Postseason begins for Ford and Co.

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder/Collegian

(Editors note: Due to a late tip-off Wednesday night, UMass’s opponent in the Atlantic 10 Tournament wasn’t determined until after press time.)

In two hours tonight, 10 years could potentially be erased.

Maybe not erased, but, at the very least, forgotten.

With a victory in the second round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament tomorrow, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team could find itself in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

For that to likely happen, though, the Minutemen (20-9, 10-6 A-10) will have to win a game in the conference tournament for the first time in six years.

Standing in their way will either be sixth-seeded Charlotte or 11th-seeded Rhode Island, whichever team comes out on top in Wednesday’s late first-round game. UMass swept the season series against the Rams and defeated the 49ers in its only meeting.

A victory over either team would help validate UMass’s strong season in a much-improved Atlantic 10 – but wouldn’t necessarily lock down an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Much like last season, a loss in its first game would likely cost the Minutemen any chance of that.

But UMass coach Travis Ford doesn’t feel his team needs that validation – his contention is that his Minutemen have already proved to be an NCAA-caliber team.

“I think this is fun; I love this atmosphere and trying to go out and win three games in a row. But I think as far as being a true test of that a team is made of and how good they are, I don’t know if conference tournaments do that,” he said before practice on Monday.

“I think you’ve made your mark [in the regular season].”

UMass certainly made its mark on the Rams this year – winning two close matchups in February that started URI’s end-of-the-season tailspin. The Minutemen also took a close contest with the 49ers, but that was almost two full months ago. UMass has played 13 conference games since then.

Ford thinks that the matchup between URI and Charlotte will be the most highly-contested first-round game. He sure wants it to be.

“I hope it goes into triple overtime and I hope they just wear each other out,” he said.

No matter which team wins the right to play UMass, that game will be huge for all involved. Charlotte would likely have to win the tournament to get into the tournament, but would love the opportunity to knock off the Minutemen and potentially send them back to the NIT for the second straight season. The Rams, meanwhile, have NCAA aspirations much like UMass does, and will need to beat the Minutemen for the first time in three tries to have a shot at that opportunity.

UMass players said they have extra confidence having gone 3-0 against their potential opponents, but both them and Ford agreed that little of that truly matters now.

“It’s a second season now so everybody is going to come in with a sense of urgency, so you have to come out with your best effort,” point guard Chris Lowe said. “And if you don’t, then you’re going to come home early.”

“It goes both ways. We know we can play with them but it’s probably going to make them upset,” Ford said, referring to the pros and cons of playing and beating a team multiple times in a season. “It’s a lot easier for me to make adjustments if I lose to somebody.”

Having lost to the Minutemen twice, the Rams seemingly have a lot of adjustments to make. But both games were close; a two-point loss at the Mullins Center and an eight-point loss at home at the Ryan Center. The problem URI had in those games was that only one or two players had strong efforts. They need their deep starting five to be more balanced.

“I think they have some of the best talent in the league,” Ford said. “They have great senior leaders [Parfait Bitee, Will Daniels and Joe Mbang]. I think they are going to come into this conference tournament with something to prove, and an axe to grind. I think they will be renewed and be a very dangerous basketball team.”

While the Rams may have the best senior trio in the conference, the 49ers have one of the most dynamic 1-2 punches in the league. Ford is well-aware that.

“Charlotte has two or three players that can beat you by themselves,” he said. “[Leemire] Goldwire is a prolific scorer. Lamont Mack is one of the most improved players in this league and I think one of the best basketball players in our league. I think he causes a lot of problems for a lot of people.”

UMass guard Ricky Harris knows it will be a tough matchup against either team.

“Whichever team we play I know it’s going to be a dogfight throughout the whole 40 minutes,” he said.

Those 40 minutes could go be the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]