The UMass Lowell River Hawks have already lost two of their most exciting players to season-ending injuries. They’ve spent the offseason adjusting to new head coach Pat Duquette. And they open up their 2013-14 campaign against last year’s national runner-up, University of Michigan.
Who said the transition to Division I wouldn’t be easy?
The River Hawks are set to begin their first season in college basketball’s top tier, after reaching the NCAA Division II tournament in four of the past five seasons. Last year, the team went 15-13 and sunk to eighth place in the Northeast-10 Conference.
Albany head coach Will Brown, who was with his program in its Division I infancy, said progress occurs slowly for a transitioning team.
“If I had to tell Pat Duquette anything, I would tell him that it’s a journey,” Brown said. “It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. Until he gets his players in there — and it’s going to take a while because it’s going to be hard to get kids until you’re getting closer to being eligible to play in the conference tournament and then the NCAA tournament — I would tell him to roll up his sleeves and go to work.”
Obstacles and challenges aside, making the leap to Division I with a new head coach at the helm seems appropriate. For Duquette, the chance to build something from scratch the way he sees fit couldn’t be a more enticing situation.
“I think it’s a perfect opportunity for a first-year head coach to come into a situation where you can really build it from the ground up,” Brown said.
Duquette lost one of his key building blocks this offseason, however, to a torn ACL. Freshman guard Jahad Thomas, who Duquette said would run his offense, will miss all of 2013-14.
Senior forward Antonio Bivins also suffered an ACL injury during the summer and won’t suit up for year one of the Duquette era. At 6-foot-5, Bivins was one of UML’s most imposing players a year ago, averaging 15.5 points and 7.4 rebounds, while starting all 28 games.
Both players will redshirt this season and have an extra year of eligibility.
“It obviously slows us down in the short term,” Duquette said. “But they’ll be back.”
With the injuries, UMass Lowell will be even more reliant upon senior Akeem Williams. The 5-foot-10 guard led the Northeast-10 with 19.9 points per game last season and earned first-team all-conference honors. Still, while Williams is the clear focal point of the River Hawks’ attack, Duquette remains adamant about not putting too much pressure on his leading scorer.
“We’re going to rely heavily on Akeem. He’s got more experience and talent than most guys on our team,” Duquette said. “But at the same time, I don’t want him feeling like he’s got to do more than he’s capable of because then he’s not going to play to his potential. So he’s got to find a balance between being aggressive and taking on a lot of responsibility, but also sharing and using his teammates.”
One of those teammates is junior guard Chad Holley. Only Bivins and Holley started all 28 games for UMass Lowell in 2012-13, and Holley also posted 11.2 points and 3.2 assists per game. He’s shown he’s capable of the 25-point nights he had in the River Hawks’ 82-65 win over Le Moyne the first round of the Northeast-10 Conference tournament.
“[Holley’s] role definitely increases this year,” Duquette said, “especially with the injuries.”
Even with the few bright spots, it’s no surprise that America East coaches picked the River Hawks to finish last in the preseason poll.
“Realistically, that’s where we expected to be picked,” Duquette said. “When you’re picked that low and other peoples’ expectations are that low, it’s a lot of fun trying to prove them wrong.”
While the 16 America East games the River Hawks are scheduled for this season will allow them plenty of opportunities for upsets, the NCAA requires programs to complete four seasons of Division I basketball before earning postseason eligibility.
While the wait isn’t necessarily a positive, it gives Duquette and his team plenty of time to establish a brand.
“Most importantly, we’re working hard at instilling our own culture into this program, developing a work ethic and defining a style of play that’s going to make up UMass Lowell,” Duquette said. “I think that by doing that, we’re preparing our current players to be as competitive as we can in the short term. But we’re also laying the foundation for our future success at the same time. We’re doing both.”