During the tenure of head coach Mike Neer, the UR men’s basketball program has prospered. From 2002-05, Neer’s team did not miss the NCAA tournament, a run that culminated in 2005 with a disappointing loss to University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the national title game. Unfortunately for the ‘Jackets, 2005 marked the end of a glorious era in UR basketball with the departure of a senior class that went an astonishing 97-17.
The biggest loss was Seth Hauben, of Newton, Mass., who went on to play professionally in Israel, Denmark, Australia, China and Argentina.
“I still follow the team,” Hauben said. “I’m happy to see how the kids, who were freshmen when I was a senior, have grown.”
When the members of the class of 2005 moved on, they left their prized team in the hands of current seniors, center Jon Onyiriuka, forwards Dan Milbrand and Uche Ndubizu and guards Jeff Juron and Rob Dominiak, a group of unknown freshmen hoping to keep the team on a roll. However, in the following season, the ‘Jackets missed the tournament for the first time since 2001 and last year’s return to the “big dance” ended quickly with a first-round buzzer-beater.
This year, those once unknown freshmen are fulfilling their promise as seniors. Onyiriuka, Milbrand, Ndubizu, Juron and Dominiak have their team sitting at an impressive 15-1, good enough for a No. 3 ranking in the d3hoops.com national poll.
“It is nice to be able to look back and say that my class had a part in growing the program into what it is today, but the current successes of the team is because the dedication and hard work of the seniors on the team now,” Hauben said.
Having tasted the sweetness of success as freshmen, this senior class does not intend to settle for anything less than a championship. Six-foot-seven big man Jon “ON-YI-RIU-KA clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” had a lot to say about the role of the class of 2005 on this year’s team.
“When we were freshmen, Seth and the rest of the seniors were like big brothers to us on and off the court,” Onyiriuka said. “We were influenced by everything they did. Now as seniors I see us having the same effect on the younger guys. I think that a general unity between upperclassmen and underclassmen has led to some of the success that we are experiencing thus far this year. Hopefully the same success will be felt at the end of the year with a deep run into the NCAA tournament.”
A special element adding to their success is the close friendship among the five seniors.
“We’ve all lived together every year at school,” Dominiak said, while watching his friend and teammate Ndubizu knockout Ray Czerwinski in Fight Night. “We’ve been through pretty much everything over the last four years. Ultimately it has helped us when we take the floor together ’cause we are so close knit. We know this is our last chance to get the job done.”
Having learned selflessness on and off the court, the class of 2008 seems poised and ready to lead their team to a run at the National Championship.
After a successful title defense against second-ranked Brandeis University at home on Jan. 20, the ‘Jackets suffered their first setback of the season – an 81-76 overtime loss against the Emory University Eagles this past Friday. After shaving the Eagles’ lead down to two, a UR jumper was deflected out of bounds with just 0.8 seconds left on the clock. Juron threw an inbound alley-oop to Onyiriuka, which, somehow, after a balancing act around the rim, fell in, knotting the score at 69 and forcing overtime.
The momentum was with UR, but one minute into the extra period, the team lost Ndubizu after he acquired his fifth foul. A minute later, the ‘Jackets lost Onyiriuka for the night, as well.
That, plus strong play by the UAA’s leading scorer and Eagle Spiros Federigos, proved too much for the ‘Jackets. The season’s first loss came despite the play of junior guard Mike Chmielowiec, who had a game-leading 22 points. Juron and Ndubizu also scored in double figures, netting 12 and 10, respectively.
On Sunday, the team continued their road trip with a stop at Case Western Reserve University and an 85-74 win. The score was close midway through the second half, but a 14-0 Yellowjacket run put Case away for good.
Once again, it was Chmielowiec leading the ‘Jackets in the scoring department with a career-high 23 points.
UR had five players, including Chmielowiec, in double figures: Ndubizu had 17, Onyiriuka had 16 and Juron and sophomore guard Brad Runco each scored 12.
The ‘Jackets played without Dominiak, who injured his wrist in practice on Saturday and is awaiting the results of X-rays. The 6-foot-3-inch guard from New York City was averaging 15.1 points per game.
This Friday at 8 p.m., the ‘Jackets will welcome the Washington University in St. Louis Golden Bears into the Louis Alexander Palestra.
Last week’s d3hoops.com poll ranked the Bears fourth behind Amherst College and Brandeis, but with Brandeis’s current three-game losing skid and UR’s loss to Emory, the Bears have vaulted to the No. 1 spot.
Starr is a member of the class of 2010.