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Minutemen face stiff competition in 2009-10

umassIt has been awhile since the Massachusetts men’s basketball team had a schedule as tough as the one it will have this year. UMass coach Derek Kellogg even goes as far as calling himself crazy at times for putting such a demanding schedule on such a young team.

But it’s worth it for him if that’s what it takes to get the best players to put on a Minuteman jersey and the Mullins Center sold out.

Looking at the schedule can be a little overwhelming when it comes to figuring out which games to mark on your calendar. That’s why I’m here to list the top five games every UMass fan should care about during the 2009-10 season.

1. vs. Memphis, Dec. 19, Boston

The Tigers are nowhere near as good as they were last year, but they aren’t bad either. The Minutemen will face better teams than Memphis, but this game is by far the most important.

The game is already scheduled to be on ESPN2 and the national spotlight will definitely overplay the awkwardness of this game. Former Memphis coach John Calipari originally scheduled this home-and-home state match-up to help his pupil bring UMass back to being a national program the way he did.

Instead, Calipari left the program for Kentucky and the Tigers are no longer a powerhouse, although still good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.

Aside from that, the Minutemen will play in TD Garden right at the start of winter break so many of the fans from Boston should have no problem making it out. If Kellogg has his way, there might even be some recruits watching.

2. vs. Michigan State/Florida, Nov. 28, Atlantic City, N.J.

Either UMass plays the No. 2 team in the country in the Associated Press poll or it plays a team that could easily make the Top 25 this year.

Regardless of what happens against Rutgers, the Minutemen will play their toughest opponent on this day and it will be at a truly neutral site. This will probably be the most important game in Kellogg’s mind simply because UMass is guaranteed to play one of the top teams in the nation regardless of what happens the day before.

Ideally, Kellogg would like to pack his team’s schedule full of neutral site games against top-tier opponents once it improves to a level where it can regularly compete against that caliber of teams.

For now, he will have to hope that the Minutemen can luck out against these types of opponents like they did last year when they beat Kansas by one point on the road.

3. vs. Xavier, Feb. 3, Amherst

This will be the best team to come to the Mullins Center all season, which automatically makes this one a draw. Xavier has a lot of potential to make the Top 25 this season and will probably do so at some point down the road.

The Musketeers were the highest seeded team from the Atlantic 10 during last year’s NCAA Tournament and made it to the Sweet 16. Xavier probably won’t be as strong as it was last season, but it is still in its own league with Dayton as far as the A-10 is concerned.

It will also be the half-way point of the A-10 schedule for UMass so Kellogg will have a pretty good idea of where his team’s at by this point.

4. vs. Cornell, Nov. 18, Amherst

Cornell probably isn’t what you think of when the list of good basketball schools comes to mind, but it’s become one of the best mid-major programs in the country.

It made the NCAA Tournament last year as a 14-seed and has all five starters returning and also benefit from former Minuteman Max Groebe transferring to the Big Red. It won 21 games last year with a pretty competitive schedule so this game will certainly present a challenge for UMass.

It will also be the first home game for the Minutemen and that should draw a lot of attention to this game. I realize that this doesn’t naturally have the appeal that the Boston College game has, but that game isn’t in the main part of Boston and it’s two days before Christmas.

I just don’t see that getting the attention from UMass fans as much as Cornell will.

5. vs. Dayton, Feb. 27, Dayton, Ohio

This game is as tough as conference opponents get.

Dayton has been ranked as high as 19th and it has the roster to back it up. This meeting won’t happen until almost the end of the season so it should be important as far as the A-10 Tournament goes and it will also help the Minutemen’s RPI if they pull the win off.

The Flyers are good enough to go deep into the NCAA Tournament this year so it will be good preparation for whatever postseason situation UMass finds itself in this season.

It’s exactly the kind of game Kellogg wants and he didn’t even have to ask. Fortunately for the Minutemen, they don’t have to worry about playing the best team in the A-10 for a long time.

Adam Miller is a collegian  columnist. He can be reached at amiller@dailycollegian.com.

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