Competitive College Basketball Season Hits Halfway Mark in Massachusetts

After starting the season just 6-6, Cady Lalanne and UMass have some work to do in order to earn a second straight NCAA Tournament berth (Photo via NBCSports.com).

by MATT HOSMAN

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, six Division 1 basketball teams are vying for berths in the postseason. Generally, teams from Massachusetts are competitive nationally, and this season is no different. The teams span a wide range of leagues, giving fans the chance to see them compete against schools from all over the country. Regularly, these teams compete for their respective league championships and berths in the NIT and NCAA tournaments. A seventh team, UMass Lowell, is not eligible for postseason contention due to its NCAA reclassification last season but has improved steadily over its first year-plus as a Division 1 program.

Boston College (ACC)
Record: 6-4
Key Wins: Providence, New Mexico
Key Losses: Massachusetts, Dayton, USC
Remaining Non-Conference games: UMass Lowell, Harvard
Key home ACC games: UNC, Notre Dame, Louisville, Virginia
ACC Tournament: March 10-14 in Greensboro, N.C.

With two key players from last year’s 8-22 team transferring out (Ryan Anderson to Arizona and Joe Rahon to St. Mary’s), the Eagles look will look to younger players and their veteran captain Dennis Clifford to provide leadership. So far, BC has been paced by returner Oliver Hanlan (16.0 ppg) and Southern Miss transfer Aaron Brown (15.5 ppg). First-year coach Jim Christian has seen BC be competitive in every game, with their biggest loss only being 12 points. The Eagles have one more important non-conference game coming up as they host UMass Lowell on Dec. 29 before opening their ACC schedule at Duke on Jan. 3.

Massachusetts (Atlantic 10)
Record: 6-6
Key Wins: Boston College, Florida State, Northeastern
Key Losses: Harvard, Providence, LSU
Non-Conference games remaining: Iona
Key Home A-10 matchups: Davidson, Rhode Island, Dayton
A-10 Tournament: March 11-15 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn

The Minutemen have had one of the better offenses in the country this season averaging 73.7 points per game, but they have struggled on the defensive end, as they are 308th in points allowed per game (73.5). Veteran forwards Maxie Esho (14.2 ppg) and Cady Lalanne (13.3 ppg) lead the scoring for UMass, but they have not found their guard play. In the absence of starter Seth Berger, Jabarie Hinds, a transfer from West Virgina, has stepped in and filled his role. The Minutemen host Iona on Dec. 30 before beginning Atlantic 10 play on Jan. 3 against St. Bonaventure. They look to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Boston University (Patriot)
Record: 3-7
Key Wins: Norfolk State, Quinnipiac
Key Losses: Northeastern, UNH, Harvard, UMass-Lowell
Non-Conference games remaining: Wentworth
Key home Patriot League games: Holy Cross, American, Bucknell, Army
Patriot League Tournament: March 3-11; games played at the home of the higher seed

3-7 Boston University has taken their lumps a little bit this season, taking some teams deep into games, but struggling to get over the top and finish games. Cedric Hankerson has been the high scorer for the Terriers thus far, averaging a solid 19.0 points per game. He also averages 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, showing his versatility on the court. John Papale is another key name for Terrier fans, contributing 9.5 ppg and 4.0 assists. BU took a tough road trip to #1 Kentucky in November and trailed only 40-35 at the half before ultimately falling 89-65 in Lexington. The Terriers have a busy week this week, hosting Division 3 Wentworth on Dec. 29 and traveling to Holy Cross on Dec. 31 before opening Patriot League play the next week. Former BC assistant Joe Jones looks to take the Terriers back to the NCAA tournament, where they were ousted last year by Illinois.

Northeastern (CAA)
Record: 7-4
Key Wins: Boston University, Florida State, Santa Clara
Key Losses: Harvard, Massachusetts, St. Mary’s, Cal Poly
Remaining Non-Conference games: Richmond, Detroit
Key Home CAA Games: UNCW, College of Charleston, Towson, Drexel
CAA Tournament: March 6-9 in Baltimore, Md.

The Huskies of Northeastern started their off strong, winning each of their first four games before a loss to UMass took them off their path. The Huskies play very unselfish basketball, averaging 14.9 assists per game. Senior Scott Eatherton leads NU in scoring at 16.4 ppg. Junior guard David Walker, who dropped 23 points in an opening night victory over BU, shoots 89.3 percent from the free throw line. Northeastern travels to Richmond for a New Year’s Eve matchup with the Spiders before tipping off CAA play on Jan. 3 at Delaware.

