Although getting an NCAA Tournament berth is out of the question, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team still has something to fight for: making the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
The Minutemen (10-17, 4-9 A-10) are 1.5 games ahead of Saint Joseph’s, who is currently in 13th place. The top 12 teams in the conference will play in the A-10 Tournament.
UMass is coming off of two straight losses to George Washington and Saint Louis, and hopes to knock Dayton out of its chances to make the NCAA Tournament after a week of rest.
The Flyers (18-9, 7-6 A-10) are also coming off of two straight losses to Duquesne and No. 18 Temple. Their losing streak hasn’t only hurt their chances of making it past the A-10 Tournament, it has also given the Minutemen a slight chance of finishing the league in seventh place.
If UMass can beat Dayton, it will be two games behind the Flyers with games against La Salle and Rhode Island. But before the Minutemen can worry about any of that, they have to overcome playing in a hostile environment.
The Flyers’ home-court is one of the few arenas with NBA-caliber facilities and holds 13,500 people. UMass coach Derek Kellogg expects the arena to be packed and rowdy.
Dayton media relations reports the game is sold out, the fourth time this season that the team has reached maximum capacity for a home game.
“It’s a huge homecourt advantage,” Kellogg said.
Despite having a high RPI and wins against quality opponents, Dayton’s performance in the A-10 schedule has put itself in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. It is currently the only team with six conference losses still on the bubble, and suffered a devastating loss earlier this season to the Hawks.
For Kellogg, it means his team will have to work harder to avoid its 10th in-conference loss.
“The one thing you’re going to know is that they’re going to bring maximum effort and play as hard as they possibly can, because when you have a berth like that at stake, that’s what they’re striving for,” Kellogg said.
At this point of the season, Kellogg has two objectives in mind. The first is to make sure his senior captain, Ricky Harris, leaves UMass on a positive note.
Kellogg also wants to allow the future of the Minutemen to gain experience heading into next year. Since losing sophomore David Gibbs to a broken foot, Kellogg has been starting three freshmen, and at times has played four at the same time.
“I’m interested to see where the young guys are,” Kellogg said. “Sometimes, young [players], especially freshmen, either kick it into high gear at this time of the season, or they hit a wall. I think my guys are ready to go.”
Unlike the last game the Minutemen had against the Billikens, the Flyers are an experienced team with seven seniors and four juniors. One of those juniors is Chris Wright (14.6 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game), who leads Dayton in scoring and rebounds.
He also gives the team a strong defensive presence, averaging 1.4 blocks per game.
As a team, the Flyers (44.1) have the fifth best field-goal shooting percentage in the A-10. While their offense isn’t going to scare anyone, they have allowed 61.2 ppg this season. The only teams allowing fewer points are the three currently tied for first place in the conference (the Owls, SLU and Richmond).
“We need to play smart and make sure we take care of the basketball, because they’re really good when they can pressure you,” Kellogg said.
Adam Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.