At a quick glance, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has several reasons to overlook Rhode Island.
The Rams (6-14, 1-6 Atlantic 10 Conference) are ranked dead last in the conference in scoring offense this season (62.2 points per game) and are stuck in a four-game losing streak heading into Wednesday night’s tip at the Mullins Center.
And with a nationally televised game on ESPN2 against Saint Joseph’s looming Saturday, it would be easy for the Minutemen (14-6, 4-3 A-10) to look over their statistically inferior opponent and ahead to the weekend.
But UMass coach Derek Kellogg has been in this spot far too many times to let that happen. Kellogg, who is 4-3 against URI in his coaching career, knows just how tense the rivalry between the two schools can be.
“It’s a game where we’ve always gone either way,” he said. “It’s always scary. When they’re playing hard, when they’re playing with a lot of confidence, and really with not much to lose, and that’s usually a scary opponent, a team that can do those things.”
Under first-year coach Dan Hurley, the Rams, who last year finished with their first losing record since 2004-05, are well on track for another one this season, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story.
On its recent four-game slide, which includes losses to conference frontrunners Butler and Virginia Commonwealth last week, Rhode Island has only lost by an average of 4.3 points and has more or less been in every game it’s played since conference play began on Jan. 9.
Within the losses, one game does stand above the rest for the Rams, however. On Jan. 19, Rhode Island delivered one of the most impressive wins of the Atlantic 10 season with an 82-80 overtime road victory at Saint Louis, something UMass couldn’t pull off in its conference opener, even with guard Jesse Morgan playing in the first half before he tore his ACL early in the second.
Despite the impressive win, the losses have been piling up for the Rams, which is something that Kellogg thinks makes them that much hungrier for success.
“I think they’ve worked hard in a lot of games without the success that you would like when you work that hard, and the only way you can vindicate some of those things is getting victories,” he said.
“They beat Saint Louis on the road, Kellogg said, “so that means they can probably beat just about anyone in the conference.”
The little success that Rhode Island has mustered this season can be largely attributed to junior guard Xavier Munford, who ranks second in the A-10 in scoring at 17.3 points per game heading into Wednesday’s contest.
Kellogg likened Munford to former UMass star guard Ricky Harris, a volume scorer who filled up the stat sheet quickly. At 6-foot-2, Munford can create his own shot off the dribble and also step back and hit the 3-ball. He tallied a season-high 33 points, which included 8-for-15 shooting from long distance in a double overtime victory against Auburn back on Nov. 25.
The Rams will likely center their offense around Munford’s explosiveness. The junior’s 295 field goal attempts so far this season leads the next best on the team, Mike Powell, by 114, and he’s shooting from 3-point range at a 31.9 percent clip.
“I think you have to play him like we’ve played all the other better scoring guards in the league,” Kellogg said. “Stay connected to him, realize where he is on the floor. The guy has a green light as soon as he gets over half court.
“He’s dangerous, he’s really dangerous, and he’s gone on some runs in games where they were down a little bit and he brought them back up a bit,” Kellogg said. “Those guys are scary, we’ve been in that position before on the opposite end.”
Wednesday’s matchup will be the 139th meeting between the rivals, which is by far the most played series in UMass history. Only the UConn series, which has been played 108 times, has also gone over 100.
The two teams split their season series last season as each protected their home court. The Rams won an 81-78 nail biter at the Ryan Center before the Minutemen prevailed 89-83 at the Mullins Center in the regular season finale.
Wednesday’s tip is slated for 7 p.m. The first 1,000 students through the doors will receive a free T-shirt.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.