March 3, 2015

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Backcourt battle looms for UMass men’s basketball against La Salle

Throughout its 2012-13 campaign, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has taken on its fair share of top notch guard play around the country.

Cade Belisle/Collegian

From Harvard freshman phenom Siyani Chambers to Ohio star D.J. Cooper to, most recently, Richmond sharpshooter Darien Brothers, and many in between, it’s fair to say UMass has played against some of the best guard talent there is to offer this season.

But in order for the Minutemen (13-5, 3-2 Atlantic 10 Conference) to exercise their recent demons of playing at Tom Gola Arena and come away with a win against La Salle on Wednesday night, they will need to overcome a different kind of backcourt battle.

Much like many other teams in the A-10, the Explorers (14-5, 4-2 A-10) feature strong guard play. But unlike most teams, they also feature a backcourt-heavy lineup, oftentimes with four guards on the floor at the same time, in order to create havoc defensively and push the tempo.

“I think people sleep on what makes them good,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “Their defensive pressure and the way they can switch everything and really get out and create havoc and turnovers I think is really what make them better than even their offense.

“I’ve been pretty impressed,” he said, “watching them on tape of how they play defensively.”

Leading the Explorers backcourt are veterans Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren, who rank in the top-two on the team in points, assists and steals per game. They are the highest scoring duo in the A-10 and are both early candidates for conference player of the year.

“Those guys are really good players,” Kellogg said. “I like both of those guys. I think they’re two of the better guards in the league, and they match up well with our backcourt. It’ll be a good matchup between those guys.”

As good as Galloway and Duren are, it doesn’t stop there for La Salle, as the Explorers also start guard Sam Mills (7.2 ppg) and bring Tyrone Garland (13.2 ppg) and D.J. Peterson (4.1 ppg) off the bench. La Salle’s five main guards average at least 23.7 minutes per game this season, providing a depth advantage that is rarely matched by its opponents in the backcourt.

For UMass, it’s almost the complete opposite. Since junior guard Jesse Morgan went down with a torn ACL on Jan. 10, the Minutemen have been playing with three healthy guards, including inexperienced freshman Trey Davis as the only one coming off the bench.

“We’re going to have to guard the perimeter a lot more,” point guard Chaz Williams said. “They play four guards, so there’s going to be different matchups throughout the floor, and we could be able to switch a lot more.”

Much like Sunday’s win over the Spiders, the Minutemen will need to find ways to break La Salle’s guard pressure and feed the ball into the post – where they will have another size advantage – in order to come away with a victory.

UMass did just that on Sunday, as its guards continuously looked inside to its big men, including Cady Lalanne, who finished with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the low post.

“It’s the same scenario with La Salle,” Lalanne said. “I feel like most teams in this league it’s going to be the same scenario. It’s more of a guard-oriented league.

“I feel like I can make a significant impact this game because they’re pretty thin in the post, and that’s where we can really dominate the whole game – in the post,” he said. “That was our second-half strategy (against Richmond), just to throw it into the post.”

For the Minutemen, a team known for their high-paced fast break style, it will certainly take a different mindset to pound the ball in the paint. However, for victory on Wednesday night, it may just be a necessity.

“When teams overextend and press that way, you’ve got to either beat them off the bounce or get inside or you have to offensive rebound,” Kellogg said. “That’ll be the goal for us — to do all three — and if you can do two out of three I think that gives you a chance to win the game.”

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at shewitt@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.

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