vismantas, 14th-ranked Chicago heads into this weekend’s tussles with Rochester (16–6, 7–4) and Carnegie Mellon (12–9, 5–6) with more than pride on the line. A pair of wins would keep them in position to play for the league title in the regular season finale February 24 at 11th-ranked Wash U (18–3, 9–2).
Listed in the media guide at a very generous 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Adams’s emergence in his final season is owed in large part to a tireless dedication to his craft and a basketball IQ inherited from his father—his head coach at Elida High School in Ohio—and his grandfather, a former coach at Wooster College.
“We joke around with him about it, but he is the epitome of a prototypical coach’s kid,” Woodhead said. “He’s smart, has great fundamentals, makes good decisions with the ball, and manages the game very well.”
He played sparingly through his first three seasons but never took his eyes off cracking into the starting five. With Woodhead, the Maroons’ lone 2006 All–UAA selection manning the point, cracking the first team was out of the question. But when the squad’s star player switched to shooting guard in the offseason, it opened up a spot and Adams ran with it.
“It’s a challenge that a lot of the younger guys have to go through when they come to Chicago; we don’t have the benefit of a JV team,” Adams said. “But I love basketball and just kept working hard. I knew I’d get my chance at some point and I feel like I’ve done a good job of making the most out of it this year.”
Earning the respect of his teammates from day one with his work ethic and knowledge of the game, Adams has blossomed in his final year as a player who leads by example as well as with his words. Last Friday against Case, with the Maroons in danger of losing a crucial regional and UAA game, Adams spoke to his teammates at halftime to get their heads back in the game.
“We had been playing so well the past couple of weekends, and the fact that we had come out so flat on Friday to me was ridiculous,” Adams said. “I know I was just as guilty as the rest of the group, so I just, you know, wanted to let everyone know that our goal was to win the UAA, and we had to win that game if we wanted to do it.”
When his record-setting classmates are struggling, Adams has also shown a willingness to shoulder more than his share of the scoring load. Trailing Illinois Wesleyan in the second half at the notoriously hostile Shirk Center in Bloomington on December 16, the Maroons’ point guard put the team on his back. Adams buried three huge treys in a four-minute stretch to give his squad the lead for good as the visitors went on to beat last year’s national semifinalists 64–60.
Also furthering the team’s cause has been Adams’ relationship with first-year floor general Jake Pancratz. Rather than displaying animosity toward each other in their competition for minutes, Adams and Pancratz have pushed each other in practice, the former passing on valuable experience and tips and the latter keeping the veteran on his toes.
“There’s no doubt that the kid can play, and I’m excited to come back the next three years and watch him play,” Adams said. “But he’s definitely made me a lot better. You go against a kid like that in practice every day, and you come out during a UAA game and it’s just like playing any other game any other day in practice.”
Taking a different route than his classmate in the backcourt, Vismantas has responded well to a host of injuries to his teammates and helped keep the Maroons at the forefront of the UAA race. Chicago had valued its depth going into the year as one of the squad’s greatest assets, hoping a five-man frontcourt rotation and a loaded veteran backcourt would allow them to run and gun past opponents.
Once the conference season started, though, the Maroons were forced to toss aside their blueprint for success and adapt on the fly. In the first game after winter break, third-year starting center Tim Reynolds hobbled off the court at MSOE with a broken ankle. The team is optimistic that he may have a chance to return for the postseason, should they make it that far.
Even more crushing, though, was the injury to Reynolds’ replacement, second-year Tom Watson. After missing considerable time last year with a dislocated right kneecap, Watson suffered an identical injury to his left knee in an 88–76 rout of Brandeis January 28. Having missed four games, Watson is expected to return to action this weekend.
The loss of both centers meant that Vismantas would be thrust into the spotlight and see his minutes nearly double after starting the year off the bench without expectations of contributing as a starter. The Highland Park, IL native has responded to his new role by helping to shut down the top big men in the UAA on the road and notch his first career double-double Sunday on senior day.
“I’ve been close a bunch of times this year, I’ve been close in the past, so that’s kind of been of a goal of mine, especially on the rebounding end,” Vismantas said. “I’m trying to always focus on defense and rebounding because anything I do offensively is really a bonus for us.”
“As his minutes increased, he’s gotten more comfortable and been relaxed out there and made some big plays,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “He’s been a big, big, boost for out team.”
His confidence higher than at any point previously in his college career, Vismantas is averaging 11.7 points and 9 rebounds per 40 minutes. The forward’s contributions are felt beyond the stat sheet as well. Against NYU’s two-headed low post attack January 26, Vismantas held Daniel Falcon well below his average in points and boards and was enough of a presence with the ball in his hands to cause the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Falcon to foul out. While Falcon’s classmate Jason Boone submitted a typically gaudy 19 and 11 performance, the damage was lessened enough for the Maroons to pull out the 62–60 win.
“We’re a jump-shooting team, but we do think that when we get the ball in the post it helps us make jump shots and get better shots,” Vismantas said. “So although we might not go through the post offensively and finish there, we try to get it in there at least once a possession.”
On the defensive end, Vismantas has used made his perceived weakness—his size—into a strength by relying on quickness against the UAA’s top centers. Favoring positioning and quickness over physical play also helps keep Chicago’s post defender out of foul trouble, helping them maximize a bench that only goes seven or eight deep.
“Jason is an undersized post, but he’s got quick feet so he’s good at fighting for position inside getting rebounds you wouldn’t expect and making quick moves in the post offensively,” Woodhead said. “He plays much bigger than his height would indicate for a post player.”
While Watson’s return may spell the end for Vismantas’s time as a starter, he will continue to receive valuable minutes off the bench down the stretch. Adams, Vismantas, and the rest of the Maroons will need to avoid any letdowns Friday against the Yellowjackets. In the teams’ first meeting January 21, the Maroons shot 68.4 percent from beyond the arc and limited Rochester’s twin towers of Onyiriuka and Ndubizu to a paltry 18 points and 8 boards combined.
“Rochester is gonna be probably the biggest game we’ve played all year, just for the fact that we’ve put ourselves in a great spot to win the UAA, and if we can beat them that’ll be a big step in doing that,” Adams said. “They’re gonna score points inside—they’re really strong at doing that—but we need to limit the easy ones and make sure they’re tough shots. It’s probably the biggest weekend that I’ve experienced in my four years being here.”