Thirteen days ago, all was looking bright for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.
UMass had just stomped Saint Joseph’s on Feb. 9 at the Mullins Center to bump its record to 16-6 overall, and 6-3 in the Atlantic 10, sliding the Minutemen into the driver’s seat for one of four byes in the conference tournament.
But a three-game losing streak has UMass (16-9, 6-6 A-10) desperately holding onto the ninth seed in the conference with just a game and a half separating the Minutemen and the 13th seed.
That team, Dayton, comes to the Mullins Center on Saturday afternoon. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m., and can be heard on WEEI Springfield (105.5 FM).
After losses at Virginia Commonwealth, at home against Temple and most recently at St. Bonaventure, UMass coach Derek Kellogg is trying to remain optimistic about his team’s ever-dwindling chances at a postseason berth.
“I just think the schedule being very difficult, combined with our limited numbers, it didn’t work out perfectly for us in this last little stretch here,” Kellogg said in a phone interview, “and I’m hoping we can turn it around and bring back a little bit of hope for a postseason appearance.”
The Flyers (14-11, 4-7 A-10) come in with plenty to play for, still fighting for the 12th spot in the conference tournament. Dayton is a half-game behind the Bonnies for the final bid to Brooklyn, N.Y.
Senior guard Kevin Dillard powers a Flyers squad that’s coming off a 70-59 victory over Xavier. Dillard powered Dayton with 17 points, above his season pace of 15 points per game.
“He’s one of the better players in the league,” Kellogg said, “a guy who can affect the game on both ends of the floor.”
Dillard’s explosiveness on the perimeter could be a problem for the Minutemen, whose lack of guard depth came back to haunt them Wednesday night at SBU. Chaz Williams and Freddie Riley were the only UMass guards on the floor for the final 11:08, while Trey Davis sat on the bench.
With no experienced substitute to spare the two, the perimeter defense was compromised. The Bonnies backcourt of Eric Mosley, Chris Johnson and Demitrius Conger gashed the Minutemen for a combined 77 points.
Temple guard Khalif Wyatt’s strong second half also came back to cost UMass on Saturday night, and Kellogg said the recent opposition’s strong guard play is no coincidence, especially with Jesse Morgan sidelined for the remainder of the year.
“I think it goes without saying that two leading scorers in the last couple of games are in the backcourt position, where we’re obviously very thin,” Kellogg said. “That lack of perimeter depth can hurt, but it’s hard to look back on it because I thought the biggest thing that Jesse did for us was he was our best perimeter defender.”
But Kellogg knows righting the ship will be no cakewalk on Saturday, as the A-10 schedule is filled with one competitive squad after another.
“I just think the overall parody of the league is probably the best it’s been ever since I can remember, and unfortunately every night out means you’re gonna be in a battle,” he said, “a game that comes down to, really, one or two possessions. We just gotta do a better job of making less mistakes throughout the game.”
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.