January 29, 2010

Men's basketball's confidence rises as road-heavy first half comes to close

Men’s basketball headed into last weekend’s road series having lost six of their last seven games and, at seventh in the UAA standings, were determined to simply take care of business. Now, a week later, the Maroons are knocking on the door of the conference’s top tier.

Chicago (9–7, 3–2) takes on two of the four teams ahead of it in the UAA standings this weekend, heading to Emory (12–4, 4–1) Friday and Rochester (12–4, 3–2) Sunday on its second consecutive road series.

“When we lost a few games in a row, I think we realized that we lacked a certain kind of confidence that you gain through winning tough, close games,” second-year guard Matt Johnson said. “I think now, after three conference wins and very close losses to Wash U and Brandeis, we have that belief in ourselves.”

The last time Chicago went 2–0 on the second weekend of back-to-back road series was during the 2000–01 season, a year the Maroons finished 14–1 and won the UAA. Having played three of five conference games on the road, two more wins away from Ratner would give the Maroons a major leg up heading into the second half of conference play, when they play five of seven at home.

Still, the Maroons are two long flights and potentially long games away from that home-heavy second half, as Emory and Rochester have established two very different brands of basketball so far this season.

Emory—boasting its best start in 20 years—has been by far the highest-scoring offense in the UAA, with over 80 points per game; Chicago, meanwhile, has scored just 65 per contest, which ranks last in the conference.

“Emory’s going to push the ball offensively and attack off the dribble,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “We need to take them out of their transition game, and we need to make them score in the half-court.”

Two days later, the Maroons will see Rochester’s multi-faceted offense, one that has had a different player leading the team in scoring in each of the last five games.

Facing a team with six players averaging between 8 and 12 points, Chicago is hoping to capture the same type of intensity on defense that earned the team two road victories last weekend. That assertiveness on the defensive end produced an especially strong performance Friday at Carnegie, where the Maroons came up with a season-high 45 rebounds while holding the Tartans to 36.2 percent shooting.

“I think those two games this past weekend we just came out with more energy than either team,” Johnson said. “We set the tone that we would be the more aggressive team, and because of that we were able to control both games throughout.”

Chicago will face these same teams at home next weekend, so this weekend could set the stage for a second half that the Maroons hope will see them continue to rise up in the UAA standings.

“We are determined to win the UAA Championship,” Johnson said, “and it’s right there for us.”