|Mack Montague leads the Yellowjackets with 18 points per game, and is one of three Rochester players averaging double figures.
Courtesy of Rochester Athletic Communications
Editor's note: Variety is the spice of life. So this week Joe Sager is writing Around the East and Andrew Lovell is writing Around the Great Lakes. Click here for Andrew's article.
By Joe Sager
Early in the season, a team can chalk up a loss or two as a learning experience.
Rochester's men's basketball squad has shown it can benefit from the lessons it endured in victories just the same.
The Yellowjackets (12-0) went through their nonconference schedule unscathed and opened UAA play with an 84-54 win over Emory. However, not all of their victories have been by big margins. Six of the team's 11 nonconference games were decided by 10 points or less. Two (73-72 over RIT and an 82-80 over SUNY Genesco) came down to one possession. A third (104-94 win over Ithaca College) went to overtime.
"We've talked a lot about learning from close wins and not necessarily playing our best and still being able to get a win," Rochester head coach Luke Flockerzi said. "We're trying to be grateful we haven't had to suffer that loss, but still taking away a lot of learning opportunities. I think we did get better and learned a lot from our mistakes."
The Yellowjackets didn't have to go far to find tough competition.
"I am not sure most people understand the level of basketball in the Rochester area every year. There are eight four-year colleges and universities in the area. We are lucky that we are around a bunch of other competitive teams," Flockerzi said. "We always try to challenge ourselves with our nonconference schedule because the UAA is always competitive. We have had some really good tests along the way. In three of the games, we were down 10 in the second half. Winning close games early helps build confidence."
Sometimes, a defeat is the only way a team will self-evaluate. That's not the case for Rochester – at least this year.
"It was a great start for us, especially with the games that have gone down to the wire. We've been fortunate enough to come away with wins in all of them," Rochester senior Sam Borst-Smith said. "It's a good learning experience because we're not getting a loss, but we're still learning it could have been one. It's definitely big going into UAA play."
Added Rochester senior Mack Montague, "I think our nonconference games were really good, especially the RIT game. It was a little shock to the system, but it was nice going into UAA play. I think the near loss was good for us and we refocused after that."
The returning personnel, including Montague and Borst-Smith, learned a lot from a couple of defeats last year. The Yellowjackets compiled a nine-game winning streak late in the season to surge up the UAA standings. However, a double-overtime loss to Carnegie Mellon and an 84-75 home loss to Emory cost the squad a UAA championship and NCAA playoff berth.
"Even though we did lose that game (to Emory for the UAA title), we knew we were capable of competing with anyone in the league," Borst-Smith said. "It served as motivation to come out this year and win every game. It's just the beginning for us."
Rochester gained valuable information during its winning streak last year as well.
"I think that was huge for us. My first two years here, we went 10-15. We didn't really know how to win yet," Montague said. "I think that 9-0 run really showed us we can win and play with anyone. We know we can win and play with anyone as long as we work hard."
The Yellowjackets have been building on that experience and momentum.
"As a coach, you know year in and year out that every team is a different team. The bulk of our top eight, so to speak, all played big minutes last year and they were part of our success," Flockerzi said. "They had a lot of momentum from last year and you just hope it all fits together. We don't take anything for granted. I do think our early success is tied to our performance last year. These players grew with their confidence and learned how to win. I think it carried over to this season."
Senior Zack Ayers joins classmates Montague and Borst-Smith in the starting lineup. The three lead the team in scoring. Montague is at 18.0 points per game, while Borst-Smith (16.4) and Ayers (11.2) follow.
"They are three guys who had roles on the floor from their first days here. All played as freshmen and they have all developed year to year in different ways," Flockerzi said. "They were really disappointed with the end last year. It was a really great year with a disappointing ending. They knew we were so close to making the tournament and I think it really gave them some motivation. They're trying to do everything they can to make sure the same thing doesn't happen this season."
After announcing their presence late last season, the Yellowjackets are a well-known commodity this year. They've climbed to No. 3 in the Top 25.
"I don't think it gives us pressure," Montague said. "Last year, with losing at the end, we're trying to work hard every day to get past that. The focus for our team is to get better. Our goal right now is to win the conference championship. Hopefully, we can maintain our focus and continue to work toward that."
Borst-Smith believes the squad is ready to take the next step.
"Overall, we just have a lot of team camaraderie. We all love each other and we just want to do what's best for the team," he said. "The UAA is one of the best conferences in the nation. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day or night. We have to give it our all. I am very confident that we're capable of winning every game we have left."