By Matt Langone
LOWELL -- With the UMass Lowell men's basketball team set to begin their first-ever Division 1 basketball season on Friday, Athletic Director Dana Skinner and head coach Pat Duquette addressed fans and followers of the program on Monday evening.
Their joint message was simple: The foray into D1 is a long-term investment, and the River Hawks are aggressively attacking the challenge.
"We wanted to ensure that right out of the gate people understood that we are a different institution now," said Skinner. "You cannot build a successful Division 1 program overnight. It takes a little bit of time. Certainly it takes time to do it with the right set of values. We need everybody to hang with us all year long while we build this. It's a four-year transition to reach full Division 1 status, and by the end of that period we want to make sure we're playing all of our basketball games here at the Tsongas Center."
Skinner and Duquette spoke at the Tsongas Center's Sage Bank Pavilion. They discussed the preparations for UMass Lowell's inaugural season in Division 1 and the America East Conference, as well as the strategic plan for the program over the coming years.
The event, which drew a significant crowd, was open to the public.
UMass Lowell will open the season on the road at the University of Michigan on Friday night. The perennially strong Wolverines lost in the national title game in April. As is the case for any program new to Division 1, wins are not expected to come in bulk for the River Hawks.
The focal point of Monday's event was to pinpoint the strides that UMass Lowell is making toward building the men's basketball program.
The team has partnered with Under Armour for its uniforms and also has a radio broadcast partnership with ESPN New Hampshire AM 900. The value of having the Tsongas Center at the university's disposal was also highlighted at length.
"This is the best competitive venue in the Northeast region," said Skinner. "We have to utilize it in every way, shape or form. We have to get the entire basketball operation over here. Once we accomplish that, this basketball team, and hockey, will be the key revenue producers for the university moving forward."
The UMass Lowell men's hockey team enjoyed its most successful season ever in 2012-13, advancing all the way to the Frozen Four. The men's basketball team has a very long road ahead to match that success.
Duquette took over as head coach on May 16, after former coach Greg Herenda moved on to Fairleigh Dickinson University. UML returns three starters and 10 veterans from the 2012-13 squad, which went 15-13 in its final Division 2 season.
"We've made progress every single day," said Duquette, who celebrated a birthday Monday. "The way we're doing it is developing a culture in our program, developing a work ethic, defining a style of play and holding one another accountable. Those are no small things, that's how you build a program."
Duquette already has five verbal commitments for next year. He says the players were sold on everything the university has to offer and the chance to play in the Tsongas.
"If hard work has anything to do with success, then we're in good hands at this institution," Skinner said.