Despite holding the No. 11-seed – the second to last seed in the tournament – based on their regular season conference record, the Minutemen (11-19, 5-11 A-10) are looking at tonight’s 7 p.m. opening round matchup at Charlotte as a new beginning.
“We put the struggles behind us and Coach [Derek Kellogg] told us this is a new season now,” Javorn Farrell said after Saturday’s victory over Rhode Island. “I think anything is possible now.”
The 49ers (19-11, 9-7 A-10), who hold the No. 6-seed in the conference tournament, took the earlier game of the year at UMass, 72-58, back on Jan. 30. The win was the fifth win of a seven-game winning streak for Charlotte, but after the streak it struggled as it dropped six of its final seven games of the regular season.
The winner of the contest will advance to Atlantic City, where the A-10 Tournament will resume on Friday, and face No. 3 Richmond at 9 p.m.
For UMass, not only will it be trying to overcome the past in terms of this season, but also its past struggles in past A-10 Tournaments. Not since 2002 have the Minutemen won a game in the tournament, a streak of seven-straight losses.
Even with the odds against them, Ricky Harris and the Minutemen have confidence in themselves heading into the tournament, in large part to Saturday’s victory.
“I think we can make a run at it because I think we haven’t really been blown out by a lot of the top teams other than Dayton. With a win like that against [Rhode Island], a possible NCAA team, I think that says a lot,” Harris said following Saturday’s win.
A common theme of many of UMass’ losses this season has been falling behind early against opponents, mounting a comeback and then not having enough left in the tank to finish the comeback.
Saturday’s win over Rhode Island was a step in the right direction for UMass according to Kellogg and may not have come at a better time. For one of the first times this season, the Minutemen kept the game within striking distance, allowing them to have the energy to finish out the game.
In addition, with a young core of players who are still learning what it takes to compete at the college level, the win over the Rams gives them that experience and confidence needed to make a run in a conference tournament.
“We can do a lot more winning if we stay positive and stay on this path,” Harris said.
But even more important to making a run in the A-10 Tournament than strong play from the younger Minutemen, is the play of Harris. The senior scored a game-high 28 points in the victory over URI and has averaged 23.7 points per game over the final 11 games of the season to help lift UMass into the A-10 Tournament.
Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at email@example.com.