Harvard (Ivy)
Record: 7-2
Key Wins: Houston, Massachusetts, Northeastern, Boston University
Key Losses: Holy Cross, Virginia
Remaining Non-Conference games: Arizona State, Grand Canyon, St. Rose, Boston College, Bryant
Key Home Ivy games: Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Brown
Ivy League Tournament: None; regular season winner becomes league champion

The 7-2 Crimson are 33rd in the country in points allowed per game at only 58.3. They are led by their senior forwards Wesley Saunders (18.3 ppg) and Steve Moundou-Missi (8.9 ppg) on both the offensive and defensive ends. Along with their scoring, the Crimson rank 20th in the country in blocks per game at 5.8. Harvard was ranked 25th in the preseason AP poll, but fell out of the rankings after an early-season loss to Holy Cross at the TD Garden. The Crimson play at Arizona State on Dec. 28 and continue their West Coast trip at Grand Canyon on Dec. 30 before returning home for the New Year. Harvard looks to take another trip back to the NCAA tournament this season.

Holy Cross (Patriot)
Record: 5-5
Key Wins: Harvard, NJIT, Albany, Brown
Key Losses: Sacred Heart, Canisius, Hartford
Remaining Non-Conference games: None
Key Home Patriot League games: BU, Bucknell, American
Patriot League Tournament: March 3-11; games played at the home of the higher seed

Holy Cross has a very balanced offensive game, with no standout scorers. However, seniors Malcolm Miller (11.9 ppg) and Justin Burrell (11.4 ppg) lead the team in that category. The Crusaders tough inside play is indicative of their 5.4 blocks per game, which is good enough to be in the Top 30 in the nation. Holy Cross is on a two-game skid, but look to break that against a struggling BU team on Dec. 31 before opening up Patriot League play.

UMass Lowell (America East)
Record: 6-5
Key Wins: Sacred Heart, NJIT, Fordham, Boston University
Key Losses: Ohio State, URI, Cornell, Dartmouth
Remaining Non-Conference games: Boston College, Brown
Key Home America East games: New Hampshire, Vermont (at Tsongas Center), Stony Brook (at Costello Athletic Center)

The River Hawks look to build on a 10-18 season last year in their first season at the Division 1 level. Coach Pat Duquette looks to build his team by recruiting nationally as UMass Lowell only carries two players from Massachusetts on their roster. Sophomore Jahad Thomas is the leading scorer, averaging 14.6 ppg and 5.5 rebounds. The River Hawks went on a six-game winning streak at the end of November, but have since lost their last three games. They have one remaining non-conference game (at Boston College on Dec. 29) before America East play starts. They won six conference games last year and aspire for more.

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Pats Postgame Thoughts

It wasn’t easy, but the Patriots were able to squeeze out a 17-16 road victory against the Jets Sunday afternoon. The Jets have earned much deserved criticism given their poor play all season, however they played well in this game. They fought hard in what was essentially their Super Bowl, and expecting them to lie down and not play their hated rivals close wouldn’t be smart. By no means was this the Patriots best game on either side of the ball, and while execution by New England had much to do with it the play of the Jets cannot be discredited.

When teams game plan for the Jets, usually the strategy is to let quarterback Geno Smith beat them. Smith and the Jet offense is known for making bad decisions with the football, leading to turnovers and good field position for the opposing offense. That’s what the Patriots tried to do. For the most part, they did a good job stopping the Jets’ running attack with the exception of a few plays. Vince Wilfork did a great job clogging up the middle of the field and forcing Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson to try making something out of nothing. They made Smith beat them. However, he delivered accurate, key throws in big spots, something that hasn’t happened all season long. Despite having one bad turnover, he made solid decisions and played as well as he’s played all season.

Another thing teams know is that Rex Ryan and his defense will create problems for even the best offenses. Even throughout this dreadful stretch over the last few years, their defense has been solid and overlooked. Teams have had little success running the football on their defensive line, along with stopping the pass rush. These trends continued Sunday, as the Patriots never had a consistent running attack and certainly did not contain the pass rush. Tom Brady was constantly under pressure from both the normal three or four man rushes and blitz packages. The Patriot offensive line struggled in this game, and without Dan Connolly at guard there seemed to be communication break downs up front that led to the struggles. It has been an up and down season for this group and a successful playoff run will revolve around consistency from them.

