March 4, 2015

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UMass basketball set for pivotal road test against Xavier

Cade Belisle/Collegian

Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg spent his Tuesday night this week scouting his next opponent while simultaneously checking in on some of his old friends.

In the midst of a week-long break from competition, Kellogg found some time to get to a television to check out one of the marquee games of the week between Xavier, which host his Minutemen on Saturday, and No. 19 Memphis, where he spent eight seasons as an assistant coach before moving on to UMass in 2008.

In a tight contest, the Musketeers prevailed at home, 64-62, over the Tigers.

“It was a fun game to watch from a personal perspective,” Kellogg said. “I didn’t think it was a great game to watch. I like to play a little faster, a little more up and down.”

He quickly digressed.

“But I think for the league and for us, it’s good that Xavier won,” he said. “It brings some more credibility to our conference and league, and it puts Xavier in the picture of being one of the better teams in our conference.”

But for as big as he thought Xavier’s win may have been for the Atlantic 10, Kellogg and his team (17-9, 7-6 A-10) are much more focused on another objective: picking up a much-needed road win over the fifth-place Musketeers (16-11, 8-5 A-10) on Saturday afternoon at the Cintas Center.

Road games are never easy in the A-10, but it’s a different animal when it comes to conference teams visiting the Cintas Center. Since 2007-08, Xavier is 52-2 in its home confines, including a stretch of five consecutive seasons in which it went 40-0.

“They’ve been able to do it over a long period of time and they’ve got a good home court advantage,” Kellogg said. “They get great crowds, I think the kids feel comfortable there. … You’ve gotta have a lot of breaks go your way.”

Kellogg committed a large portion of Wednesday’s practice to hammering in the importance of rebounding to his squad. The Musketeers rank second behind Butler in the A-10 in rebounding defense and rebounding margin, and on Tuesday night against Memphis, they pulled down 41 rebounds, 16 of which were on the offensive glass.

Leading the charge has been senior forward Travis Taylor, who leads the A-10 with 8.7 rebounds per game and had 10 boards – five offensive – on Tuesday night. He’ll pose a challenge down low for UMass center Cady Lalanne, who has averaged 8.7 rebounds per game in A-10 play, including a 14-rebound performance in last Saturday’s win against Dayton.

Kellogg stressed the importance of his team coming down with rebounds and starting up the break against a Xavier team that likes to slow the pace of the game and limit possessions.

“They look like they’ve been a little more physical than they’ve been,” Kellogg said. “They really jammed it inside (Tuesday) night, I thought they did a great job on the boards. They were actually more physical than Memphis, which I didn’t expect at all.”

Xavier wasn’t expected to be a factor in the A-10 race this season and were actually picked to finish 10th in the league’s preseason poll after leading scorers Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease graduated after last season, and major contributors Mark Lyons and Dez Wells left for other reasons.

But the Musketeers are right in the hunt for a high playoff bid in the A-10 tournament, and one of the major reasons for that has been freshman point guard Semaj Christon, who leads the team with 15 points and 4.5 assists per game, and has been named A-10 Rookie of the Week five times this season.

Kellogg said he’s not like most point guards.

“He’s a kid that’s almost like a point guard and a two-guard combined because he’s got good point guard instincts but he can really score,” Kellogg said. “When he’s scoring and playing well, they’re a much better team.”

The status of Xavier guard Dee Davis, who is the team’s third leading scorer and missed Tuesday’s game against Memphis due to concussion-like symptoms, is still unclear for Saturday. He returned to practice on Thursday, though, according to Cincinnati.com.

Tip on Saturday is set for 2 p.m. and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at shewitt@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.

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