January 18, 2008

For men's hoops, it may be now or never

Beach Night at Ratner will be the calm before the storm for men’s basketball, which enters this weekend’s games looking to snag a couple of wins before embarking on a daunting stretch of difficult conference play.

With the Maroons (7–5, 0–1 UAA) still stinging from a 76–50 shellacking at fifth-ranked Wash U (10–2, 1–0) last Saturday, today’s game against Case (7–5, 0–1) and Sunday’s against Emory (8–4, 1–0) give Chicago chances to get back in stride. The South Siders need to whip up momentum this weekend, as five of their next six contests will pit them against teams currently ranked in the top 25.

But before Chicago can worry about those games, it has to get past squads from Case and Emory that each present entirely different problems.

Possessing both size down low and sharpshooters around the perimeter, Case can pour in the buckets from all over the court, and they can do it in a hurry; the Spartans are averaging just over 84 points a game, the most among UAA teams.

In the backcourt, Case is led by third-year Steve Young and first-year Kevin Herring, who are shooting almost 40 percent from behind the arc. To further confuse defenses, the Spartans can bring first-year guard Colin Mulholland, a 50 percent three-point shooter, off the bench for yet another outside threat.

“Case shoots very well from the perimeter,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “Their ability to shoot will be an issue.”

In the paint, the Spartans will try to get the ball to their leading scorer, six-foot-six fourth-year center Mason Conrad. Averaging 13.7 points a game, Conrad connects on nearly 60 percent of his shots, good for fourth among all UAA players.

While the Maroons have forwards like fourth-year Tim Reynolds and third-year Tom Watson who have the height to defend Conrad, Chicago’s strategy may be simply keeping the ball out of his hands.

“When dealing with their size, we can guard their individuals in the post, but you keep it out of there as much as you can,” McGrath said.

The most difficult of the Spartans to account for is third-year forwardBrad Sutton, a matchup problem whenever he’s on the court. Standing six-foot-seven and hitting 46 percent of his threes, Sutton has the size and the skill set to give defenses fits.

The likely antidotes to Sutton are fourth-year forward Nate Hainje and Reynolds, who have the size and mobility to stay in Sutton’s face.

While Chicago may not know exactly the key to defending Case’s diverse offense, it at least knows that history is on its side. As head coach, McGrath is 16–0 against Case, and Chicago has won all of the last 20 meetings between the teams.

Shifting gears will be tricky for the Maroons, who will face a new set of problems in Sunday’s matchup with Emory. Although the Eagles use a small lineup and have no starters taller than 6-foot-3, they fly down the court and rely on their team speed to keep them in games.

With the depth to complement their speedy style, the Eagles hope to push the tempo and outrun opponents that have smaller benches, as Chicago does.

Rather than trying to keep up with the Eagles, who are second in the UAA in team scoring, the Maroons are likely to focus on their defense to stop Emory’s runners.

“Emory is very fast and they put a lot of pressure on your defense,” McGrath said. “We’ll work on keeping the ball in front of us and our man in front of us.”

Leading Emory’s attack will be fourth-year guard Spiros Ferderigos, who averages 18.3 points a game, top in the conference.

Despite their size, Emory’s depth and scrappy style of play have allowed them to out-rebound opponents by a wide margin. The Maroons, whose rebounding numbers are not so strong, should capitalize on their height advantage and control the boards. Grabbing rebounds will help Chicago maintain possession, slow down the game, and neutralize the Eagles’ speed.

But while thinking of strategies to bottle up Emory’s speedsters is one thing, getting those strategies to work is another matter altogether.

“In the past, we’ve struggled with teams like Emory, teams that are smaller and quicker,” McGrath said.

If the squad wants to keep its playoff hopes alive, it won’t be able to afford such struggles Sunday, as these unranked opponents may offer the chance for rare wins in this year’s stacked UAA.