Let’s get it started!

The UMass Lowell softball team comes together before their Senior Day matchup against UMBC on April 30 at River View Field. (Courtesy of UMass Lowell Athletics)

Before I get into my hopes and expectations for these four universities in the near future, I would be remiss to not state that I knew very little about Abilene Christian University, Grand Canyon University, and University of the Incarnate Word before beginning this blog in January.

In fact, the only thing I knew about any of the three schools not named UMass Lowell is that Incarnate Word pulled off one of the biggest men’s basketball upsets of the 2014-15 season, going to Lincoln and beating Nebraska 74-73 on Dec. 10, 2014. Other than that, I had never heard of these universities or seen any of their teams play.

However, like Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union (not sponsored) the common thread we shared was that we were all going through Division I reclassification during the same four-year period. As an outsider, I’m very proud of what Abilene Christian, Grand Canyon, and Incarnate Word have accomplished, and I hope to see them in NCAA tournaments early and often along with UMass Lowell.

Abilene Christian University

For a school that’s won back-to-back regular-season Southland Conference championships in women’s basketball, it would be very easy for me to say that’s what I’m most excited for in Abilene, Texas. But it doesn’t matter how good your basketball program is when football is a religion in the Lone Star State.

Although the Abilene Christian Wildcats are an FCS program and finished second-to-last in the conference in 2016, it’ll be exciting to see what kind of noise they can make playing in a new stadium on campus this coming fall.

The 2017 schedule will also feature non-conference visits to New Mexico and Colorado State that should be telling of what kind season Abilene Christian will have in conference play by the time they face Houston Baptist on September 16. They’ll have a lot of time to prepare for defending Southland champion Sam Houston State, who travels to Abilene on November 11, followed by the season finale at runner-up Central Arkansas on November 18.

While it won’t take any attention from my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes, who had seven players drafted last weekend, I’ll be sure to remember their name as it flashes across the ESPN ticker on Saturdays.

University of the Incarnate Word

Just four hours south in San Antonio, I can’t say I’m excited for very much in particular. Not even the nearby Spurs can cure the Cardinals woes, as they have their hands full with the Houston Rockets this round with their dynasty slowly waning.

That said, to not default to my pick for volleyball to win Incarnate Word’s first conference championship, I have to say I’m most excited for the future of the men’s basketball program. Like I said, this is a new Division I program that went to a Big Ten school and shocked the world with a win over Nebraska two seasons ago.

The Cardinals remind me a lot of UMass Lowell just by the numbers. They finished third in the Southland Conference in scoring offense and led the way in three-point shooting but found themselves toward the bottom of the conference in rebounding and scoring defense, a struggle the River Hawks embodied this year in America East.

Junior guard Jalin Hart led Incarnate Word in scoring and finished fifth in the conference, averaging 15.9 points per game, an impressive feat for the JUCO transfer. Not far behind him with 15.1 points per game was sophomore forward Simi Socks, whose tally was good for sixth in the conference.

Beyond the arc, meanwhile, senior guard Shawn Johnson (.417), Hart (.394), and Socks (.386) ranked eighth, 12th, and 15th in Southland three-point shooting percentage, respectively. If the defense and rebounding improve, we could see a much more balanced and competitive team come next season.

Grand Canyon University

Well, this one is obvious (to me). For Grand Canyon, it’s all about the hardwood at GCU Arena.

If you don’t believe me, then ask Josh Braun, whose piece “Next Year’s Cinderella” for the Players’ Tribune brought chills to my spine.

Not only has Braun talked the talk in his article, but he’s walked the walk this year for the 22-9 Antelopes. He earned a spot on the All-WAC First Team, leading the conference in three-pointers made, finishing third in three-point percentage and fourth in scoring.

Additionally, the fourth-year redshirt-junior will take his last year of play into Grand Canyon’s first season of postseason eligibility. Braun could the Peter Hooley of next year’s WAC Tournament sans the personal tragedy Hooley suffered the same season before draining the game-winning three-pointer to send UAlbany to the NCAA Tournament in 2015. With him alone, I need no other reason to be excited for Grand Canyon.

UMass Lowell

This section should be its own blog because I know my soon-to-be alma mater will give me a lot to be proud of will full eligibility and, quite frankly, has already done so during the transition.

Men’s soccer captured the hearts of many a student with their improbable 13-1-2 record in 2016, capped off by an America East regular-season championship. Field hockey, volleyball, softball, and women’s lacrosse have made tremendous strides. Men’s basketball and baseball have impressed throughout their transitions. All of this makes it hard for me to pick one, so I won’t. (Please tell me if I’m doing too much.)

Individually, my eyes are on Ivan Abramovic of men’s soccer and Ryan Jones (not Jahad Thomas, surprisingly) of men’s basketball. Abramovic was Wuilito Fernandes’s partner in crime in 2016, so to speak, finishing second on the team in points. He’ll have the opportunity to be his own scoring threat come this fall.

Speaking of scoring threats, Ryan Jones has gotten it done this year in the absence of Isaac White, who redshirted after 10 games in 2016-17 and has since transferred out. He finished second on the team with 13.4 points per game. More impressively, however, he averaged 15.4 points with White out of the lineup, including five 20-point games capped by a 32-point performance at UMBC on February 18.

Note: I have to give credit to Alex Salucco for noticing this trend before I did. If there’s anyone on this campus who knows UMass Lowell basketball, it’s him. That’s part of the reason why he won the River Hawk Pride award this year.

I’ll be shocked if Abramovic and Jones don’t earn All-America East honors in their respective sports.

As a team, I’d love to see men’s basketball do well, but our first transitioning team with eligibility was field hockey, so my hope is with them for an excellent season. Shannon Hlebichuk, a UMass Lowell field hockey alum who has coached the team two Division II national championships, leads the team into its fifth year of Division I play and its third year of postseason eligibility.

While she said she expects the team to win an America East tournament championship in the next five years, I can’t helpful but be hopeful that said goal might come to fruition sooner as UMass Lowell hosts the conference tournament in the fall.

The wins have steadily increased over the four years, but the road will be tough with perennial powerhouses like UAlbany in the conference. However, the River Hawks took Stanford down to the wire in their first-ever conference tournament bid, so there’s no telling what could happen on their own (Wicked Blue) field. I never cared this much about field hockey before, but I’m ready to come back in November and see the River Hawks compete for a title.

For the university, hockey reigns supreme, but men’s basketball could bring the school a new level of exposure and fandom. The America East Conference will head into its fourth season allowing its higher seeds to host playoff games at their campus site, which means there could be more than one team playing huge games in March at the Tsongas Center, if the River Hawks finish in the top four or five of the conference, that is.

Like Incarnate Word, UMass Lowell has had offensive prowess and the ability to shoot from deep this past year, but defense must be a key area of improvement, as well as height and paint presence on both sides of the ball. If that happens, a home conference tournament game won’t be far out of reach for head coach Pat Duquette and company.

Conclusion

Thank you all for your dedicated readership of this blog. If you are affiliated with or a member of any of these institutions, I hope you are proud of what these schools have put forth on and off the field over the course of their Division I transitions. And if you’re not, then I hope you learned something from any of these posts.

This, by far, has been one my favorite learning experiences in the sports world, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to share that with you. This blog has opened my eyes to the experience I saw through three universities I had no clue existed, and when I see them on TV or Twitter, I’ll be proud to know one more thing about them than the average reader.

As they all head off into summer break – and I complete my studies at UMass Lowell – I just want to say go Wildcats, go Cardinals, go Antelopes, and most importantly, go River Hawks!

 

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