Designated Hitter: Duquette in new kind of season for River Hawks
AMHERST — Pat Duquette says it feels like the start of any other college basketball season. It really isn't.
The Dalton native, who enters his fifth season as the men's coach at UMass Lowell, finally has a chance to take his team to the NCAA Division I tournament.
"I think it will once the conference season gets here, with everybody jockeying for position in the conference tournament," he said. "That's when I think it will really set in."
Duquette took over the UML program as it was beginning the long transition from Division II to Division I and the America East Conference.
Teams that transition up have to spend four years in "purgatory," or in a reclassification period as the NCAA likes to call it. For the past four seasons, Duquette's team and the other UML teams that moved up to D-I were allowed to play other Division I teams and compete against America East squads. But this is the first year that the school can play for conference titles and the NCAA tourney berths that go along with them.
"Now, it's just exciting because it's the start of the season," Duquette told me, when we sat in the Mullins Center prior to Friday's opener against Matt McCall's UMass Minutemen. "You've been through enough of them to know that this time of the year is great for college basketball. Everybody gets excited just to start playing against somebody else."
Duquette's team finished sixth in America East last year with a 5-11 conference record and a 11-20 overall mark. Lowell is picked to finish in a tie for sixth in the conference this year. Vermont, where Lenox's Bailey Patella is a freshman, is picked to win the league and got eight of the nine first-place votes from the league's coaches. Albany was second and got the ninth vote, followed by Maryland-Baltimore County and Stony Brook.
"I think we can compete against anybody in the league, so we're at that point," he said. "Do we have enough experience and depth, probably not as much as some of the top teams in our league. More importantly than that, are we ready to defend as well as they do, because the best teams in our league are all good defensive teams.
"We've been one of the best offensive teams, but we've got to get better defensively."
How's the conference?
"We had five teams that won 18 or more games" last year, he told me. "It continues to get better. I do think Albany and Vermont are probably a notch above everybody else, at this point. That doesn't mean it can't change."
Looking to make a few roadies this fall to see Duquette's team? You've got more than your share of chances in November. The River Hawks will either be at Tsongas Arena or the Costello Center throughout November. And if you are playing a six degrees of separation game, Marist visits on Nov. 15, and the Red Foxes are coached by former Williams mentor Mike Maker. Of course, Duquette played at Williams. Then on Nov. 22, LIU Brooklyn visits, and is coached by Derek Kellogg, whose UMass team beat UML last year.
In the neighborhood for games? Circle Jan. 10, for a game at the University of Hartford, or Jan. 18, for a game at UAlbany.
If you're interested, the River Hawks will play at Wisconsin on Dec. 30.
In August, Duquette took his returning players on a 10-day exhibition excursion to Italy. The team went from Rome to Sicily, seeing the sights. They also got a chance to spend 10 days practicing in August and played three games against pro teams. The River Hawks were 1-2 in those three games.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "I think the players recognized how great an opportunity it was and appreciated it from day one, once we got over there. It was a great personal experience, a great cultural experience. It's going to help us basketball-wise too, in terms of getting our young basketball players acclimated into practice. We're a little more ahead of where we are at this time of the year."
It will be interesting to watch their progress this year.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, and 413-496-6253.
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