November 14, 2008

Big recruiting class joins core of veterans on men’s hoops’ quest for repeat title

As the last few leaves fall and the temperatures drop, the men’s basketball players are once again lacing up their high-tops, preparing for Saturday’s season tip-off at the Midway Classic.

The Maroon faithful will certainly recognize the nine players returning from last year’s UAA championship run, but it might take some time to become familiar with the squad’s eight newcomers, a group that adds size to the roster sheet and, more importantly, the paint.

“It’s as good a recruiting class as we’ve had here, both in terms of numbers and talent,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “Will they have the success that some of our other recruiting classes have had? We’ll judge that in four years, but starting right now, it’s as good a group as we’ve had. Every one of them has shown the potential to be a very good basketball player here at the University of Chicago, without a doubt. Every one of them.”

It’s been a slow learning process for the 22nd-ranked Maroons this preseason, who are looking to integrate their seven first-years with a core of veterans who have helped Chicago to two consecutive conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances.

“It’s been interesting. We have a gap in our team: We have a very, very experienced group returning and a large group of very experienced newcomers, and that has made our progress a little slower than normal this time of year,” McGrath said. “I feel like we’re in a pretty good place, I feel like we’ve got a pretty good group…and I think we’ve got a talented team…. It’s still going to take us a while to gel, but once we do, we’ll be pretty good.”

The returning side of the roster will put together one of the more established starting lineups in the conference. This year’s lineup will feature three starters from last season, two of whom earned All-UAA selections, to go with two more players who saw considerable minutes coming off the bench.

Fourth-year Matt Corning led Chicago and finished third in the UAA in scoring with 17.7 points a game last season en route to an All-UAA first-team selection, and his fellow returning starter, third-year guard Jake Pancratz, is coming off an All-UAA second-team season in which he led the conference with 4.4 assists per game. Fourth-year forward Adam Machones, who was instrumental in Chicago’s conference championship win over Wash U a year ago, will also return to the starting lineup. Third-year forward John Kinsella and fourth-year center Tom Watson will round out the starters.

With Corning’s power in the post and the versatility that Kinsella and Machones showed in playing on the perimeter and near the basket last year, McGrath said that these three will play as wings for this year’s group, moving to the paint of the three-point arc as defenses allow.

“We are very strong inside and should score that way consistently,” Corning said. “At any time, all five guys on the floor can knock down open jump shots, so teams will have to respect both aspects of our game.”

While the Maroons will miss a 2008 graduating class that included last season’s UAA player of the year, forward Nate Hainje, and a consummate leader in center Tim Reynolds, Chicago is confident in this roster’s mix of experience and raw talent.

“We had a great team last year, but I believe that this year’s team has a chance to be even more successful,” Corning said. “We are stronger physically and have a lot of guys who really understand the game of basketball. This team is more physically imposing then last year’s. Nate and Tim were great leaders and teammates, and it will be the job of the seniors to step up, fill those roles, and set an example for the underclassmen.”

This season’s new faces include third-year center Joe Guiler, a six-foot-nine transfer who played limited minutes in his time at Colgate. The Maroons’ roster also features a trio of big first-year forwards in six-foot-eight Steve Stefanou, six-seven Alex Doyle, and six-seven Tom Williams.

“Using our size to our advantage is an important part of what we do,” Corning said. “Our focus is to work the ball through the post and try to score from the blocks as much as possible, and our talented post players will make us difficult to guard in that respect, backed by great outside shooting.”

Chicago kicks off its season this weekend at the Midway Classic, a four-team tournament that also features Edgewood, Kenyon, and IIT. The Maroons will be looking for a quick start to the season, hopefully improving on last year’s 7–4 non-conference performance.

“Last year, we were in a position where we would not have been in the NCAA tournament if we had not won the UAA, because of our 7–4 non-conference record. We need to do better than that so that we could potentially be a tournament team if we don’t win the UAA,” McGrath said. “The reality of it is that our system…is one that gets better with time. Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve gotten better as the year’s gone on, and I expect that to happen this year.”

The Maroons have established their season goal as once again winning the conference, but to do that, they’ll have to get past the defending national champions in top-ranked Wash U, along with ninth-ranked Brandeis. First, though, they’ll need to get through a non-conference schedule that features three more ranked teams, including second-ranked Augustana and third-ranked Wheaton.

“It is important for us to recognize the importance of all of our games leading up to the UAA season and how losses in the next month can be debilitating come March,” Corning said. “We hope to set the tone for our early season by coming out and winning two big games at home in the Midway and then carry that momentum into our difficult non-conference schedule.”