UMass ready for Atlantic 10 test vs. No. 10 Xavier

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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During the press conference after the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s loss to La Salle on Jan. 24, Tony Gaffney talked about how the Explorers simply wanted it more than they did.

From one game to the next, Gaffney is rarely sure which Minuteman team will show up, but he’s confident UMass’ best effort will be on display Saturday against No. 10 Xavier, in what will likely be its toughest test this season.

‘You know us; we’re a tough team to read. But Xavier on national television speaks for itself,’ he said before Wednesday’s practice. ‘That’s a Top 10 team and they have an 18-game home conference winning streak. I have no doubt we’re going to show up for that game ‘- it’s the games in between that worry me.’

Point guard Chris Lowe knows they better be, or they’ll be in for a tough afternoon in Cincinnati, Ohio, otherwise.

‘There’s no not wanting it against Xavier unless you want to get embarrassed,’ he said.

The Musketeers (18-2, 6-0 Atlantic 10) have been doing that to a lot of teams this season. Xavier currently has the nation’s fourth-best RPI and seventh-hardest strength of schedule in the country, with marquee wins over Memphis, Virginia Tech, LSU and Cincinnati. Its only two losses this season were to No. 1 Duke and Butler, who are 17-1.

Xavier, which made the Elite 8 last season, doesn’t do it with flash. They play the game with the ultimate team-first mentality, specializing in stifling defense and selflessness on the floor.

‘They just play together, nobody cares who scores,’ Lowe said. ‘They have a different leading scorer every game; it’s not just one person that dominates.

‘Xavier doesn’t really produce many NBA players, but they keep producing great college players and they have a great tradition,’ he added. ‘It feels like they just keep bringing great players in.’

Xavier coach Sean Miller utilizes all of them, as his rotation of nine players all play at least 10 minutes per game and contribute all over the floor. The Musketeers dominate teams defensively (outscoring their opponents 73.6-62.5), hit their 3-pointers when they take them (38.7 percent on 120 made 3’s) and get to the line significantly more often their counterparts (29 attempts to 19 per game).

Xavier has eight players averaging at least five points per game, with three in double figures and nobody averaging more than 14.2 per game. The same goes with rebounding (six average between 4.1 and 6.4 per game). No matter the position, each Musketeer can do a little bit of everything on the court ‘- and that makes them balanced, consistent and tough to beat.

The Minutemen are quite familiar with the Musketeers and what they’re up against, and are ready for the challenge ‘- especially having already played two nationally televised road games (at Memphis and at Kansas) in tough atmospheres this season.

‘We know what the environment is going to be like, we’ve played in plenty of hostile environments this year and a lot of guys on our team ride off of that ‘- I know I definitely do,’ Gaffney said.

Anytime UMass can play the elite programs in the country ‘- especially on national television ‘- it’s extremely beneficial for the program, in terms of exposure, recruiting and level of competition. And that effect only magnifies when the Minutemen pull of the upset, as they did with the defending champion Jayhawks on Dec. 13.

UMass hung around early with then-No. 13 Memphis, but were ultimately outmatched in an 80-58 loss. The Minutemen didn’t fade against then-No. 25 Kansas, holding on at the last second for a 61-60 win. Time will tell, but neither of those teams appears as good as Xavier.

As for the Minutemen, they are running out of games (11 left) to turn around their season. An at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament is an extremely unlikely proposition, and UMass would need to win eight of its last 12 games (one would have to be in the A-10 Tournament) just to reach a .500 record and be eligible for its third straight trip to the NIT.

After losses in-conference to Charlotte (6-12, 1-4 A-10), Saint Louis (11-8, 2-3 A-10) and La Salle ( 11-7, 2-2 A-10), the Minutemen have a chance to make a statement to Xavier ‘- and the rest of the conference ‘- with their biggest win of the season.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]