Even when Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg isn’t scheduling games against tough non-conference opponents, the Minutemen still can’t get away from a difficult schedule.
After losing to Charlotte on Saturday night, UMass (8-13, 2-5 Atlantic 10) will play the current A-10 leader Xavier. The Musketeers (15-6, 7-1 A-10) are continuing to make a case for being in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll after rolling through Duquesne and Fordham in their last two games by an average of 42 points.
Offensively, they are near the top of the league in almost every category. Xavier leads the A-10 in points per game (79.8) and 3-point percentage (39.6), while holding the second best field-goal percentage (46.5) next to St. Bonaventure (47.5).
The Musketeers shooting in their last two games is one of the big reasons why they have faced little resistance as they shot the ball well over 50 percent from the field.
“They’re the benchmark in our league right now,” Kellogg said. “After watching a bunch of teams on tape and watching them play, I’d have to say that they’re the favorite right now to be an NCAA Tournament team and a potential team that can advance as they’ve proven throughout the 2000’s.”
Unless the Minutemen can turnaround their shooting woes this season, they will have to rely on their defense to cool down Xavier’s offense. UMass finished the game against the 49ers 34.3 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from beyond the arc in its 72-58 loss.
Other than senior Ricky Harris’s 25 points, the Minutemen offense fell flat as 49er guard Derrio Green (34 points) had the best game of his career.
If there’s anything positive the Maroon and White can take away from playing one of the best teams in the A-10, it’s that freshman Javorn Farrell is already displaying the work ethic necessary to shut down a team’s top scorer.
Farrell’s assignment, Shamari Spears (16 points per game), who is usually Charlotte’s best scorer, finished with four points in 30 minutes of play. After the game, Kellogg praised the freshman for his hustle and willingness to be physical on the defensive end.
Before practice on Monday, Kellogg said that he will likely have Farrell guarding Jordan Crawford, a transfer from Indiana leading the A-10 with 19.2 points per game.
Although Crawford has a significant amount of experience over Farrell, Kellogg hopes that his physical maturity will wear down the Musketeers’ best offensive player.
“They’re both about the same size, they’re both similar in build,” Kellogg said. “I just think Crawford has been in college longer and knows how to play the game a little bit better. But you never underestimate a guy who’s like a street fighter out there that competes and contests on every play, and I think Javorn is becoming that guy for us.”
Although Farrell showed his ability to shut down a leading scorer against the 49ers, he will have a little bit more of a challenge against Crawford, who is faster and a better scorer than Spears.
Crawford has gone the last 17 games scoring at least 16 points against quality opponents, which include four teams in the Top 25. His worst scoring night of the season came on Nov. 26 where he finished with nine points on 4-of-20 shooting.
“We’re just going to do what we normally do and play tough defense,” Farrell said of stopping Crawford. “We have to keep Crawford from getting easy buckets like he’s been doing all season.”
Even if Farrell can successfully guard Crawford, the Minutemen still have to worry about Xavier’s size. Center Kenny Frease (6.2 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game) has been very productive as a seven-footer averaging 18.3 minutes in playing time.
The Musketeers also feature forward Jason Love, who is husky at 6-foot-9 and is the leading rebounder for his team and is its second best scorer.
Over the past few games, rebounding has been the least of UMass’ worries, especially on the offensive end, where it’s averaging a league-leading 15.3 offensive rebounds per game. But if strong rebounding doesn’t turn into more second-chance points, the Minutemen are going to find themselves struggling to catch-up to Xavier’s high-powered offense.
UMass’ biggest struggle against opponents lately is that it gives itself plenty of scoring opportunities because of its rebounding, but doesn’t finish as often as Kellogg would like.
The Minutemen beat the 49er’s, 17-10, in offensive rebounding, but finished with 13 second-chance points.
Adam Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.