(photo courtesy: UMass Lowell Athletics)

UMass Lowell’s Freshmen Ready Earlier Than Expected

For the second straight season, UMass Lowell has put together a signature win in their non-conference slate.

The program entering its third of a four year transition into Division I basketball and postseason eligibility, beat Fordham out of the Atlantic 10 last season and on Sunday managed to come back in the game’s final minutes to best ACC member Boston College 68-66.

“We’re still in the building stage and to have two signature wins an ACC and Atlantic 10 opponent is awesome,” head coach Pat Duquette said. “I never thought that could happen this early.”

The River Hawks are the third shortest and third youngest team in the country according to KenPom stats. While Duquette’s team locked up a win over a power five team, he said that he has been more focused on building his own team versus game planning for any opponents. With that has come testing his freshmen like he did Sunday, when he started three and the first-year players accounted for 47 of their 68 points.

“I know they’re going to be good, they’re talented, but how soon they’re going to play up to their ability,” Duquette said. “I’ve been fortunate a lot of my freshmen have played with confidence early.”

Isaac White leads the team in scoring (12.4 ppg) and has shown a fearless mentality, he scored the team’s game winner in their first win over Sacred Heart. Not only that but he made one of the better unsung plays in their win over the Eagles, when he sprinted from his help position under the basket to go block a three-pointer in the game’s final seconds.

“He’s one of those guys who nothing phases him,” Duquette said. “He came in fully confident.”

The other thing the River Hawks have been confident to do this season is score, as they have averaged 75.2 ppg in their first eight games. That improvement has come thanks to the amount of shooters they have, UMass Lowell has made 37.9% of their three-pointers – an increase of three percent from last year. The presence of more shooters has freed up redshirt sophomore Jahad Thomas, who came back from a season-ending ACL injury in February, to become more of a facilitator.

“Regardless of whether he scores or not he’s one of the centerpieces of our team,” Duquette said. “He elevates everybody’s energy level, he’s a playmaker, he gets other guys open.”

“I think he’s going to be more effective as his conditioning level improves, that’s the one area that he probably needs a little more time, but physically he feels good.”

For now the worry is to get this young, short team to buy in to continuing the style of attacking half court man-to-man defense that UMass Lowell showed last season.

“We got to play harder, we got to be grittier,” Duquette said. “We got to take this, we got to play the same way we did defensively our first two years. We got to transfer that mentality to these guys.”

However it appears with now two wins over bigger conferences, the long term plan is on track as they transition to a team that will hopefully contend by their first season eligible, in 2017-18.

“I’ve never had any doubt with where these guys will be two or three years from now, I think our staff’s done a great job in evaluating the right guys and we got the right guys in the program,” Duquette said. “I just wasn’t sure how quickly they would develop, a lot of the young guys have been ready to play right away.”

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 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.