Halfway through their four year transition into Division I and full membership in the America East conference, UMass Lowell has exceeded expectations.
“We had more success on the court in our first two seasons than I ever imagined in terms of wins and losses,” head coach Pat Duquette said. “I really feel good about the progress we’ve made with recruiting and bringing in kids that can compete and excel at the Division I level. We’re just going to be really young.”
The River Hawks have won 22 of their first 57 at the Division I level, have beaten every conference opponent once except for Stony Brook and Vermont. So far they have accomplished that feat, especially this season, by having one of the shortest teams in the country. Their effective height and average height, according to Ken Pom statistics, were the lowest out of all 351 teams. That forced Duquette to adjust to playing a style that tried to be opportunistic to create turnovers in the half court and finished the season averaging 6.9 steals per game, good enough to be inside the top 100 in the nation in that category.
Part of that was self-inflicted as Duquette redshirted forwards Dontavious Smith and Josh Gantz, who are 6’8” and 6’7” respectively, as well as 6’4” guard Jordan Shea who took a medical redshirt after injuring himself after the season opener.
“I think it was good to learn how to compete without them because it forced us to be quick and aggressive and not rely on our height,” Duquette said. “I think just establishing that identity was really important for us and now adding two front court guys that have had a year to develop should give us more of an advantage guarding interior guys, because that’s typically where we got hurt.”
In conference play the River Hawks struggled inside, allowing America East opponents to make 55.9% of their two-pointers, which ranked for last in the conference.
Next season’s roster will have at least nine players who are either freshmen or sophomores who will have to endure a quick learning curve, because they will be asked to help fill the void.
“I think the first year or two were all about establishing a culture, a certain work ethic and an identity and I really feel strongly that we did a great job doing that,” Duquette said. “Now that identity is established and we just have to get experience.”
The River Hawks will have an open battle for their point guard spot this season, after Lance Crawford transferred out after averaging 9.7 ppg as a freshman. It will be up to freshman guards Keith Hayes, Ryan Jones and Issac White to battle out for playing time to see who can take control of the offense.
Even with all of the success, 22 wins in two seasons, Duquette said he hasn’t focused on the wins and losses as part of building the program. They are a byproduct of how he would like to ease the program in to being competitive when they hit the 2017-18 season, their first year eligible for the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve been happily surprised,” Duquette said. “I think that for this group to surprise us like the last two did they’re going to have to just come in and play with a level of confidence that is unusual for young players.”
“I think it will be our most talented group that I’ve had since I’ve been there and that’s exciting and, for that to translate into wins, they’ll have to just play like they’ve been there before and not play like they’re going through everything for the first time. I can’t predict that, and I certainly can understand if they don’t, but if we’re going to have more success than people think, that’s going to be why because guys came in more ready than your typical freshmen or first year players.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.