Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By ROB BRADFORD
So how did this team that plays in virtual anonymity at Costello Gymnasium get labeled the third-best program in the nation last week? Got a couple of hours?
The journey that has helped lift the UMass Lowell men's basketball team from the rarefied air of the little old Northeast-10 Conference to near the top of the NCAA Division 2 charts has been anything but an overnight excursion. Take it from the River Hawks, there are no shortcuts to an 12-0 record.
But basketball fans like explanations for everything. This is why we will attempt to chart the maturation of this special team.
1. The coaching change: It wasn't exactly as if Gary Manchel left the cupboard empty when he bolted to be an assistant coach at Ohio University before last season. The River Hawks' were returning perhaps the top two freshmen in the NE-10 (Uri Grunwald, Elad Inbar), along with fellow Israel standouts Shahar Nachmias and Eyal Leib.
But the scenario wasn't without some potential pitfalls.
First, the River Hawks' initial choice for their new coach, former Iowa assistant Gary Close, resigned after two weeks on the job, leaving the door open for UML's current mentor, Ken Barer. But even the Close fiasco ended up playing a valuable role in UMass Lowell's current success.
Close hired Jeff Rafferty as his assistant coach. Rafferty convinced Barer, who was coming from the staff of Long Island University, that he was still the man for the job even though the Springfield College graduate had been linked to the coach the entire program was trying to forget.
As Barer will quickly point to, Rafferty has been one of the biggest keys to the River Hawks' seamless transformation into the Division 2 elite. He has proven himself as perhaps the best, and hardest working, recruiter in the NE-10, which is the reason the UML head coach has deferred the team's recruiting process to his first assistant.
2. Buying into the system: After the success the holdovers from the Manchel era enjoyed, it would have been easy to use the adjustment to Barer's more hands-on, high-energy style as a crutch. But, thanks in part to their then-31-year-old point guard, Leib, (along with former Manchel player and current assistant Casey Cowburn), the River Hawks let their new coach be their guide.
And although UMass Lowell finished fourth in a conference it was expected to win, its appearance in the NCAA Tournament helped validate the marriage between Barer and his inherited team.
3. Filling the holes: This may be the most important aspect of UMass Lowell's steady incline. First it came in the form of what turned out to be a last-minute reinforcement for the suddenly thinned-out front line. Barer and Rafferty brought in junior college transfer Ty Brunson, an awkward, 6-foot-8 athlete who hadn't started his basketball career until his junior year in high school.
What the other recruiters didn't see was Brunson's desire to become a better player, which has become crystal clear throughout his senior season. Besides Inbar, the affable New York native may be the most irreplaceable player on the River Hawks.
Then came Barer's first full recruiting class. His initial move was to sign on a player he had been familiar with from his previous recruiting experiences, 6-foot-4 forward Stacey Moragne. Although Morgane might have been viewed as an inch or two short to play the '4' spot, the UML coach knew the Evanston, Ill., native had all the desired intangibles, along with a potential growth spurt (he has size 17 shoes and hasn't shaved yet).
But what really separates this season's team from last year's is what dynamic newcomers Dana Jones and Carl Benn have brought to the point guard position. Even with all that Leib added to UML's winning formula, the ultra-athletic duo (along with another first-year player, Brandon Arnette) has given the River Hawks an up-tempo dimension that was sorely missed on the 2001-02 squad.
4. The emergence of the stars: Inbar was always good, but never this good. The 6-foot-7 junior has taken his game to a new hemisphere this season, averaging 18 points a game while leading the league in field goal percentage. He is as economical as any go-to guy you will ever see.
There is also the star in waiting, sophomore James Whyte, who still doesn't start but oozes potential greatness with every trip on the floor. The Vancouver, British Columbia native (who also has English citizenship) possesses the rare combination of off-the-charts athleticism and a smooth three-point shooting stroke.
5. Unselfishness and confidence: The River Hawks know they are good, and that's one of the reasons the always delicate act of balancing the stat sheet is rarely an issue.
The players and the coaches haven't had to look at the polls to know big things are possible. They just look at each other, instead.