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Sellner: I wrote UMass off too soon

Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

Last week, after an embarrassing home loss to George Mason, I had a very different column prepared regarding the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.

Who loses by 11 to the worst team in the Atlantic 10? What happened to the team that breezed through its non-conference schedule? Are they going to blow this?

Nine days later, I’m glad I pulled the plug on that piece. Following a tough road win at George Washington, UMass went toe-to-toe with Virginia Commonwealth on Friday night and put together one of the best 40-minute efforts I’ve seen from the Minutemen in my three years covering the team in its 80-75 win at the Mullins Center. The Rams’ “Havoc” did little to disrupt UMass. In fact, it was the “House of P.A.I.N.” that brought it in front of a national audience and dictated the pace of a game that brought pity upon the poor referees tasked with keeping up with the contest.

This is the kind of performance that reminds you of what the days of being 16-1 and No. 13 in the country felt like. Let’s be honest, this Minutemen team was never a top 15 team, and this performance doesn’t change that. But at least UMass showed it still has the big-time performances in them, even if they pull a head-scratcher every now and then. They can still match up with the best the A-10 has to offer.

It looks like the George Mason loss was more the exception than the rule. And it looks like the path through the A-10 was much harder than I initially believed.

Until Friday night.

“Our conference is still undervalued,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “I don’t think people realize the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league.”

Sorry, Shaka. My bad.

You could see the hunger in the Minutemen from the get-go. Sure, there were hooting and hollering, feeding off the sold out crowd and the rally towels (since when did Amherst become Pittsburgh?). But there was a heightened level of hunger and determination to get this win.

The most glaring example came from Chaz Williams (20 points, 5 assists). After Williams finished a lay-in midway through the second half to push the lead to four, VCU burned a timeout and all attention turned to Williams at center court. But there was no pointing to the crowd. No slapping the floor. No jawing with the VCU side, at least on this occasion, with Briante Weber, as the both were in each other’s faces the entire night.

Williams simply glared down at the court, as focused as ever.

He knew how big this game was. So did the rest of the 9,493 in attendance.

We all knew this team was talented, but did they have the mental makeup to live up to the expectations? Or were they going to be mocked as the team that blew a golden opportunity to bring UMass basketball back to the promise land? It looks like they do after all. And it’s looking more and more like this team is destined for the NCAA Tournament, a feat that it was so close to grasping last year but was left just out, thanks in large part to the A-10 semifinal loss to the same VCU team.

Now, with back-to-back wins against some of the best the A-10 has to offer, what does this team need to do?

“We just can’t settle,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “All right, it’s good that we’ve had a good run to this point, but how far can this team go?”

“You don’t want to look back on your career and say, ‘What if? What if I had played a little harder that particular day?’” Kellogg said later. “Let’s try to leave everything on the floor and see where this kind of magical ride can lead us.”

Well, I’m sold. Book your trips to the NCAA Tournament, folks.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at ssellner@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.

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