Cross-State Showdown

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Ask Travis Ford about tonight’s game against Boston College and he’ll downplay the rivalry aspect of the matchup.

“I don’t know how much of a rivalry it is; I guess it’s hard to have a rivalry when it’s as lopsided as it’s been,” said Ford. “For us it’s a big game because of the reputation of Boston College and the success they’ve had, they’re just a great basketball team.”

Ask the players on the Massachusetts men’s basketball team what they think, however, and you’ll get a much different answer.

“My whole life I’ve loved watching the UMass-BC basketball games; that’s what I lived for,” Tony Gaffney, a transfer from Boston University, said during practice Tuesday. “I have a soft spot for BC football; I probably shouldn’t say that too loud. But I’ve always been a diehard UMass fan, so this is going to be really fun.”

This year’s Commonwealth Classic will tip off today at 9 p.m. in Chestnut Hill at the Conte Forum, where BC is a perfect 5-0 this season.

The Eagles (7-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are playing their best basketball right now, defeating a solid Maryland team, 81-78, on Sunday in College Park, Md. Their only loss this year came on Dec. 1 against Providence in overtime. Along with the victory over the Terrapins and over Michigan on the road, one of the marquee wins for the Eagles came against Rhode Island on Nov. 21. That game is the only blemish on URI’s 10-1 start this season.

UMass (6-2) has played solid basketball of late also, bouncing back well from its disappointing loss to IUPUI on Dec. 1. After an 11-day layoff, the Minutemen played their best defensive basketball of the season, defeating Marist, 83-68, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Sunday. UMass upended Syracuse, 107-100, three days prior to falling to the Jaguars.

Ford feels his team can keep up its recent success, provided the defensive effort Gaffney and others displayed against Marist isn’t a one-time deal.

“It’s something that we’ve tried to stress to them so they can understand that we won with our defense the other night,” Ford said. “The only reason why we won the game was because our defense propelled our offense. And we need more of that; it’s no secret that our offense is our strength, but the first seven games of the year I don’t think we played much defense at all.”

The main responsibility for the UMass defense will be to slow down dynamic BC point guard Tyrese Rice. The junior floor general breaks down defenses with his scoring abilities as well as his ball handling and passing. His 20.9 scoring average and 6.3 assists per game are easily tops on the team.

One aspect of the team defense that concerns Ford is rebounding. UMass is a relatively undersized team and will have to step up its efforts on the glass to contend with the strong rebounding team that coach Al Skinner has in Chestnut Hill. The Eagles are out-rebounding their opponents by over four per game (39.9 to 35.4), while the Minutemen are the opposite – getting out-rebounded 38.5 to 33.2.

“We’re not a great rebounding team and this is by far our biggest challenge we’ve had all year long,” Ford said. “They are the biggest, most physical team that we will play against. They rebound at several different positions and that’s one of my biggest concerns right now.”

The Eagles are led in the frontcourt by forward Shamari Spears (13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) and center Tyrelle Blair, who is becoming a defensive force with over five blocks per game.

Forward Tyler Roche (5.8 points per game) and shooting guard Rakim Sanders (11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game) are the other members of the starting lineup. Reserve guard Biko Paris and forward Corey Raji are the two main players off the bench for Skinner, who will typically utilize an eight-to-nine-man rotation. Raji is one of four BC players averaging double-digits in scoring (10.5).

While the Eagles play more of a half-court style of offense, the Minutemen are more predicated on the up-tempo brand of basketball, where they shoot many outside shots. UMass is 80-of-210 (38.1 percent) from beyond the arc, while BC has hit 47-of-136 of its outside shots for a percentage of 34.6.

In last year’s matchup, the Eagles got the best of the Minutemen, 84-73, at the Mullins Center. UMass struggled mightily from the field, particularly from 3-point range where it shot 4-for-23. Gary Forbes had one of his worst games, connecting on just 4-of-17 shots.

UMass had an incredible 22 offensive rebounds in that game and out-rebounded BC, 43-32. But the Eagles hit 18 more free throws, essentially winning the game at the charity stripe.

The Minutemen have not defeated the Eagles since Dec. 4, 1999. BC has won eight consecutive meetings since that game in Chestnut Hill. That victory for UMass capped off a six-game win streak over the Eagles.

Gaffney would love to start a new win streak for UMass.

“With BC being closer to home to me, all my friends are die-hard Eagles fans,” Gaffney said. “Obviously it would mean a lot to shut them up and get the win [tonight].”

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]