UMass: A-10 tourney is proving ground

If University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Derek Kellogg is feeling any pressure going into postseason play, you would never know it.

On Wednesday morning, the day before his team tips off against Rhode Island in an Atlantic 10 Conference first-round game in Brooklyn, Kellogg was out walking his 18-month-old dog, Niko, on the frozen surface of Puffers Pond in Amherst. His only concern was whether the adventurous black lab might find a thin part of the ice and break through.

For his part, Kellogg is confident that he is on solid ground -- at least as far as the NCAA tournament goes. Regardless of what happens in Brooklyn, Kellogg feels certain the 23-7 (10-6 in the A-10) Minutemen will be back in the Big Dance for the first time since 1998. He admits that he has studied many a team’s RPI, and he is convinced that even with a loss to the Rams, the Minutemen won’t be told to RIP.

“According to the experts, and just looking at it as a coach with a blind eye, I think we would be in the NCAA tournament,” he said, “which is a good feeling.”

Indeed, UMass seems to be solidly on the board of all tournament projections. Famed ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Minutemen slotted in as a No. 7 seed as of Monday. That provides a pretty good safety net.

Is there a nightmare scenario where UMass’ 16-year-wait is extended yet again? As a team with a No. 16-ranked RPI (in the ESPN metric), that is hard to imagine. It would certainly be a snub for the ages, but in the interest of nothing being impossible, the scenario would look something like this:

1. Lose badly to Rhode Island.

2. Of the six A-10 teams currently on Lunardi’s board, watch the team with the most questionable resumé -- probably Dayton -- win a few games in the A-10 tourney.

3. Then have a seventh team, say Richmond, put together a great run to win the A-10 tourney and claim the lone automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

4. Throw in a well-spoken committee member or two who looks askance at the Minutemen. (“They were 7-7 in their last 14 games. They were the sixth seed in the A-10.”)

5. Have another committee member throw mud at the A-10. (“There are no national powers in the league -- no one in the top 15 in either poll. In the 15 NCAA tournaments since UMass last made it, only once -- last year -- did the A-10 have five teams in the Dance, and only twice did they have four teams. Why go crazy now?”)

6. Have a slew of upsets in other conference tournaments where underdogs far from Lunardi’s board suddenly surge to the front of the pack and snag automatic bids.

Even with all of those scenarios playing out, the ice seems pretty solid for the Minutemen.

But it would become even more so with a win over Rhody. That, though, won’t be easy.

UMass defeated the Rams in both contests in February, but like so many of UMass’ wins this season, those games were airtight affairs not decided until quite late. The Minutemen prevailed in Kingston on Feb. 9, 73-68, then held on for dear life at home on Feb. 26, 70-67.

While the Rams enter the game with a pedestrian 14-17 (5-11) record, they are a much-improved squad. They won three of their last four games, and Kellogg knows they will be playing with nothing to lose.

“They have continued to play and play hard,” he said. “Their young kids have improved at a really drastic rate.”

Those kids include two members of the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team, E.C. Matthews (14.4 ppg) and Hassan Martin (6.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg). Combine that inspired youth with the play of senior leader Xavier Munford (16.7 ppg.), and the Rams provide a reasonably formidable foe.

In truth, that can be said about almost everyone in a conference that, top-to-almost-bottom, is as competitive as any in the country. Witness the fact that George Mason, the 12th seed of 13 teams, took top-seeded Saint Louis to overtime twice this season. GMU also knocked off UMass in Amherst.

So tight was the league that UMass found itself behind in the final five minutes in eight of its 10 conference victories. Night in and night out, the margin of defeat in the Atlantic 10 proved to be just a few bounces of the ball.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” said a relieved Jim Crews, head coach of Saint Louis, after the Billikens beat UMass on Sunday in the closing seconds to clinch the top seed. “What they’ve done is extraordinary, winning last year’s regular season and winning the A-10 conference tournament, and then backing it up now with this here today.”

But if Saint Louis enters the A-10 tourney as a favorite, it is by the slimmest of margins.

Kellogg feels that his team has a legitimate shot, though the loss to Saint Louis cost the Minutemen a first-round bye as one of the top four seeds. That will require them to win four games in four days to take the title. A win over Rhode Island would give UMass a return engagement with a rested George Washington team on Friday night. The third-seeded Colonials (23-7, 11-5) fell to UMass -- in the closing seconds, of course -- on Feb. 15, 67-61.

Kellogg has to have some concern about the recent play of his frontcourt, which has been collectively far less productive in recent games. Center Cady Lalanne (11.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg) began the year looking like he could be a nationally dominant post player, scoring 27 points and snaring 12 rebounds in a season-opening win over Boston College. Lalanne went on to score in double figures in his first seven games, posting double-doubles in five of them. But in the last 12 games, Lalanne has had just one double-double (11 points and 10 rebounds in the home loss to George Mason).

Numbers for senior forward Raphaiel Putney (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) also have fallen off. He scored in double figures in eight of the team’s first 10 games, but he has not done so in eight of the last 10.

Redshirt senior Sampson Carter (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), who has had sporadic moments of excellent play, could be something of an X-factor. He is a wily, if no longer explosive, 6-8 player with versatility to play in the post or on the perimeter.

“It hasn’t been a golden path for him just because of injuries, and we had a couple of guys at the same time who played the same position,” Kellogg said. “He’s kind of had to earn his stripes to play through and get his degree early, and have a nice run -- which he’s been a huge part of.

“I think it’s been a special time for him, and I think he’s going to be a big part of how far we go with this.”

Fan favorite Maxie Esho (8.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) brings plenty of frontcourt athleticism and energy off the bench.

Kellogg’s optimism, though, rests primarily with his backcourt, knowing the familiar March cliché about guard play becoming more important in the postseason. The Minutemen bring a trio of talent here.

Sophomore Trey Davis (9.3 ppg) has been arguably the league’s most improved player in the second half of the season, giving UMass much-needed 3-point shooting, an ability to create in transition and a seeming fearlessness at crunch time.

Junior Derrick Gordon (9.4 ppg) also has stepped up his play considerably. He is a defensive menace who attacks the basket with aggression and a signature floater.

Then, of course, there is the team’s unquestioned leader, senior point guard Chaz Williams (15.8 ppg, 7.1 apg). A first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection for the third year in a row, Williams became the school’s all-time leader in assists in the loss against Saint Louis.

For Williams, the Atlantic 10 tournament in the Barclays Center in his home town of Brooklyn is a time for getting down to business.

“We’re just trying to win,” he said. “It’s been a while since UMass had a conference title [since 1996]. That’s something we want to go out with. Just making the [NCAA] tournament or just being in Barclays isn’t good enough. We’re really trying to make something out of it, and do something with it. That’s what we’re going for.”