By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By ROB BRADFORD
BOSTON -- The rest of the Northeast-10 Conference men's basketball teams still haven't caught up to UMass Lowell.
For the third straight season the River Hawks will be heading into their schedule carrying the tag as the top-ranked team, according to a poll taken by the NE-10 coaches. This year, however, the announcement made at the Colonnade Hotel was just a bit more plausible considering it came after the most magical of seasons for Ken Barer's team.
Not only can the River Hawks claim title to last season's conference and Division 2 Northeast Region Tournament championships, but are able to do so with 12 returning players on their 2003-04 roster.
"Part of me wishes it wouldn't happen because it would give us a good motivational tool to think about, and maybe we wouldn't have such a big target on our back," said third-year UML men's coach Ken Barer. "As a coach you're competitive so that's where you want to be, but at the same time it does present a lot of challenge for us."
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of UMass Lowell's bid to repeat as conference champs is the second-ranked team, Assumption College. The Greyhounds, a NCAA Tournament qualifier last season, are heavy with juniors and seniors and return all of their contributing players.
Fortunately for UMass Lowell, its bevy of familiar faces should help it make a run at some of the milestones the River Hawks shattered in last season's road to the Elite EIght in Lakeland, Fla. By the time the River Hawks were bounced in their first game in the Sunshine State, by Bowie State, UML posted the program's best record (28-5), most wins in a row to start a season (14), and scoring margin (11.7).
The key returnee figures to be Elad Inbar, a 6-foot-7 senior from Israel, who has become UMass Lowell's first All-American since 1990. With the rare ability to maneuver both inside and outside with equal effectiveness, Inbar averaged 16.1 points per game while shooting .529 from the floor, and a conference-best .528 from beyond the three-point stripe.
Barer's baseline-to-baseline style will be executed by a backcourt led by senior guards Uri Grunwald and Dana Jones, as well as lightning-quick sophomores Carl Benn and Brandon Arnette. Helping Inbar in the paint will be 6-foot-4 sophomore Stacey Moragne, 6-6 junior James Whyte and 6-8 sophomore center Ramsey Louder, who sat out last season with a knee injury.
The prospects for UML would be even more promising if highly-touted recruit Raheim Lamb, a former starter for UMass Amherst, wasn't deemed academically ineligible. Now, the River Hawks' lone freshman is 6-4 shooter Josh Colwell, a freshman from Silver Spring, Md.
"We possess a lot of weapons," said Barer. "This year everybody on the floor is going to be able to score. I'm not going to say we're going to put up more points than last year, but we're going to have more weapons."
The UMass Lowell women also were slotted in the same spot as last year, as the conference's seventh-ranked team.
The good news is that the River Hawks are still carrying the confidence earned from last season's 23-9 campaign, while returning their leading scorer, Dragana Rabota. The bad vibes come from facing the reality that UML enters this season without four of its starters, including a member of the conference's All-Freshman Team, guard Jelena Spiric, who transferred to Colby (Kan.) Community College and will play at the University of Nebraska the following season.
The strength of the River Hawks figures to be a backcourt that will be paced by new point guard Tammy Haulcy, who spent last season playing for Division 1 Morgan State. She will be assisted in picking up the pace for UML by Marriette Guillaume, Erica Gunn, Jamie Owens and Sarah Udvardi.
The biggest challenge for head coach Kathy O'Neil in her 19th season at the helm for UML will be to find a way for her team to survive the rigors of the inside game. Carrying that load should be forwards Enjoli Edwards and Emily Kordas, who is the only member of the River Hawks to stand more than 6-feet tall.
"We're going to struggle getting inside with the ball, so we're going to struggle scoring," said O'Neil, whose teams have made the NCAA Tournament in eight of the past 13 seasons. "There are going to be nights when we're not shooting well from outside so we're going to struggle. But our biggest weakness is defending the post. Hopefully we can improve as the year goes along."
Both the men and women open their seasons Nov. 15.