UMass-Lowell takes leap of faith

Akeem Williams looked around and almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Was this really happening? Was he really on this court, in this blue jersey with “UMass Lowell” written on it in white lettering and red piping, getting ready to play in front of these fans?

“Our Michigan game was kind of like a dream come true,” Williams said of UMass-Lowell’s opener at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Growing up, everyone wants to play Division I basketball, and playing at Michigan ... just to have an opportunity to play on that floor against those guys, it was just amazing.”

Though Williams and his teammates weren’t the first to be awed on the Wolverines’ home floor, they might have a better reason than some. It was their first game at the Division I level.

“At first I won’t lie to you, we were really amped,” senior forward Kerry Weldon said. “I was really amped. It was like, ‘Wow, this is a dream come true, playing one of the top teams in the country.’ And then after a while, it was just like 'This is basketball.'

“Once the ball went up in the air, it was basketball -- it wasn’t no different. There was a guy in another jersey you were just trying to go out and beat.”

Though they’re basically still a Division II roster, the River Hawks battled the then-No. 7 Wolverines, with the game tied at the half. But in the second half Michigan took control and won, 69-42.

It was the first loss in a season likely to be full of them.

When UMass-Lowell decided early this year to move to the Division I level and join the America East Conference, the decision-makers knew it would mean hard times for the school’s current student-athletes.

Athletic director Dana Skinner is working to implement the plan dreamed up by chancellor Marty Meehan -- who Skinner credited with driving UMass-Lowell to grow in all facets, from research and academics to facilities and now athletics -- and said the university views this as a long-term investment. The school needed to hire new coaches and staff and upgrade facilities, none of which comes cheaply.

But they believe the benefits outweigh the costs.

“We didn’t feel we were taking full advantage of the visibility athletics could provide,” Skinner said.

While UMass-Lowell’s men’s ice hockey program had been Division I since 1984, as a member of Hockey East, the school’s other teams had been in Division II. And when Boston University’s move to the Patriot League opened a spot in America East, the school decided it was a perfect fit.

The move likely wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a landing spot in America East, Skinner said. The conference’s membership, which places a premium on academics, was a good philosophical fit for UMass-Lowell.

As part of the transition, River Hawks teams won’t be eligible for the postseason for the first four seasons in all sports but one, field hockey, which will be eligible after two seasons.

The postseason is a long way off for Williams, Weldon and their men’s basketball teammates. Unlike the opener against Michigan, the River Hawks were never really in their second game, at BU’s Case Gym. The Terriers blitzed the River Hawks from the tip, pressuring their ball handlers and using turnovers to fuel their offense.

Williams led UMass-Lowell on an 11-0 run early in the second half, but that only cut the deficit to 21 and the Terriers were never seriously threatened.

“I don’t know if there’s any easy way into this transition,” UMass-Lowell coach Pat Duquette said after that loss. “I think you’ve gotta jump in with both feet. We’ve been really honest with each other. We know what lies ahead. There are some incredible challenges. It’s gonna be a long process.

“We’re making progress in small ways that don’t always show every day," he added. "And we’ve gotta make sure we focus on those things.”

Sophomore D.J. Mlachnik, sitting next to his new coach after the loss to BU, said they knew what was coming but simply weren’t able to stop the mistakes from mounting.

“The other big thing is probably size,” Mlachnik said of the difference between BU and UML. “You can get away with having, like, smaller guys at different positions at the D-II level, but up here you can’t really get away with that.”

Terriers senior Dom Morris, who led all scorers in the game with 27 points, had several inches and at least 30 pounds on any of the River Hawks tasked with guarding him.

That kind of disadvantage can only be addressed through recruiting. There are no quick fixes available to Duquette, in his first job as a head coach after stints as an assistant at Boston College and Northeastern.

Despite the immediate challenges, Skinner said the response to the move has been “universally positive.” Duquette and his players say there’s been a definite buzz on campus, especially for Tuesday night’s home opener against Brown at the Costello Athletic Center.

Though the Bears aren’t exactly a powerhouse, they’re a veteran Ivy League team and will likely pose another stiff challenge in a season full of them.

“It’s very hard. It’s very difficult to get down in the score and have to keep a straight face, a straight attitude and keep everyone together,” Williams said. “But we knew what we were getting into going into it. We knew that this was gonna be a long year. We’ve got a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys. We’re a Division II roster, compared to these teams that have been Division I teams for a long time. From the beginning I knew this was gonna be a long year, but I think we’re just gonna have to fight through it.”

The River Hawks know what they’re playing for.

“We always say we want to make it a better place to be at for students and a better place to be from for alumni,” Skinner said.

Weldon and Williams both said they wished they could have more than one year at the Division I level, to help build the foundation for UMass-Lowell’s men’s basketball program. That’s something Mlachnik takes seriously.

“The name on the front of the jersey,” he said, when asked what the Rivers Hawks play for. “I chose to come to this school as an institution. I have great respect for Coach Duquette here.

"I want to make a name for the program going in," Mlachnik added, "... and maybe [the program can] do something [big] right away after I leave.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.