The tale of two teams

By Nick O'Malley

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UMass Basketball Crowd Maria Uminski/Collegian

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Both the Massachusetts men’s basketball and hockey team have come back to Earth. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing depends on which team you’re talking about.

For men’s basketball, preseason expectations were overcome with the team’s 7-0 record to start the year and suddenly, everyone was talking NCAA tournament. However, 7-0 became 7-4 while a loss to Central Connecticut (who?) made it 8-5 and the men’s hoops bandwagon was in full evacuation mode.

Hockey, meanwhile, has been a mirror image. In mid-November, there was nowhere to go but up for UMass coach Don Cahoon’s team. The Minutemen were 0-7-3 with 13 freshmen on the roster and were far removed from the days of Casey Wellman and Justin Braun. But then a tie with New Hampshire was followed up with three straight wins and suddenly, a glimmer of hope appeared.

But then hockey lost five straight before winning three of four while basketball when 3-2. So with both teams in the thick of conference play, where do they really stand?

Settling, not sinking

While it was happening, there were two theories as to how basketball got off to its 7-0 start. One, the young talent that coach Derek Kellogg had accrued on the recruiting trail had blossomed into its potential, while Anthony Gurley led the team with experience and scoring. Two, their early schedule was weak and they overachieved.

The ensuing four-game losing streak answered that question.

That’s not to say that the early success was an aberration instead of an exaggeration. The young talent has indeed developed and Anthony Gurley is a solid centerpiece for Kellogg’s team.

While the seven-game winning streak and four-game losing streak are the glaring points of the team’s schedule so far, the most important stretch has been the previous five – all in conference play.

UMass currently sits in a five-way tie for fourth in the conference with a 3-2 record. The Minutemen surprised many with their win against Dayton to open the conference slate, but couldn’t do it again against Xavier and Richmond. Both those teams, though, are really good ones that the Minutemen weren’t supposed to beat.

And that’s alright.

The Minutemen, as they stand, are going to make the Atlantic 10 tournament with a decent seed and if they get hot at the end of the season, they’ll feasibly have a chance to win the conference.

There’s a natural tendency, particularly in the Boston sports market, to label a team as awful and a load of bums, or wicked sweet. Often times, it doesn’t have much to do with the record, like with a Red Sox team that wins 90 games, but misses the playoffs.

So far this season, the Minutemen don’t fit either label, and have been wavering back and forth between them. They started with a wafer-thin 7-0 record, but have worked their way to a beefy 3-2 record in the A-10, which makes them, for lack of a better word, good. Just good.

The best worst-case scenario

Going into the season, expectations for the hockey team were mild at best. The reality ended up being as cold as it was outside of my apartment last night, which was very cold.

The team didn’t live up to early expectations, largely because the Minutemen did not become the team they were expected to be.

In the face of a baker’s dozen freshmen, the workload was anticipated to be placed on the shoulders of juniors Danny Hobbs, T.J. Syner and Michael Marcou, in addition to the team’s captain, goalkeeper Paul Dainton.

There’s no question that Dainton and the seniors are the leaders of the team, as expected. What wasn’t expected was the early emergence of the team’s freshmen, particularly on the offensive end with heavy contributions.

To little surprise, Hobbs and Syner rank second and third, respectively, in points scored for the Minutemen. What is surprising, though, is that freshman Michael Pereira has scored a team-high nine goals and is tied with Hobbs for the team-lead in points at 19.

Marcou, who was expected to be the team’s biggest offensive threat from the blue line, has been out with an injury over the past few weeks while sophomore Darren Rowe has also missed five games. In the meantime, freshman Joel Hanley leads the defense with a quiet 10 points on one goal and nine assists, while fellow rookie Adam Phillips has garnered more attention with his nine points on six goals (in addition to his six-foot, seven-inch frame).

The bulk of the freshmen made a disaster out of the first half the season. That much was expected. As it stands, though, hockey is 6-12-3 and more importantly, the Minutemen are 5-7-3 in Hockey East play and are sitting in a respectable seventh place, considering their youth.

At the time, going winless until Nov. 23 was essentially the worst-case scenario, a short-term tragedy. What it did, though, is put the team in the best position for the long run, putting younger players in key positions and having them contribute, including freshman goalie Jeff Teglia.

The Mass Attack isn’t winning the Hockey East this year. That was pretty much a given heading into the season. But in a season that was sacrificed for a better one down the road, this is about as good as it gets.

Nick O’Malley is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]