A combination of Geno Smith being smart and the defense getting pressure on Brady would seem to be a good combination for a Jets victory. However, the Patriots offense played much more determined in the second half, going with a quick, up tempo attack. This was in large part to Danny Amendola stepping up and having his best game of 2014. Without having Julian Edelman as the go to guy in the slot, Amendola needed to have a good day and he did so not only in the passing game but also in the return game. He led the team with eight receptions including key first down catches along with putting the offense in good field position. His role will likely be condensed once Edelman returns, though it is nice to see that he is capable of coming up big.

The Jets always seem to play the Patriots well, and that was the case on Sunday. If the Jets knew they would be able to get consistent pressure on Brady while Smith didn’t completely cost them the game, they would take that every time. I felt the game would be closer than most people thought, so the final score did not concern me as much. I would, however, be concerned with the Pats up and down offensive line, as teams like Seattle and Denver have the ability to do what the Jets did.

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Providence overcoming injuries

The fifth weekend of the AHL season has already come and gone, but it wasn’t an easy one for the Providence Bruins. Entering Friday with five straight wins, the P-Bruins dropped a home game to Portland followed by a road loss to Worcester. They were able to salvage two points in their third game, playing well against a dismal IceCaps team and winning at home 4-1. The team sits at 7-4-1 after 12 games, and their 15 points is only two shy of first place.

It is no surprise that Providence is going through a little rough patch, as injuries to their team and Boston’s team have changed the look of their roster. Bobby Robins, Jordan Caron, and Ben Youds are just some of the P-Bruins out recently with injuries, and no timetable has been given for their return. Injuries to Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Kevan Miller have forced Boston to deplete Providence’s defense core. This leaves the P-Bruins without Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman, and David Warsofsky for the foreseeable future.

It takes a team effort to overcome these kinds of losses, but if there has been an MVP so far it is rookie David Pastrnak. Pastrnak has been as advertised this season, leading the team in assists (10), points (13), and rating (+12). Last weekend in Providence’s two losses he was held scoreless, but in the team’s win he registered three assists. He has been playing with another talented young star in Alexander Khokhlachev, who is second on the team in scoring and also had a good day Sunday. However, the team could very well be without Pastrnak for three weeks next month. According to Mark Divver, he likely will participate in the World Juniors tournament, though no final decision has been made. Hopefully by then, some of the team’s injured or called up players will be back to fill the huge void he will leave.

Another huge reason for the P-Bruins’ success has been the play of their goaltenders. Much was made about Malcolm Subban going into 2014, and he has played very well early on. However, Jeremy Smith has been just as good, if not better, in the backup role. The two have split time in net, with Subban getting one more start than Smith in the early going. Having two goalies that can be relied upon is so important not only for the depth it provides, but also for the fact that both can remain fresh.

Providence will kick off their next stretch of games Friday when they take on the Springfield Falcons at home.

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Providence season underway

We are only a week into the AHL season, and the Providence Bruins have already had some roster shakeups. The team’s second line center Seth Griffith was recalled to Boston, and one could argue that through two games this was the team’s most productive line. Along with Matt Lindblad and David Pastrnak, the line has combined for three goals already with Griffith netting one of them. This line also has a +7 rating combined, though the loss of Griffith will likely break up this group.

Pastrnak, a highly touted rookie, has looked good in his first two games. He has plenty of skill and speed, showing his ability to be creative with the puck in a Brad Marchand type way. His one goal and two assists, including one early in overtime to Joe Morrow opening night, gave a glimpse at what he is capable of doing. However some of that might be due to his chemistry with Griffith, as the two worked well together in training camp. With Griffith out of the picture for now, the rookie will have to adjust to new line mates likely on the first line. This happens all the time in hockey, but since Pastrnak has so much to learn in the coming weeks this was one adjustment that the team would have liked to avoid for the time being.

With Griffith’s promotion, the signing of Simon Gagne, and the return of David Krejci, two players were sent to the P-Bruins from Boston. Jordan Caron and Bobby Robins will rejoin the team this weekend after both spent time on the Bruins roster to start the year. Robins wasn’t bad in his time with Boston, but with so much depth the team didn’t need him anymore. The team has stated they expect him back at some point, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets another call. Fans know of his fighting ability, but when on the ice he provides energy to his team while showing some skill as well. He is more than just a bruiser and the more time he has the showcase it the better he will be. This is someone capable of playing at the NHL level.

