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UMass seeks defensive consistency entering the Tournament

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Massachusetts men’s basketball team is posed with the unique challenge of preparing for two separate opponents in advance of its second-round appearance on Friday in the NCAA Tournament.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg and his staff outlined a scouting strategy to break down both Iowa and Tennessee as the schools play in Wednesday’s play-in game to determine who faces the Minutemen. Assistant coaches Marlon Williamson and Shyrone Chatman each extensively charted a particular team, with Williamson scouting the Hawkeyes and Chatman scouting the Volunteers. Assistant coach Adam Ginsburg will watch both teams and the entire staff plans to reconvene after to finalize a plan.

But the Minutemen also have ample time to prepare internally, as a week will have passed since their 85-77 loss to George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals when they tip off against either Iowa or Tennessee at 2:45 p.m. The players are using the extra practice time to target a not-so-unique focus: their defensive intensity.

“Last two games, Rhode Island and (George Washington), we kind of let (them) score a little bit too easily and that’s not like us.” forward Sampson Carter said. “We have to do better on our half court defense and make it harder for teams to score.”

The Minutemen allowed the Colonials to shoot 51 percent from the floor in the loss in addition to a 43 percent clip on 3-pointers. George Washington has scored more than 85 points only four times this season.

When UMass is at peak performance, the defense forces a high number of turnovers but limits opponents’ shooting efficiency, particularly on jump shots. The Minutemen use a combination of length and tempo to disrupt the opposition. Throughout the season, UMass held opponents to just 42 percent shooting while forcing 13.5 turnovers per game, and excelled at turning defensive stops into transition baskets.

Recently, UMass has struggled to string together stingy defensive performances. Guard Derrick Gordon, one of the toughest defenders on the team, said the team needs to get back to a basic mindset.

“Right from the jump, as soon as that ball goes up, just be defensive-minded,” Gordon said.

Gordon said UMass needs to get back to how it played in the Charleston Classic, something other teammates have echoed. The Minutemen went 3-0 in the November tournament, which included victories over Nebraska and New Mexico, two teams recently selected to the field of 68. UMass won that tournament in one of its most impressive displays of tournament basketball in recent years.

But the defensive consistency wavered as the season continued.

“Throughout the season, when we had a tendency to not worry about defense and worry more about offense, that’s what messed up the whole game plan,” Gordon said. “I talk to (the team) about it constantly, we all talk about it … we’re mainly going to have to worry about playing defense.”

Gordon’s message reverberates even louder in March. He’s the only Minuteman with NCAA Tournament experience, as he appeared in the tournament as a freshman at Western Kentucky. As a result, he’s embraced a larger leadership role this week.

“I’m the only one with NCAA Tournament experience and I told them, ‘(defense) is the first and foremost thing we have to do,’” Gordon said.

“We all have to stay on the same page because there’s going to be good times out there and bad times, but as long as we stay together, it’ll be fine.”

Gordon suggested that the team sit down and watch both Iowa and Tennessee together while taking notes on players at their respective positions. The team is running out of opportunities to hone its game and Gordon doesn’t want to leave any questions.

“I talked to (Kellogg) and he wants me to step up big this weekend,” Gordon said.

“I told him even if he didn’t call me and tell me that, I was going to do it anyway because it’s single game elimination. And I told my teammates, ‘Listen, I’m laying everything on the line.’”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

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