After a season full of such abundant success, it is understandable that the UR men’s basketball team would not be satisfied with anything less than a trip to Virginia for the Final Four, but a run to the Sweet 16 is certainly something to be proud of. Led by a core of five seniors, the ‘Jackets finished the season with an impressive 22-6 record – including 9-5 in conference – winning their first two tournament games before suffering a 57-48 third-round loss to the Coast Guard Academy at Ursinus College.
Having been ranked No. 1 in the country for much of this season, the ‘Jackets quickly became the talk of the town. Their success was a focal point for UR athletics as a whole, and the program will certainly miss its five seniors. Undoubtedly, the feeling is mutual.
“It’s kind of weird to think that we’ll never play in the Palestra again,” senior center Jon Onyiriuka said.
With the graduation of the class of 2008, junior guards Max Kaplan and Mike Chmielowiec know they will have some large shoes to fill, but it is a task they are already anxious to tackle.
“Losing five seniors hurts, but I know guys are eager to get an opportunity to play and contribute to a greater extent next year,” Chmielowiec said. “Expectations outside the team won’t be as high, but I think we’ll surprise people.”
The loss to Coast Guard came despite the strong play of two of Rochester’s senior leaders – Onyiriuka and shooting guard Rob Dominiak. Onyiriuka finished his remarkable career at UR with yet another double-double, scoring 15 points and tallying 11 rebounds. Among the many honors he has received, Onyiriuka was most recently named a Third Team All-American. Dominiak – who broke the school’s single-season 3-point record with 86 – added 15 points as well.
Senior guard Al Sowers of Coast Guard led the charge for his team, scoring 15 points in the game, including nine consecutive points in an 86-second span. Sowers’s nine points were the spark for a devastating 17-1 run midway through the second half for Coast Guard.
The ‘Jackets opened the NCAA tournament at home with a 56-43 win against Middlebury College and then followed that up with a 65-56 victory over Penn State-Behrend that was also at the Palestra.
UR – which began its season winning 14 consecutive games and rising to No.1 in the country – never quite recuperated from a devastating eight-game skid in which the team went 3-5, dropping them to 17-5 overall and out of the national top 10. The difficult stretch, which began on Jan. 25 with an overtime loss at Emory University, found the team playing six of the eight games away from home and all against formidable University Athletic Association opponents.
After this minor skid, the team rebounded and rode the momentum of a three-game winning streak into the tournament. Unfortunately, it was not enough to advance further than the Sweet 16.
The might-have-been character of the season became eminent this past Saturday when perennial rival and UAA opponent Washington University in St. Louis routed defending champ Amherst College 90-68 for the national title. The ‘Jackets played two of their most exciting games this season against Wash U – a 73-70 overtime win at the Palestra on Feb. 1 and a 54-53 loss at Wash U the following week on Feb. 10.
Onyiriuka – who was the fifth-ever Yellowjacket men’s basketball player to earn All-American honors – was also named to the First Team All-East Region.
His classmate and fellow post player Uche Ndubizu was named Second Team All-East. Ndubizu (who, on a personal note, I would like to thank for sharing his dinner with me this past Saturday) finished the season ranked second nationally in field-goal percentage, breaking the school record of 62.1 percent by shooting an incredible 63.3 percent from the floor this season.
Along with Onyiriuka, Ndubizu and Dominiak, point guard Jeff Juron and forward Dan Milbrand round out the team’s senior class. This season, these five men have been the greatest of teammates on the court and the best of friends off it.
You only need to spend a few minutes in their presence to realize how much their friendship has contributed to their success.
“The four years I’ve been here, it has been a good ride,” Onyiriuka said. “I’ve been blessed to have played with not only good players but good people.”
Whether it’s around campus or out at a senior night, people acknowledge when members of the basketball team are around. It is in part due to their success, in part due to their personalities and, well, in part because they are very, very tall, but the 2008 UR basketball team has achieved celebrity status on campus.
The local Rochester newspaper, The Democrat and Chronicle, ran an article about “The Monsters” – the alter ego of the team and the name of their band in Xbox 360’s “Rock Band.”
The article discussed their lives, their career aspirations, the “mansion” that they live in and what they do in their free time, similar to how ESPN writes about professional and Division I athletes (minus the drugs, crime and contract disputes).
Although the season ended earlier than the team and its supporters had hoped, 2008 will be a year that the Rochester community and, more importantly, the players on the team will remember for years to come.
We are all sad to see the departure of Juron, Onyiriuka, Dominiak, Milbrand and Ndubizu, but we look forward to seeing who, besides Chmielowic and Kaplan, will step up and fill the large shoes of the class of 2008.
Starr is a member of the class of 2009.