When the clock hit all zeros in Saturday’s 1-point loss to Temple, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s likelihood of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid took a major hit.
Losses at Virginia Commonwealth on Thursday and most recently against the Owls left the Minutemen (16-8, 6-5 Atlantic 10) with two straight defeats in games that could have added quality wins to their playoff résumé.
Now, with his team’s chances of making the Big Dance looking bleaker, UMass coach Derek Kellogg has a new mindset for the final five games of the regular season: The tournament starts now with a trip to St. Bonaventure on Wednesday.
“It’s like we have a mini-tournament going right now,” Kellogg said before practice on Monday. “We’ve got five games left, 13 practices left, five shoot-arounds and five games, so let’s try to take care of business in this tournament, then you have one more tournament and then hopefully a tournament after that tournament.”
The conference tournament is scheduled to start March 14, and the Minutemen currently sit in a three-way tie for sixth place in the A-10 standings with Charlotte and Temple. The 49ers and Owls hold the tiebreaker, however, as both teams topped UMass in their respective meetings this season.
With the cluster of teams shifting in the middle of the A-10 standings, getting back in the win column is important. Kellogg is confident his players will be able to put their recent skid behind them and be focused come Wednesday.
“It’s the ups and downs of a college basketball season,” Kellogg said. “It’s (that) time of the year when you want to make sure the guys are … having some fun, whether you win every game or lose every game, they gotta be enjoying what’s going on.
“I think when you’re winning it’s easy to enjoy it and then when you have a couple of losses, I gotta make sure these guys are energized and feeling like, ‘Let’s go play.’”
Next up for the Minutemen is a Bonnies team (11-13, 4-7 A-10) that is also nursing a two-game losing streak. An overtime loss at Richmond on Saturday and a 3-point defeat against La Salle last Wednesday have spiraled St. Bonaventure down into a tie for 12th place in the conference.
The Bonnies won the A-10 tournament in Atlantic City last year, beating UMass, 84-80, in the semifinals on March 10, 2012, just after the Minutemen had knocked off top-seeded Temple the day before.
Senior forward Demitrius Conger continues to power the Bonnies, averaging 13.6 points and 35.8 minutes per game. Conger gave UMass fits last year with his game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds in St. Bonaventure’s win over the Minutemen in the conference tournament.
“He’s an interesting player because he’s actually hurt us because of how he drives hard to the basket,” Kellogg said of Conger, “and he’s done a good job of attacking our pressure and press.”
Despite their sub-.500 record in the A-10, Kellogg isn’t taking the Bonnies lightly. He calls them “a dangerous team.”
“They’ve lost some games that maybe you look and say they shouldn’t have lost, but they’ve also beaten some teams that maybe on paper they shouldn’t have beaten,” he said. “They’re an interesting team that’s well capable of beating just about anybody in the country in Olean, N.Y.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Reilly Center.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.