February 23, 2007

Outright UAA title on line for men's hoops in St. Louis

A scripted version of the men’s basketball season could not have set up a more fitting end to its regular season. As the Maroons seek sole ownership of the UAA title and a home court advantage in the first- round NCAAs, they will have to do it in their archrival’s house in a rematch of this season’s defining matchup.

Heading into the season, 11th-ranked Chicago (20–4, 10–2) knew early on it would have to deal with a height disadvantage, but things were looking up for the squad as it cruised to a 9–2 mark in non-conference play. The new rotation of fourth-year Drew Adams and first-year Jake Pancratz at the point freed fourth-year Brandon Woodhead to do some damage as shooting guard, and he responded to the tune of 18.7 points per game. Classmate Jesse Meyer was padding the scoreboard as well, sinking treys from seemingly impossible angles, and third-year center Tim Reynolds was helping take care of the height issue with his 6-foot-8 frame.

And then came the Maroons’ UAA opener with then–24th-ranked Wash U. A broken foot suffered in the non-conference finale at MSOE relegated Reynolds to the bench, leaving the squad to try to contain third-year forward Troy Ruths shorthanded. With the Maroons ice cold on their bread-and-butter three-point shots, the task of stopping Ruths proved to be more than Chicago could handle at the time. The squad fell behind 11–0 in the opening three minutes and never led.

“I felt like Wash U got off to a good start, and we got a little tense in that game,” head coach Mike McGrath added. “And I think the result of getting tense was this ‘Oh my God, what if we lose?’ And you can’t have that feeling in the first three minutes of the game.”

While the hosts managed a slight resurgence in the second half, it was too little too late. Wash U had slammed the door shut long ago, and the uninspiring 70–59 loss—highlighted by shooting a meager 36.5 percent from the floor and 33.3 from beyond the arc—seemed to signal that the South Siders’ luck had run out. They could be a respectable league force and potential spoiler to other teams’ postseason hopes, but they wouldn’t be able to get past scoring machines like NYU fourth-year Jason Boone, Case third-year Mason Conrad, or Emory third-year Spiros Federigos to be true contenders.

“I walked out of that game, and I wasn’t feeling very good,” McGrath said. “The question I kept asking myself was, ‘Do we have major problems or did we have a bad day? Can we fix it?’”

Since the harsh welcome into league competition, though, the Maroons have done more than just put the game behind them and pick up the pieces. Over the past seven weeks, Chicago has mowed down opponents en route to an 11–1 mark. The South Siders have racked up 81 points per game and shot a hair under 50 percent from the floor while cracking back into the national rankings and rising to the 11th spot. The match that could have sunk the season ended up lighting its fire.

“That game kind of illustrated what we had to do to win,” Meyer said. “We have to shoot well and work everyone, and I think we’ve done that pretty consistently since then.”

“I think there’s a lot of things that our team picked up on that loss that have affected how we’ve approached the rest of the league,” McGrath said. “I think after that game, rather than thinking about the big picture, winning the UAA, being in the postseason...we focused on what’s right in front of us.”

With their postseason fate pretty much decided, Saturday’s showdown in St. Louis doesn’t hold the do-or-die feel and won’t mark the same kind of turning point to the season as the first matchup. But with a full house expected, it will be a good measure of how the Maroons will respond to a playoff atmosphere, something new for the entire roster.

“Whoever handles that kind of high energy, that high emotion better will most likely win,” McGrath said. “If one team is playing at a high energy level and feeding of that environment...that can give one team a boost.”

That’s not to say that by just playing it cool Chicago can start polishing its UAA trophy. Finding a way to stand up to the Bears’ offense and limit their scoring opportunities will be quite a chore for the squad. Both Ruths and second-year Tyler Nading are shooting above .500, with Nading nailing a 45.2 percent mark from downtown and Ruths an offensive machine with 19.2 ppg. The Maroons will also need to get past the man-on-man defense that shut them down so effectively in January.

“We know what they do, and they know what we do,” Meyer said. “We have to defend them in the post. If we can do that, then we have a good chance of winning.”