Fresh off its signature win over Saint Louis, the first place Massachusetts men’s basketball team returns to action at last place Rhode Island tonight as the Minutemen continue on with its Atlantic 10 schedule.
UMass (16-5, 5-2 A-10) is flying high after its thunderous victory on Saturday afternoon, orchestrating arguably the team’s best half of basketball this season in the first half as the Minutemen pounded the Billikens, 72-59.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg hopes the team can move forward, leaving behind Saturday’s emotions and memories.
“I think it’s easy for a coach but sometimes you don’t know about college kids because it was a big win,” he said.
Kellogg explained that he gave the team Sunday off to relish in the victory and ensuing excitement that spread around campus. However, he wants his players to remember that it’s only one game and that there is business that still needs to be done in UMass’ remaining nine games, five of which will be coming away from the confines of the Mullins Center.
Tonight’s contest offers a different atmosphere than UMass’ last affair, traveling to URI, which currently sits in the basement of the A-10 standings.
If the Minutemen had gotten the Rams a week ago, they would have been encountering a struggling squad nursing a six-game losing streak to start its A-10 schedule.
What a difference one game makes. Rhode Island (4-18, 1-6 A-10) marched into Dayton and pulled off the upset, derailing the Flyers, 86-81, which is among the cluster of seven teams that sit within a game or less of first place in the conference.
Sophomore guard Billy Baron paved the way for the Rams with his career-high 25 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Freshman forward Jonathan Holton continued to make his presence felt on the floor, chipping in his third consecutive double-double with 16 points and 11 boards.
Rhode Island’s win shows just how dangerous any team in the conference can be on a given night, making it even more critical that UMass doesn’t fall victim to a letdown performance.
The Minutemen have played inconsistently on the road to date, which Kellogg noted as an area that the team needs to improve upon in the future. UMass faces a key four-game stretch that consists of three road tests: at URI, at George Washington this Saturday and at Saint Joseph’s on Feb. 11.
“We [have] to get a little more resilient on the road and play tougher away from the Mullins [Center],” said Kellogg, “which this week gives us a good opportunity [to do that].”
Kellogg added that his team must stick to its strengths – defense, rebounding and strong team chemistry – when entering hostile territory. The Minutemen have dropped two of its three road games in conference play. If UMass wants to continue pursuing an A-10 championship and NCAA tournament bid, that mark needs to change in the coming weeks or else the team will be left empty-handed at the end of the season.
The Minutemen blew a golden opportunity in its 80-69 loss at Duquesne on Jan. 18 after an 8-0 run midway through the second half turned a tie ballgame into an eight-point hole, a margin the team could not dig its way out of. UMass also shot themselves in the foot with a season-high 29 turnovers that turned into 32 points for the Dukes.
In the squad’s first conference road test on Jan. 8, the Minutemen laid an egg in the first half, falling behind early to La Salle, 11-2. The team then watched as their hosts mounted an 18-5 run going into the break to build a 51-25 cushion. A dominating second half by UMass proved to be too little too late, as the Minutemen couldn’t get any closer than five points behind, falling just short, 82-75.
In order to continue its magical ride this season, UMass will need to fix its road woes and there’s no time quite like the present.
The contest is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. at the Thomas M. Ryan Center.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.