River Hawks Enter AE Play Feeling Confident
LOWELL -- The UMass Lowell men’s basketball team will begin America East Conference play feeling pretty good about itself.
For starters, the River Hawks completed the non-conference portion of their schedule with an above-.500 record for the first time as a Division 1 program. UMass Lowell will take an 8-7 record into its AE opener on Saturday against Stony Brook at Costello Athletic Center (1 p.m.), the first of its 16 league games.
“It’s the best we’ve ever finished. We have to play three or four of the high-major teams every year, so for us to finish above .500 against our non-conference schedule is great. It’s a great next step for us,” said UML head coach Pat Duquette. “I wasn’t sure that we would be playing this well this early with so many young guys on the team.
“We’ve got really good chemistry, we like each other, we like playing with one another, we share the basketball, so we’re getting high-percentage shots and everybody is involved. Everybody feels good about their roles and I think that we’ve definitely gained some strength from that strong chemistry.”
The River Hawks have seven freshmen on the roster, but that youth hasn’t deterred them in the slightest. In fact, five of the new faces -- Alex Rivera (from Lowell), Allin Blunt, Bryce Daley, Joey Glynn and Darius Henderson have been key rotation players. Henderson, a 6-foot-9 forward from Pasadena, Calif., has started 11 games. Rivera, a 6-foot-1 guard, is averaging 12.3 points (third on team) and 4.4 rebounds, while shooting 49.2 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point land.
As a whole, UML is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation. The River Hawks rank 23rd in Division 1 in points per game (84.1), 23rd in field goal percentage (49.2), 17th in field goals made per game (30.3), fifth in total assists (263) and 19th in assists per game (17.5).
A reminder that there are 353 Division 1 college basketball teams.
“We’ve always been really good offensively. In fact, we’ve been one or two in the league, I think, in scoring the last two or three years,” said Duquette. “This year we’re even more efficient and I think it’s because more guys are involved. We’ve got more guys that can score, so the defense can″t necessarily focus on one or two guys, and we’re playing unselfishly. The ball is finding the open man and we’re getting high-percentage shots.”
Junior 6-foot-5 guard Christian Lutete has been a revelation for UML. He sat out all of last season after transferring in from Radford, but he’s taken opponents by storm so far this season, averaging 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds, while shooting a blistering 56.1 percent from the floor. On Monday, Lutete was named America East Player of the Week for the second straight week.
Sophomore guard Obadiah Noel is averaging 16.1 points and shooting 55.4 percent from the floor. Five River Hawks are averaging double-figure points.
“I think it’s having more guys that are capable, and we’re utilizing that,” said Duquette.
UMass Lowell is unbeaten at home (5-0) and finally got its first road win last Saturday at Sacred Heart. The River Hawks own the third-best record amongst the nine AE teams.
However, Stony Brook will present a major challenge. The Seawolves are 12-3 and have notable non-conference wins against South Carolina, George Washington, Rhode Island and Northern Iowa.
“They really rebound the basketball on both sides of the floor -- one of the better offensive rebounding teams, so they create extra opportunities for themselves,” Duquette said. “That’ll be a struggle for us, that size and athleticism.”
While Stony Brook and Vermont (10-4) appear to be the class of the AE, there figures to be more parity than in years past.
As great as the River Hawks are feeling right now, they aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves.
“That’s the nature of conference play -- it’s a clean slate,” Duquette said.
Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone