Vautour: Among the collection of future NBA All-Stars UMass F Mike Babul guarded, Paul Pierce stood out

  • Former UMass forward Mike Babul said Kansas forward Paul Pierce, shown here playing against Pepperdine on Dec. 18, 1997, was the toughest player he ever guarded. AP

Monday, February 12, 2018

It’s been almost two decades, but Mike Babul can rattle off the list without hesitation. The list of future first-round draft picks and NBA All-Stars he guarded in college is hard to forget.

Vince Carter, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Larry Hughes, Richard Hamilton.

Despite how good those players were in college, the former UMass forward had no hesitation who the best one he ever tried to check was.

“I guarded a lot of good guys in college. We played everyone, but Paul Pierce was the most difficult by far in the history of me playing basketball,” Babul said. “He could get his shot whenever and wherever he wanted.

“It was a bad feeling guarding him,” Babul continued. “He was 6-7, but he was big and could post you up. He had such a high release on his jump shot. You could be in his shorts and he could just raise up and shoot it in your face. You could tell he was special.”

Babul, now an assistant coach at Wagner, couldn’t watch Sunday’s ceremony retiring Pierce’s Boston Celtics No. 34 jersey because the Seahawks had a game. But he made it a point to find highlights later. Babul, a North Attleborough native, is a lifelong Celtics fan.

“I was a huge Paul Pierce fan. Being from Massachusetts I rooted for the Celtics,” Babul said. “I’d go to games and watch him and Antoine Walker. He was a guy I always pulled for. I respected his game a lot. Playing against him and watching him, he was a killer and a winner in ever aspect.”

Babul was a sophomore and Pierce a junior on Dec. 11, 1997, when the Minutemen put a scare into the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse before falling, 73-71.

Babul played just 11 minutes and spent all of them on Pierce. The future 10th-overall pick scored 17 that night, but shot 5-for-14 from the field as the Minutemen handled him better than most teams. He likes to show the Wagner players a picture of him guarding Pierce.

“They’ll see that and start cracking up,” Babul said.

Babul could be coaching in the NCAA Tournament next month. Wagner is the likely No. 1 seed in the Northeast Conference Tournament. At 11-3 they have a two-game lead over Mount St. Mary’s with four games remaining in the season.

“We’re right there. The goal is to get the one seed and have home games throughout in the conference tournament,” Babul said. “That’s big, but you still have to win those games.”

MY TOP 10 — 1. Virginia; 2. Michigan State; 3. Villanova, 4. Xavier, 5. Purdue, 6. Cincinnati, 7. Texas Tech, 8. Duke, 9. Auburn, 10. Gonzaga.

GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 17 Arizona at No. 25 Arizona State, Thursday 9 p.m., ESPN — With five regular season games left, both teams are badly in need of gathering momentum before postseason.

No. 3 Villanova at No. 4 Xavier, Saturday 4:30 p.m., FOX — The winner controls its own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament and could solidify a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 16 Rhode Island at St. Bonaventure, Friday 7 p.m., ESPN2 — The Bonnies have an RPI of 43 right now. They’ve won six straight since losing four of five early in A-10 play.

If they could beat the Rams, win out and make a deep run in the Atlantic 10 tournament, there’s a chance to get back into the at-large discussion.

BUZZER BEATER — When Harvard lost a nail-biter to Wofford to fall to 6-10 overall on Jan. 10, things looked a little bleak for the Crimson.

Since then, Tommy Amaker’s team has won six of seven, including Saturday’s win over Ivy League favorite Penn. At 7-1 in Ancient Eight play, Harvard looks assured of a spot on the Ivy’s four-team playoff.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage