Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg says he’s just trying to go through this week like it’s any other ordinary one.
This week, however, is not any ordinary week.
In a season that’s been full of big games, the Minutemen enter arguably their biggest regular season game in years when they play host to Butler Thursday night in what is expected to be a near-sellout for Senior Night at the Mullins Center.
After suffering a three-game losing streak in mid-February, which was capped by, at the time, a potentially NCAA tournament resume crushing defeat to St. Bonaventure, UMass’ postseason outlook looked grim heading into its final stretch.
But all of a sudden, the Minutemen (18-9, 8-6 Atlantic 10) have turned it around with two consecutive wins, the latest an impressive road victory at Xavier that has once again heated up the conversation about their potential to make their first NCAA tournament in 15 years.
It’s all set up for Thursday’s nationally televised (NBC Sports Network) matchup against the Bulldogs (22-7, 9-5 A-10), a team that ranks in the Top 30 of the RPI and is likely on its way back to the NCAA tournament this season. For UMass, a win can significantly bolster its resume, while a loss would make it a near-certainty that it would have to win next week’s A-10 Tournament if it wants to reach its lofty postseason goal.
“It’s what you come to college to do and play for, it’s kind of why you coach,” Kellogg said. “The guys understand the magnitude. … There are some special implications for the game. I think everyone around here understands that, and the guys know it. It’s a good position to be in.”
The Minutemen come in riding high after their big win against the Musketeers on Saturday in a game that they were mostly without star point guard Chaz Williams, who picked up three fouls in the first 10 minutes of the first half and played a season-low 22 minutes.
His teammates stepped up in his absence, including freshman Trey Davis, who scored 10 first-half points, and seniors Freddie Riley and Terrell Vinson, who combined for eight 3-pointers in the second half to put the game away.
But Williams, who leads the A-10 with 7.4 assists per game, says he feels refreshed and hopes he can play a little more this time around.
“I was telling guys, saying, ‘Hey man, I get to play 80 minutes now it feels like because I didn’t get any playing time really the last game,” Williams said.
In terms of recent college basketball history, Butler is one of the more successful programs in the country. The Bulldogs made the national championship in both 2010 and 2011, and led by coach Brad Stevens, who boasts a 161-47 record in his six seasons as coach – which is second-best in that time span in NCAA history – have consistently been one of the best mid-major teams in the nation.
Butler left the Horizon League to join the A-10 last summer and has continued that kind of success as part of its new league. Of the five teams in the country that have been ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 this season, the Bulldogs have beaten two of them – Gonzaga and Indiana, who are currently the top two teams in the nation.
Despite that success, however, Williams doesn’t feel intimidated by it, and thinks this is just another test.
“It’s pretty funny, the other day me and a couple of my teammates were talking about how Miami was No. 2 and we actually gave the game away to them,” Williams said, referring to UMass’ 75-62 loss against the Hurricanes on Dec. 1. “We feel like we can compete with anybody in the country, the top guys in the country. … This will be another good test for us.”
While they have attained their share of success this season, the Bulldogs arrive to the Mullins Center with a sour taste in their mouths following a 32-point blowout loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, which dropped them from this week’s AP Top 25.
Kellogg certainly thinks Butler will be hungry coming off that kind of loss, but he’s happier that his squad is coming off a win going into Thursday’s matchup.
“You can look at it both ways,” Kellogg said. “They’re well-coached, they have a good bunch of kids that have had success, they’re going to come in to play and I think we’re going to come to play too.”
While the Bulldogs have talent at nearly every position, it will be hard for UMass not to focus on Rotnei Clarke.
Butler’s senior guard is a candidate for A-10 Player of the Year, and for good reason. He ranks fourth in the conference in scoring at 16.5 points per game and is a threat to hit a 3-pointer from virtually anywhere. Earlier this season, he made a running 1 footed 3-pointer over a defender at the buzzer to beat Marquette.
“He’s gonna be a big challenge,” Riley said. “He’s got a lot of range and he really can shoot from anywhere at any time, so it’s going to be important for everybody to try to make it tough on him and try to not let him get comfortable because if he can get in a flow, then he’s going to keep making shots.”
While it will be important for the Minutemen to make it tough on Clarke defensively, they can’t forget about his teammates.
The Bulldogs boast five different players who are averaging at least 9.9 points per game, including Roosevelt Jones, a versatile forward who can score (10.8 points per game) and get rebounds (5.8 per game) at a high rate.
“They’re a little bit different than some of the teams we’ve played where they’re not so reliant on one guy,” Kellogg said. “At this time of year, I hope we’re paying attention to every last detail because the small things turn into big things.”
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.