Hewitt: Time running out on UMass basketball’s NCAA tournament chances
Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg says he hasn’t been sleeping too well lately.
It would be hard to blame him, considering his team is not only fresh off back-to-back losses last week, but, in the majority of NCAA tournament projections, on the outside looking in at the Big Dance.
That’s not, however, why the fifth-year coach is on the verge of sleeplessness.
Instead, after a 1-point loss to Temple on Saturday night, he’s thinking about the past, not the future.
“I’m thinking about a lot of the last-second plays, and what could have or would have potentially been,” Kellogg said. “That’s just the nature of the beast.”
But sleep on this: With five games to go in the regular season, time is quickly running out on the Minutemen’s chances to go dancing next month.
Somebody set the alarm clock.
Amidst a long college basketball season, it’s easy to pinpoint a game or two that could make or break a team’s postseason chances.
For UMass, those games came last week.
After playing arguably their best basketball of the season in wins over Rhode Island and then Saint Joseph’s, the Minutemen had a chance to cement themselves as a worthy NCAA tournament candidate with wins against Virginia Commonwealth and Temple, both teams that were in Joe Lunardi’s field of 68 at the beginning of last week.
But they came up empty-handed. First, UMass became the latest victims of the Rams’ “havoc” defense, and were completely dominated in the second half of a game that wasn’t really as close as the final score indicates.
The Minutemen then had a chance to make amends at home against the Owls. But down one on the final possession of the game, they couldn’t even get a shot off.
Suddenly, UMass is on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament picture, and with less than four weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, doesn’t have much time to climb back into it.
Perhaps he’s putting his best poker face on, but Kellogg doesn’t seem to be worried.
“I don’t even really think about that,” he said. “I think it’s really always pretty early to worry about it until like two games are left on the schedule, maybe one.”
At 16-8 and 6-5 in the A-10, Kellogg said his team is in a “decent position.” And make no mistake about it, with an RPI of 56, the Minutemen are still right in the hunt.
They don’t really have any bad losses either, although a home loss to George Washington in January could turn off the NCAA tournament selection committee depending on how the Colonials (11-12, 5-5 A-10) do the rest of the way.
The problem, though, seems to be in UMass’ lack of quality wins. The Minutemen’s best win of the season is probably Jan. 30’s road victory at La Salle, which is having an excellent season and is currently in Lunardi’s field of 68.
Other than that? There’s not much.
UMass has pretty much beaten everyone it’s supposed to and lost to everyone it’s supposed to. Early-season losses to NC State, which was ranked at the time, and Miami (Fla.), which is now ranked No. 2, could have gone a long way in the win department.
And now, with losses that would have been big victories against VCU and Temple, it’s easy to say the Minutemen lost their best opportunity to vault into the NCAA tournament conversation.
Just look at their remaining schedule. Of UMass’ five remaining regular-season games, only one is against an NCAA tournament team in Butler, which will likely still be nationally-ranked when it arrives to the Mullins Center on March 7.
That game, however, is no more of a must-win than any of the others. Losses to St. Bonaventure, Dayton or URI – who are all battling just to make next month’s Atlantic 10 tournament – could put the Minutemen out of the NCAA tournament picture for good, and a loss at Xavier would be another missed opportunity for a quality road win.
Barring a deep run in the A-10 tournament, it’s truly, more than ever, put up or shut up time for UMass.
As Kellogg said, that’s just the nature of the beast.
“I feel like we put ourselves in a position that now we have to win. Every game is a must-win,” Sampson Carter said. “All of them are must-wins, but it’s way more serious now.
“We just have to take it one game at a time. Just seize the moment, really.”
And if they don’t, it could be right back to the National Invitation Tournament.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.