During the early minutes of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s practice Thursday afternoon at Curry Hicks Cage, the Minutemen had themselves a little fun.
Fresh off its 81-53 blowout victory over Rhode Island, UMass (15-6, 5-3 Atlantic 10) began practice with a layup line that quickly turned into an impromptu dunk contest.
With coach Derek Kellogg involved in the action – albeit not dunking – several of the athletic players on the team performed acrobatic windmill dunks and self alley-oops, each hooting and hollering at each other as they tried to one-up their previous teammate’s display.
Eventually, however, the fun subsided, and the team got back to business. With eight games remaining on their schedule, there is rarely anymore time for the Minutemen to get distracted with a grueling stretch that begins Saturday night at the Mullins Center against Saint Joseph’s.
Kellogg said his team can’t dwell on any wins and losses during this crucial juncture of the season.
“If you win a couple or you lose a couple, you can’t let that really affect your mindset because the next one’s coming fairly quickly,” Kellogg said. “We just have to get our share, however many that is I’m not sure, but we need to get our share out of the next eight games.”
That stretch begins Saturday against a Hawks (13-8, 4-4 A-10) team that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations so far this season. They returned all five of their starters from last year’s team and were even selected as the preseason favorite to win the A-10, but right now they sit in ninth place in the league halfway through the conference schedule.
Kellogg attributed some of SJU’s slow start to the absences of junior forward Halil Kanacevic, who has missed six games this season for different reasons, including getting suspended for two games in December after he flipped off the crowd during a loss to Villanova.
“I’d say he’s one of the better guys on their team, so with him being gone, I think that disrupted their flow,” Kellogg said. “There have just been games where they haven’t really shot as well as they can. It’s been kind of themselves more than anything.”
When the Hawks do have their entire team playing together, Kellogg said they are one of the more talented teams in the conference. Leading the charge are guards Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, who both rank in the top 15 in the conference in scoring at 14.9 points per game (9th) and 13.7 points per game (15th), respectively.
Although the Jones-Galloway duo combined for 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting in the Hawks’ loss to the Minutemen in their first meeting last season, the pair scored 32 points in their win in the second meeting.
Regardless, Kellogg has plenty to worry about Saturday with SJU, which also features center C.J. Aiken and forward Ronald Roberts Jr., who are averaging 11.5 and 11.1 points per game, respectively, as well as guard Chris Wilson.
“When they’re clicking on all cylinders, they’re as good or better than anybody in the league,” Kellogg said. “They’re a dangerous, dangerous team, and I think our guys recognize how good their team is.
“They’re about as well rounded a team that we’ll play all year.”
Tip at the Mullins Center is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.