SPORTS

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March 2, 2007

Rats weigh in on hoops’ chances

Back after a one-year hiatus, the GoMaroons broadcasters offer their thoughts on men’s basketball’s tournament prospects, what the future holds for women’s hoops, and wrestler Phil Kruzel’s place in history. For more from the Ratner Rats, visit maroon.uchicago.edu/sportsreport.

Men’s basketball surprised a lot of teams by making the playoffs with its ability to score in bunches and play up to bigger, stronger opponents. How far can the Maroons take this run?

Joe: This team is a hard one to predict. They’re pure shooters, they’re very, very basketball smart, and they’ll be reintegrating big man Tim Reynolds for the first time since December 16 to give them a vital additional option down by the baseline. On the other hand, they’re in an amazingly stacked bracket, and they can go cold from the floor in a hurry. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made the Final Four, nor would I be surprised if they lose in the first round. Best guess? This squad matches up pretty well against most of the teams in their pod, and it has the rare dual advantage of being a hungry squad with no playoff experience and a group that’s stacked with veteran starters. I’d predict them getting out of Aurora with their heads held high this weekend, and taking down Augustana in the Sweet 16 before running into a tough rematch against Wash U and ending their season with a respectable Elite Eight run.

Sean: Wash U is the key to the Maroons’ success but not because of a potential third round. While a more open play style has sped up Chicago’s scoring this season, the dominant reason for the team’s success has been learning how to win. That extends back to last season, when the Maroons played over their heads on all ends of the court and from the first man to the last on the bench against both Carnegie and Illinois Wesleyan. Inconsistency followed those performances in the past, but this season, the Maroons have taken that model and overachieved—they play over their heads, to their credit. Big shout out to the seniors (and third-year Nate Hainje) for setting that example.

Learning from key mistakes against Wash U back on January 6 took Chicago through the UAA season, as they shored up their post defense against the giants of NYU and Rochester and added offensive versatility when the three-ball wasn’t working. Last Saturday’s road loss to Wash U has to have a similar impact. The Maroons need to defend the perimeter better against a Hope squad that hits threes.

Omar: The most telling tactical similarity between the men and women is the abundance of offensive weapons. The implication is that, no matter how good our opponents are, we are always in with a shout. At the end of the day, in the playoffs, that’s all that really counts. Only a lunatic would claim that luck is irrelevant on the road to the championship, so I’m just hoping that we continue to shoot well and defend with an intensity that belies our size. They can be unstoppable.

Sean: You know the Maroons are playing at their best when the individual weapons step up in succession: Jesse Meyer hits a couple threes to draw attention and open space for Brandon Woodhead’s drives, which leaves Hainje back open on the perimeter. Jason Vismantas and Tom Watson have nailed threes with reasonable consistency. Basketball has its obvious team aspects, but the Maroons have figured out the subtle, indirect ones that win ballgames.

With a 16–0 start, women’s basketball seemed like the team that would be playing into March. Now they’re sitting home. What happened?

Omar: I don’t think it was anything tactical—I think it was merely confidence. NYU gave us a slap in the face; we didn’t play badly that day—they just played brilliantly. After that, we had a sequence of tough to extremely tough games at the worst possible time. We lost the spring from our step at a critical stretch, but the winability of the remaining games is reflected in how competitive we were in them.

This is totally understandable from the only team in the UAA that was regularly starting two freshmen. (Not that I’m singling them out. Far from it: Our freshmen got their places on merit, but they will become even better with experience.) What it means is that we are going to destroy our opponents over the coming years.

Sean: Omar, you’re absolutely right that an athletic NYU team proved it was the class of the UAA that night, and that game and the subsequent ones reminded us that Chicago was a young team, despite its brilliant initial success.

I do think that tactics may have been some of the late-season slump, however. Head coach Aaron Roussell has, in his three years, applied a demanding and organic system to his teams, and he tweaked it heavily again this year to take advantage of his posts’ athleticism with the triangle offense. More often than not, that scheme paid off. They have produced the easiest baskets, with beautiful across-the-lane bounce passes for back-door buckets and two-pass, coast-to-coast layups or threes on the wing. At the same time, when doubt creeps in, the simplest things add on to all the split-second automation that goes into looks, flashes, and switches. It’s not easy to be consistently explosive, and the offense is still budding.

Still, Joe, this was by far the Maroons’ best year—in terms of performance, let alone wins and losses—in our time here.

Joe: Absolutely correct, Sean, and it’s only going to get better from here. In a recent interview, Roussell commented that in the UAA, you win with seniors, period. As Omar pointed out, by the end of the season we were starting as many freshmen as we had total seniors on the roster. Case was the only other UAA team to start a first-year player all year long, and they only did so in the home stretch—and incidentally lost 13 of 14 league games.

To rely on freshmen for significant minutes, no matter how talented they might be, is to run the risk of having your players’ weaknesses and inexperience exposed by some of the great coaches in this conference. The Maroons suffered five of their seven defeats in close and late games for just that reason. The good news is that’s not just a correctable problem but also an already corrected one. With a full run through the UAA gauntlet under their belts and with only the great Korry Schwanz leaving the regular rotation, they will pull out those tight games. When that happens, the sky is the limit for this team.

Sean: Your superlative doesn’t do the talismanic Schwanz justice, who cruised to an NCAA free-throw percentage title (93.2 percent) while coaching several new faces on the court. She stepped up against Wash U this past Saturday with those 3-pointers from the win, and her team proved it had made huge strides this season behind her. They also proved they were still a top national team, even if their late losses left them as a bubble team. The Bears’ seniors, who have now won the UAA all four of their seasons, had to hit some incredible shots and fouls to eek out an overtime win.

One last thing: When the Maroons suffered their first loss in game 17 against NYU, we all agreed that this team’s attitude was more competitive, determined, and team-focused than any previous one and would snap out of it. It didn’t happen, and we had to reconsider our earlier assessment. But Saturday proved that they have the proper attitude to take them to new levels.