By Mary Paoletti
The Boston University's men's basketball team is used to high expectations. This could be the season when the Terriers live up to them.
On Sunday afternoon, fourth-seeded BU beat No. 1 Stony Brook, 70-63, to advance to the America East final. It will be the first trip to the title game for the Terriers since 2003 -- surprising, considering that BU has been the conference favorite in each of the last three seasons. Yet year after year the Terriers failed to secure an NCAA tournament berth, getting bounced by Albany in league playoffs in 2007, by Hartford in the semifinals in '08, and then by UMBC in the '09 quarterfinals.
Last season's disappointing finish contained a silver lining that shines brightly now.
Many players who suffered the last three knockouts are getting yet another chance. The graduated Matt Wolff (30 starts, 5.2 rebounds per game, 94 assists, 41 steals) was the only player who departed after last season. Instead of having to rebuild the roster for another shot at the title, the majority of the team returned for a chance at redemption.
Tyler Morris is one of them. The fifth-year senior has been on a see-saw of setbacks and strengths throughout his time at BU. First he injured an ankle before his first season. When he returned in 2007 he won America East Rookie of the Year and Second Team All-Conference honors. More injuries, including a torn ACL last year and a hurt shooting hand this year, have held him back.
But as Morris says, adversity only gives the Terriers cause to fight harder.
"We cant sit around feeling sorry for ourselves anytime something bad happens," he said. "You can lay down and give up or you can get up and fight. When things go against us, how are we going to react?"
Athletic director Mike Lynch reacted to the letdowns by bringing in a new head coach. Enter Patrick Chambers. As a former assistant to Jay Wright at Big East powerhouse Villanova, Chambers seemed the perfect fit to inherit this lot of perimeter players, whom he could insert into a 'Nova-style dribble-drive offense. He also knows well both the pleasures and pressures of winning.
Which is exactly what Boston University is doing.
The Terriers enter the title matchup against Vermont having won eight of their last nine. The streak started with a decisive 69-47 win over New Hampshire on Feb. 4 and carried BU to a 15-5 conference record. Senior guard Corey Lowe and junior forward John Holland join Morris as starters. More specifically, they provide a punch of star power.
Lowe is BUs all-time leader in 3-pointers (297) and third best scorer (1,729 points). "Probably one of the premier playmakers to ever come through Boston University," said teammate Holland.
Holland is deserving of high remarks himself. Last season he joined Lowe on the list of All-America East First Team selections and is likely to repeat the honor this year with a league leading 19.9 points per game average.
The duo's leadership has helped Chambers through the tumults of a first-year transition.
"I knew it was one of my responsibilities coming in," Lowe said, "because I was a captain last year and there was a coaching change. It wasnt exactly the smoothest of things. Weve had our ups and downs, but its worked out pretty well."
If BU's unimpressive looking 3-9 start is one of the 'downs', it's actually not as bad as it seems. The Terriers had a tough out-of-conference introduction to the year. Four of their losses came to Kansas State, then-No. 24 Georgia Tech, Harvard, and top-25 flirt Connecticut (a game Lowe missed because of inflammation in his right foot). These are teams who are all within the top 95 of the RPI index.
It's the upside of last nine games that matter now, anyway. And Lowe in particular can claim that things are definitely clicking for Boston University.
The senior has scored 50 points in the team's first two postseason games. On Sunday he notched a game-high 24, as well as six rebounds and five steals. Senior forward Carlos Strong chipped in with 15 points and eight boards, while Holland and returning AE Rookie of the Year, Jake O'Brien, each added 10.
So it has come down to UVM. The Catamounts are all that stand in the way of the title that has eluded BU for the last three seasons. Saturday's championship will be a rematch of the last America East final the Terriers played in, when they got nipped by Vermont, 56-55. It will also be the third meeting between the two teams this year. The 'Cats swept the regular-season series, winning 78-58 at home on Jan. 17 and eekeing out a 76-75 victory over the Terriers at Agganis Arena on Feb. 9.
Win or lose, even appearing in the conference final is a step forward for the Terriers. But ask Corey Lowe or any of the nine seniors and they'll tell you that they've had enough of setbacks, letdowns, and losing.
This time the Terriers expect to win.
Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti