January 20, 2006

Men’s hoops will have to adapt to beat speedy Judges, strong Violets

In this league, you rarely get the opportunity to rest on your laurels. Men’s basketball had a good opening to the UAA season, but the Maroons won’t get the chance to do much more than give themselves a quick pat on the back before turning their attention to what’s up next.

Two wins and a tight overtime loss in the team’s first three conference road games suggest an intangible drive that hasn’t been present in the program over the past two years. With tonight’s Beach Night brawl with Brandeis (7–6, 0–3) kicking off a critical four-game homestand, the Maroons (9–5, 2–1) are geared up to prove that they can do it in front of their own fans. After the Judges continue on their Midwest circuit, Chicago will have to defend their house against 24th-ranked NYU (13–1, 2–1) Sunday afternoon and again next weekend against 11th-ranked Carnegie Mellon (13–1, 3–0) and Rochester (10–4, 1–2).

“Winning two of three on the road looks good, but just because they’re at home doesn’t make them easy,” McGrath said. “If you drop one at home, you lose what you’ve gained there.”

The Judges head into Ratner with every intention of upsetting Chicago’s momentum and redirecting their own. Having lost their last two to the Yellowjackets and Violets by a combined five points, Brandeis will enter Ratner starved for a win. Led by second-years forward Steve DeLuca (15.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG) and guard Florian Rexhepi (12.8 PPG, 3.8 APG), this team is young and inexperienced but features a talented and deep roster. The Judges are a rarity in the UAA: a speed-and-skills squad with relatively little strength and not much ability against the glass. The Maroons will have the size advantage in virtually every matchup, but Brandeis will likely be able to blow past every Chicago starter with the exception of third-year guard Brandon Woodhead.

“They’re significantly better than their league record indicates,” McGrath said. “They’re very talented, and very well coached.”

It will be a radically different story Sunday afternoon when the Violets invade Ratner. NYU is increasingly being regarded as one of the better teams in Division III this year based on the performance of their big men. They have four starters currently averaging double-digit points on the year and, as a team, shoot over 50 percent and pull down almost 40 boards per game. Third-year center Jason Boone has been dynamite for them in grabbing the easy buckets under the basket, shooting 73.6 percent on the year for 15.6 points per game. This time around, Chicago will be relatively undersized and will have to keep things moving on the floor.

“They’re finishing with some big, strong guys, and they’re bigger and quicker across the board,” McGrath said. “We’re looking to see how we can neutralize them, making the big guys move to guard us outside.”

The Maroons will have to make major adjustments to their play style from Friday to Sunday. Last weekend, they proved themselves up to that challenge with two very different wins.

Friday’s bout with Case (9–5, 1–2) saw the Maroons get off to a quick start and hold the Spartans at arm’s length the rest of the way for a 67–58 decision. The team spread the ball around to take advantage of a conservative Case defense and got major production from all areas of the court, with four starters scoring in double-digits and Woodhead recording 10 points and 11 assists.

Two days later, Emory (8–6, 1–2) put the pressure on the perimeter and matched their guests blow-for-blow for the first 28 minutes. While third-year guard Jesse Meyer scored 18 on the day, the front court trio of fourth-year Jason Hicks, second-year Nate Hainje, and third-year Jason Vismantas took advantage of the additional room inside to combine for 44 points. This team doesn’t seem to have a problem reacting to disparate styles of play in their opponent’s end.

“It was nothing I did. Our guys just reacted well to what was happening on the court,” McGrath said.

If the Case and Emory games are any indication, the Maroons are playing a richer and more complex game than they did in non-conference. The biggest change since then has been the emergence of Hicks, who averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds per game over the weekend.

Starting for the first time in his collegiate career, Hicks seems to have settled in to his new role and has taken advantage of the additional opportunities offered by the absence of fourth-year big man Clay Carmody and second-year forward Matt Corning. He is currently the number-two rebounder in UAA play this season.

“He got himself going within our offense by making cuts and making good reads. He got a little more confidence, and started to make some things happen,” McGrath said.

This time around there should also be even more reason to cheer for Meyer, who has found the downtown shooting stroke that can put opponents in huge holes in a hurry.

Meyer varied wildly between sublime and subpar in non-conference play, sending him to the bench in the team’s 61–57 win at Cornell December 17. Since then, he has epitomized a player “on fire,” shooting 53.8 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 19.7 points per game in the UAA season. The latter number is good for third on the conference list.

Whether Meyer and Hicks can anticipate some help on the weekend from Carmody, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, remains to be seen. Out with mononucleosis for the team’s last six showdowns, the fourth-year post player made it through full practices the past few days. While it seems likely that he will at least dress for the game, he shouldn’t be on the court for extended stretches. Second-year forward Tim Reynolds would start for the seventh straight game if Carmody does not.