For coach Derek Kellogg and the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, the task is straightforward, but far from easy.
As the No. 6 seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which starts Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Minutemen (19-10, 9-7 A-10) don’t have a first round bye, which means they have to win four games in four consecutive days to win the championship and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
As cliché as it seems, Kellogg says he’s taking the “one game at a time” approach, but he’s also not ignoring the potential of having to play multiple games in a row this week and thinking about how he can best reserve his team’s energy level.
“Listen, we’re worried about GW right now, just because it’s the next game and I think we can worry about rest after that game,” Kellogg said. “The following day we wouldn’t play until 9 o’clock, so I don’t think the first two days would be a problem. It’s when you get into that third or fourth day, but I’d be happy to be there and see how we can do.”
For UMass, the task of winning four games in four days may even be harder due to its lack of depth. With guards Jesse Morgan and Javorn Farrell sidelined due to injuries as well as freshman Izzy Freeman being academically ineligible, the Minutemen have played the second half of the season with nine players.
Still, even with nine bodies, Kellogg is confident that he has a team equipped to handle the potential circumstances of playing so many games in a short amount of time.
“I do think Trey (Davis) is going to get minutes regardless because he’s starting to play better and I think Tyler (Bergantino)’s proven that he can come in and help us,” Kellogg said. “By just playing those two guys, I think it’s going to take some minutes down from Cady (Lalanne), some minutes from our hybrids and I’ll be able to give Chaz (Williams) and Freddie (Riley) a little bit of a break.
“Over a tournament you do want to be conscious of playing anybody 38 minutes or 39 minutes on back-to-back-to-back-to-back nights if you’re fortunate enough to play.”
One thing the Minutemen will also need to be conscious about is not getting into serious foul trouble. In nine of its 15 games away from the Mullins Center this season, UMass has committed 20 team fouls, including two instances of 29 fouls – against Tennessee in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament and on the road against St. Bonaventure.
Against the Bonnies, the Minutemen were dangerously close to being forced to play with four players on the court at the end of the game after four players fouled out and Lalanne picked up four fouls.
Kellogg understands the importance of keeping fouls at a minimum to make sure certain players aren’t forced into spots they aren’t accustomed to, which could add up to an early exit in the tournament.
“We’ve been trying to stress that for a while because I’ve been playing seven, then eight and now finally nine guys,” Kellogg said. “I think they understand there’s not many subs, that we have to stay out of foul trouble and try to keep all those guys on the floor.”
If UMass is fortunate enough to get past George Washington, it will take on third-seeded Temple in the quarterfinals on Friday at 9 p.m. A win there would set up a semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and the championship game is Sunday at 1 p.m., leaving the Minutemen with little time for rest between games.
Williams is certainly not worried about the potential of playing multiple games in a row. After all, when he played on AAU teams growing up, he was accustomed to playing several games in one day, let alone playing one every day.
“It’s something most basketball players go through,” he said. “I know most of our guys went through it with the AAU travel. It’s just basketball and preparing and taking it one day at a time.
“I think we’re in the best shape of our lives.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.