By Matt Langone
LOWELL— UMass Lowell men’s basketball coach Greg Herenda has been around the block enough to know how to downplay preseason hype.
That skill has been tested over the past month.
Now in his fourth year with the River Hawks, Herenda and his players have spent the entire preseason trying to shrug off the praise that has been heaped upon them from all angles. It seems the rest of the Division 2 collegiate basketball world expects UMass Lowell to be special in 2011-2012.
Back in early September, highly-credible publication The Sporting News saw fit to rank the River Hawks No. 10 in the country in their preseason Division 2 poll. Then came UML’s selection as the No. 1 team in the Northeast-10 Conference Preseason Coaches’ Poll. Finally, the school was selected No. 23 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Division 2 Preseason Poll.
“It’s way too early for talk. We just need to get better every day,” said Herenda.
“Once these polls come out, it’s one day and you move on. There is a buzz on campus and people are excited around here, which is good.”
The buzz is fueled by the fact that UMass Lowell will enter Saturday’s seasonopener at Bridgeport (2 p.m.) with everyone back from last year’s 20-10 squad. The return of point guard Scotty Tavares-Taylor, who missed all but three games last year with a torn right ACL, also bolsters the optimism. As does the addition of transfer senior guard Dipanjot Singh, who arrives after contributing at D-1 University of Illinois-Chicago.
Last Saturday, that potential on paper translated to the court as the River Hawks nearly pulled off the upset in an exhibition against Division 1 Big East member Providence College. UML missed a shot at the buzzer that would have given it the victory, but instead had to settle for a 76- 75 loss at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
In years past, UMass Lowell appeared overmatched in exhibitions against big-time programs like UConn. But after watching his team create 23 Providence turnovers and block seven shots, to the Friars’ four, Herenda admitted his team’s depth and athleticism should create quite a force.
“I felt the potential in the Providence game. We pressed and went on a 10-0 run. To be able to turn a team like that over and score the basketball makes you think this could be a special team,” he said.
“Pound for pound this is the strongest team I’ve had here.
They just have to prove that they will work hard and do the little things.”
UMass Lowell has won at least 20 games in each of the previous three seasons, but bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tourney each year. The players expect more this season.
“I don’t want to seem bigheaded, but in my head I think we do have a really good team,” said Tavares-Taylor, a redshirt sophomore.
“We’re excited, but we can’t let it get to us. We’ll take it one day at a time.”
It starts with the backcourt of the 5-foot-9 Tavares-Taylor and 5-foot-10 sophomore Akeem Williams. Both are lightning-fast, interchangeable guards, who will pressure the ball endline to endline, the backbone of UML’s highoctane defensive pressure.
Williams led the team at 18.2 points per game last year, while Tavares-Taylor averaged 16 in his limited action.
Matt Welch, a 6-foot-6 junior forward from Lowell who averaged 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds, will also start. As will 6-foot senior guard Robbie Walton, the team’s do-itall defensive specialist who was among the nation’s leaders in steals last year (76).
The final starting spot will be taken by committee. Darrell Ward, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, started against Providence.
Sophomore Antonio Bivins figures to consume a great deal of minutes. The 6-foot-5 swingman has endless athleticism. He jumped over 5foot-8 teammate Nomso Emetarom and threw a dunk down to win the team’s preseason slam dunk contest.
Junior forward Romeo Diaz, who started every game last year, will also be a huge contributor. Forward Kerry Weldon and the sharpshooting Singh also figure to be key parts of the rotation.
“The polls are what they are, we’re not looking at them,” said Welch. “We realize that we still have a lot of work to do. But the sky is the limit for this team.”