The team went 1-1 in their first weekend of the season, dropping a game in Portland 3-2 to the Pirates after taking their home opener 2-1 in OT against the IceCaps. Head coach Bruce Cassidy said he wasn’t happy with the team’s defensive effort on opening night, and despite the loss thought they did better in game two. Defense should be a strength of this club as they have several talented, experienced players with NHL potential at these spots.

While it is only two games, there is a lot to be excited about with this team, as several of their core players have bright NHL futures. The madness of promotions and demotions has already struck the team, but this will be a group that competes for a playoff spot in Calder Cup playoffs yet again.

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Red Sox Look to 2015

The Red Sox season is FINALLY over. As the they develop their shopping list I thought I would take a look at each position for 2015. The good news is that the July trades of Jon Lester and John Lackey helped solidify the outfield situation. The bad news is that the Red Sox are severely lacking a #1 and #2 starter (and maybe a #3 depending on Clay Buchholz).

Let’s start by looking at the pitching staff…

Starter #1: TBD. Many fans are expecting the return of Jon Lester but I am not sure that the Red Sox will go beyond 5 years and $125 million dollars so Lester will need to take the “hometown discount” he has mentioned in the past if he is coming back to the Sox. A fallback to Lester could be Cole Hamels who is on a more “reasonable” contract but Hamels will cost the Red Sox 3-4 top prospects.

Starter #2: TBD. James Shields seems like a good fit here. He is battle tested in the AL East and his age would seem to limit the years/total dollars that the Red Sox want to avoid.

Starter #3: Clay Buchholz. Buchholz has been incredibly inconsistent since he started off last year as one of the best pitchers in the AL. He could be a #1 or be out of the rotation by May 1 next year. 2015 is a make or break year for Buchholz.

Starter #4: Joe Kelly. Kelly came over to Boston in the Lackey deal and has been decent. If he is your #4 starter then you are in pretty good shape.

Starter #5: One of the “kids”. This should be a great battle in spring training. Rubby De la Rosa would seem to have the inside track based on his performance this year but Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo and Henry Owens could also been in the mix.

Bullpen: Koji Uehara’s struggles have put his return in question. He is a free agent and it is hard to tell if he is tired from the workload of the past two seasons or if he is becoming less effective because of his age. Other relievers should include Junichi Tazawa, Burke Badenhop (has been effective this year), Craig Breslow and Brandon Workman (long man). Expect some veteran pitchers to be added in the off season, especially a potential closer as insurance.

Catcher: Christian Vazquez would seem to be the starter in 2015. He has handled the pitching staff fairly well and his defense is excellent. Blake Swihart is close but may be a September 2015 call up. I would expect the return of David Ross on a one year deal to help mentor the younger catchers.

First Base: Mike Napoli. He is in the last year of his contract and needs to provide more power than he did this year but he should be a solid part of the lineup in 2015.

Second Base: Dustin Pedroia. There is also an outside shot that the Sox could move Pedroia and his long contract and put Mookie Betts at second. I would be surprised if the PR conscious Red Sox traded one of the most popular players on the team.

Shortstop: Xander Bogaerts. Hopefully the Sox have stopped moving around Bogaerts and will give him a complete season at shortstop.

Third Base: Big ?. I don’t see Will Middlebrooks bouncing back although his right handed power ability will make the Sox give him one more shot in the spring. Brock Holt is an option here as well but a solid Free Agent may be the most likely scenario.

DH: David Ortiz. Not much to say here. He continues to rake. His career will end soon but he should have an above average season in 2015.

Outfield: There are a lot of candidates. Yoenis Cespedes, Rusney Castillo and Allen Craig seem like the outfield as of today. Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. will also fight for playing time. The most likely scenario would have the Sox packaging at least one of these players in exchange for a #2 pitcher or a Third baseman.

Overall, the outlook is good for the Sox. The July trades and the signing of Castillo gave the Sox some much needed depth and they have the money to go after top free agent pitchers. General Manager Ben Cherington will have a lot of options and the Red Sox could go from worst to first again if he makes the right decisions.

By Ryan Winn

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