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UMass men’s basketball set for first round of A-10 Tournament

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

There aren’t many secrets between teams when they’re about to play for the third time in one season.

That will be the case for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team and Rhode Island when they take the court in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Thursday at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., at 9 p.m.

“(We) already know what we’ve done or what the game plan should be,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “And I think Rhode Island probably has a pretty similar gameplan as the last two times because they probably felt like they could’ve won those two games.

“We feel like we won (those games) and when that happens, that’s the game plan, let’s go with it and see what happens.”

In the first two meetings this season, the Minutemen (23-7, 10-6 A-10) narrowly defeated the Rams (14-17, 5-11 A-10) in both games, winning the first one 73-68 on the road and then a couple weeks later at home, 70-67. In both of those games, the backcourt tandem of Xavier Munford and E.C. Matthews nearly led URI to a pair of upsets.

The combo will once again be the focus for UMass as it heads into the win-or-go-home conference tournament.

“They’re going to be a tough test for our team, but we just need to stay together and play our defense,” senior Raphiael Putney said.

And while the two make up one of the best backcourts in all of the A-10, when it comes to defense, they also know how to shut down their opponents.

Guards Chaz Williams, Derrick Gordon and Trey Davis will have the tall task of going up against Munford and Matthews all game and if they get shut down, it will be up to the Minutemen’s frontcourt to pick up the scoring load.

“We know that we have to finish plays now,” senior Sampson Carter said. “There’s going to be a lot of attention on Chaz and we’re just preparing to put ourselves in position to finish plays.”

Even with an added emphasis on the play of the big men on offense, there’s still the need to play strong team defense.

This season, the Minutemen gave up an average of 70 points per game, but in each of the first two meetings, they held the Rams to below that average. A major key in both games was controlling the glass, another aspect that Carter believes UMass needs to do well if it wants to advance in the tournament.

“What we’re really focusing on is defense and defensive rebounds and controlling the paint,” he said.

Limiting second-chance opportunities and forcing outside shots from URI will pay major dividends for the Minutemen if they can execute their game plan.

Postseason basketball is all about who’s playing the best at the right time. Even for a team like UMass, who at one point rose as high as No. 13 in the AP Poll this season, there won’t be any easy games.

“We’re just trying to win four games in four nights,” Putney said. “It’s going to be hard to do, but I think with the team we have, if we just come together then we can do it.”

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

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