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Strohecker: UMass basketball can cement itself among A-10’s best teams with win over VCU

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

In my first three years attending the University of Massachusetts, the men’s basketball team had many home games against top-notch Atlantic 10 opponents, but came away with mixed results.

In the 2010-11 season, UMass lost an overtime thriller to a 22-win Temple team that was the poster school of the conference.

In the next season, the Minutemen knocked off an up-and-down Xavier squad that featured premier players Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease, snapping a six-game losing streak to the Musketeers. It gave hope to the UMass faithful that the program could finally be recognized as one of the A-10’s top teams.

Then last year happened.

Butler paid a visit to Mullins Center, making for one of the biggest home games in recent memory for the Minutemen. It was a chance to knock off a mid-major that was just two years removed from losing to Duke in the national championship game. The result: UMass never led.

It was a prime opportunity that the Minutemen let slip away, forcing them to wait until this year to once again have the opportunity to host a premier opponent and finally get that marquee conference win that could vault UMass into the top-tier of the A-10.

That game will be Friday night, when coach Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth’s “havoc defense” pays its first-ever visit to Amherst. VCU has had success in recent years, making it all the way to the Final Four in 2011, and has been a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament.

When the Rams joined the A-10 last year, they instantly became one of the top teams in the conference, despite having all of their success against the Sun Belt Conference. But make no mistake about it: VCU, even in the midst of having a so-called down season, is still one of the main draws in the conference, wherever the team goes.

“They’ve been ranked in the Top 25. They went to the Final Four, so they’ve done a really good job as a program and they’ve branded themselves well,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.

When you take a look at the A-10 scene to determine who belongs at the top, it’s hard to tell. After all, for a very long time, Temple was the school that came to everyone’s mind when the A-10 was mentioned, but that team is now in the American Athletic Conference. Butler was a one-year wonder, making a quick pit stop before moving on to the new Big East. And the Rams haven’t been around for long enough to really be the face of the conference.

So, I ask, why isn’t it time to think of the Minutemen as one of the premier teams in the A-10?

They’ve been members of the conference since 1976, and were toe-to-toe with Temple as the best team in the A-10 for a while in the 1990s. But, after a decade of down years and not much postseason success, UMass now finds itself back in that position to make a run at the conference crown and stay there.

The Minutemen climbed all the way up to No. 13 in the AP Poll earlier this season and already feature marquee wins over several non-conference opponents. They’ve helped move the A-10 in an upward motion, so now all that UMass needs is that one notable win that can plant the team among the conference’s best.

When VCU visits a sold-out Mullins Center on Friday night, the Minutemen will be playing for much more than their 21st win of the season. They will be on full display for a national audience, looking to make their case: Now is the time to finally think of UMass as one of the marquee names that the A-10 has to offer.

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at pstrohec@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @P_Strohecker.

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