The men’s basketball team’s success this season is easily quantifiable ? No. 4 in the country. It is not as easy to assign a value to the impact the team had on the UR campus.
People will be talking about UR’s second-round NCAA Tournament game for a long time. There were 1,044 paid attendants, and there were probably as many as 1,500 people in the stands cheering the Yellowjackets to a 66-51 victory over Williams College.
“I was really pleased that those who chose to come to the game had such a great time,” head coach Mike Neer said. “I’m glad our team was able to play in that kind of environment on our campus. I hope that all of our teams can get that kind of experience.”
Some UR students then postponed their spring break to follow the Yellowjackets to SUNY Brockport for the regional tournament.
“The NCAA was so much fun,” sophomore center Brian Jones said. “It brought out school spirit that I did not know this school had.”
Jones was named MVP of the regional tournament after leading UR to the Final Four. He tallied 13 points and 12 rebounds in a 71-60 victory over Babson College and scored 17 points in a 71-62 win over Brockport.
“If I could give up being regional MVP for a national championship, I would,” Jones said. “But since I can’t, I am grateful for the award.”
A few UR students and former students also made the trip to Salem, Va., where they saw freshman forward Seth Hauben light up Elizabethtown College for 39 points and 18 rebounds in a losing effort.
“I just felt good and people were getting me the ball,” Hauben said. “I had no idea that I had so many points.”
UR lost to Elizabethtown 93-83 in overtime and then lost 72-51 to Carthage in the consolation game. However, the Yellowjackets did get the opportunity to find out what it feels like to play in front of large crowds.
The average attendance for the two games in Salem was 2,757. Even though most of the fans at Salem were from the other three schools, it was an exciting environment that the Yellowjackets had never felt before.
“It was an environment that made us feel like we were at a big school with lots of spirit,” Hauben said. “This was a great experience.”
Student support of the men’s basketball team is the best showing of school spirit at UR in a long time, but it was just the first step in what eventually needs to be a huge improvement.
There were an average of 410 fans per game at the Palestra this year, which is 1,000 fewer than national champion Otterbein College draws. UR, which is bigger than each of the other Final Four schools, should be much more supportive of its sports teams.
Hopefully, the UR community will realize what select groups on campus already know ? this basketball team is a great group of guys who play exciting, emotional basketball.
“They’re fun kids. They’re very tight, very supportive of one another,” Neer said. “This team has a lot of heart. I really enjoyed coaching this team.”
“They wanted to be coached and they accepted challenges and they accepted criticism in the spirit it was given. We really enjoyed one another. Teachers enjoy students who want to learn.”
Everything the Yellowjackets learned this year should help them improve next season, when they return everybody except senior forward Kyle Leach.
“This experience will help us next year and will also push the younger guys for years to come,” junior guard Jeff Joss.
Joss and classmate Tim Sweeney only have one year left, but this team could be good for a long time. The Yellowjackets have a strong core of talented, young players including Jones, Hauben, sophomore forward Andy Larkin and freshman guard Gabe Perez.
“Everyone enjoyed this experience so much that it has motivated us to want to get back,” Hauben said. “Our goals are clear for next year ? we want to be back in the Final Four.”
UR definitely has the talent to make another strong run in the tournament, but Neer knows that a lot can happen in a year.
“Do we have the potential to be very good? Yes. Did we pick up some experience that could help us be very good? Yes, but we have to be passionate about improving,” Neer said. “I have seen teams who have “everybody back” and some of those teams develop a sense of entitlement. Next season is going to start in which all teams are 0-0.”
The Yellowjackets will also have to face the pressure that comes with making the Final Four and being expected make a return trip.
“We’re going to be dealing with expectations next year,” Neer said. “People on the campus will have increased expectations, our opponents will have increased expectations and I hope we will have increased expectations.”
The Yellowjackets just wanted to make the NCAA Tournament this year, but the consensus now is that they want to get back to the Final Four next year, especially after advancing so easily this season before hitting a wall in Salem.
UR won its two games at Brockport with stingy defense and solid rebounding, the same way the Yellowjackets advanced to the Sweet 16.
“I thought we had a good regional tournament at Brockport,” Neer said. “In both games we led from start to finish and defended well, rebounded well. To go into Brockport with a huge crowd and diffuse them, I value that win a lot.”
Jones led the team with 30 points in the two games on near-perfect shooting. Hauben had a good weekend with 26 points and 21 rebounds and Joss scored 20 in the win over Babson.
The Yellowjackets did not play their best basketball in Salem, turning the ball over 24 times against Elizabeth-town and allowing the Blue Jays to shoot nearly 60-percent from the floor.
However, Hauben was able to keep UR in the game by scoring the Yellowjackets’ first 10 points and stepping up when Larkin left with a broken foot in the first half and Jones fouled out with 2:30 left in regulation.
“Seth had a pretty good weekend in one game,” Neer said. “We couldn’t take him off the floor. Seth needed to do more and boy did he.”
Hauben, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, hit a jumper at the buzzer to force overtime, but Elizabethtown was too much for UR in the extra period, especially after Sweeney fouled out with 1:25 left.
“We had some lapses in poise and I think Elizabethtown took advantage of every one of our mistakes,” Neer said. “It’s hard to explain losing a game when you outrebound somebody by 27.”
UR was overpowered in the consolation game by a Carthage team that Neer thought was the best in the tournament. The Yellowjackets were unable to stop Jason Wiertel, who scored 33 points while UR’s top three combined for 27.
Neer was disappointed that the team did not play better in the Final Four, but he was pleased with the overall season.
“I would like to have played better basketball in Va., but our opponents had something to do with that,” Neer said. “We had six losses this year, four of them were to teams with 27 or more wins. We advanced to the Final Four and we were one possession away from the national championship game, so it’s hard to be disappointed and I’m not.”
Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.