With the regular season now in its rearview mirror, it’s now or never for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team if it wants to earn a bid into the NCAA tournament.
UMass (20-10, 9-7 Atlantic 10) will play host to No. 9 seed Duquesne tonight at the Mullins Center in the first round of the A-10 tournament. After losing four of their last six games to end the regular season, the No. 8 seed Minutemen will likely need to make a deep run in the tournament to receive consideration for the Big Dance, but coach Derek Kellogg is confident about their chances.
“My team seems to be in a good frame of mind,” he said. “They seem to have enough energy to continue playing and we have a team that I think feels like they can win. Those are the recipes that you need to have to give yourself a chance to win.”
On Jan. 18, the Dukes (16-14, 7-9 A-10) got the better of UMass, 80-69, in their only matchup of the season. That game was played at the A.J. Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh, however, the playoff matchup will be played in Amherst, where the Minutemen are 14-1 this season.
In the early season contest, UMass committed a season-high 29 turnovers, which Duquesne converted into 32 points. While the Minutemen have cut down on their turnovers since then, Kellogg stressed it as one of the major factors in tonight’s matchup.
“You can’t have possessions that come up as empty possessions,” said Kellogg. “We have to get a shot at the basket each time and we have to go to the free throw line. It’s one where we can’t change how we play this late in the season, we’ve got to run and get up and down the floor.”
A key factor in the game will be the ability of guards Chaz Williams and Jesse Morgan to secure the basketball. Williams turned it over seven times in the Jan. 18 loss, while Morgan coughed it up eight times.
“Fifteen turnovers with your primary ball handlers is probably not conducive to a successful contest,” said Kellogg.
While Williams and Morgan have had their share of struggles holding onto the ball at times this season, they both are playing their best basketball entering tonight’s game.
Williams is averaging 22.3 points, 8.0 assists per game in his last four contests, including an impressive stat line of 19 points, nine assists, six rebounds and five steals in Saturday’s win against Rhode Island, despite shooting 5-for-17 from the field.
On Monday, he was also named First Team All-Conference after his impressive season in which he won the league assist title.
Morgan, following a difficult shooting slump, came back strong on Saturday. He was a perfect 9-for-9 from the field and connected on all six of his 3-point attempts to earn a game-high 25 points.
The duo’s continued success will be an important key to victory tonight, especially against a Dukes team that features four guards in their starting lineup, which gave the Minutemen fits in the regular season matchup.
“I would say that’s one thing that concerns me,” said Kellogg. “They have four primary ball handlers and it’s tougher to press and really get those teams to turn it over the way I’d like to when they have four guys that can dribble, pass and shoot.”
B.J. Monteiro will be the Duke to watch for. He scored 23 points in the Duquesne’s victory over UMass and his 15.0 points per game leads the team.
Behind him, Sean Johnson notched a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Minutemen and T.J. McConnell added 15 points.
UMass will also have to be weary of Eric Evans. Foul trouble limited his role against the Minutemen, but his 9.2 points per game this season rounds out a balanced Duquesne offense that ranks fourth in the A-10 in scoring at 72.3 points per game.
“It should be an entertaining game,” said Kellogg. “One that I think the team that executes or can make shots or put balls back in the basket will be the team that will come away with the win.”
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center. If UMass wins, it will advance to Atlantic City, N.J. for a quarterfinal rematch with No. 1 seed Temple on Friday.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.