Tough non-conference schedule will pay dividends down the road
After finishing the non-conference schedule with a loss to Baylor on Jan. 23, Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg said before practice on Monday that he has no regrets about planning such a difficult schedule.
The Minutemen (8-12, 2-4 Atlantic 10) are 6-8 during the non-conference schedule, with some of their biggest losses coming to Michigan State, Seton Hall and the Bears. Despite UMass’ struggles with its non-conference opponents, Kellogg believes that it was a good test for his team’s morale.
“[The schedule] was difficult,” Kellogg said. “It was probably one of the top 15 or 20 out of conference schedules in the country. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s a good confidence test.”
The worst loss of the season came to the then-No. 2 Spartans, who downed the Minutemen by 38 points on Nov. 28.
However, the non-conference schedule didn’t completely hurt UMass. The Minutemen’s first non-conference loss came against Cornell, when the Big Red took a 74-61 victory during the home opener.
UMass’ biggest win of the season came at TD Garden on Dec. 19 when freshman Terrell Vinson hit a shot in the last seconds to defeat Memphis, who were close to making the Associated Press Top 25 Poll until getting knocked off by the Minutemen.
That game had an attendance of over 8,000 people and national coverage on ESPN2, despite a heavy snowstorm that swept the Boston area. Kellogg said after the win that he is very interested in continuing to have games at the Garden.
But other aspects of the schedule, such as the amount of traveling required to play teams as difficult as the ones in UMass’ schedule is something that Kellogg isn’t sure about wanting to put his team through, especially with its youth.
“I’m not sure if we’ll replicate it,” Kellogg said. “I’d prefer to have a few more home games on there with a young team so you can have the comforts of the Mullins Center.”
One of the benefits to playing so many away games is that the ones that are ‘home-and-home’ will require those same teams to come to the Mullins Center next year, when the team is a year older.
All of the games in Amherst this season were against mid-major programs, which helped boost the Minutemen’s record, but didn’t draw as much national attention as some of the games on the road or at neutral sites.
Although Kellogg wants to have games against top programs that will draw national attention, he is hoping to have more of the non-conference schedule at home.
“I think the schedule next year is going to be a little more beneficial next year in how many home games we’ll have and who we’re playing,” Kellogg said.
Trying to survive
Wednesday night’s win against Saint Joseph’s couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Minutemen jumped into a three-way tie with George Washington and the Hawks for 10th place and have a little bit of breathing room in hopes of making the A-10 season. While the tournament is more than a month away, UMass has a difficult conference schedule, starting with the game Saturday against Charlotte, who is 5-1 in the A-10.
The very next game is against Xavier, who is also 5-1 in the conference, and is a favorite to make the NCAA Tournament.
Things don’t get easier from there. UMass plays five of its last eight games on the road against the likes of Rhode Island, Saint Louis and Dayton.
The Minutemen also have back-to-back road games twice out of the remainder of their schedule.
“We actually play a tougher schedule than some of the other teams because of who we’re playing,” Kellogg said.
But with their first conference road win over SJU, Kellogg and Co. hope to use that as a confidence booster going into the rest of the season.
Adam Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.