Minutemen host Towson tonight

By Stephen Hewitt

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Rolling through an early non-conference slate with four decisive wins to open the season, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team didn’t face much adversity. But following a disappointing trip to the Bahamas last week, the Minutemen may have found some holes in their game.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

UMass began its season without much for fans to lament about, going 4-0 while defeating opponents by an average of 22.8 points per game – including a 36-point beat down over Boston College last Monday on ESPN3.

The tables quickly turned for the Minutemen as they shifted south for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. They relied heavily on the 3-pointer and inconsistent play from the players drowned them into a 1-2 mark during the trip.

UMass will now have a chance to test its mettle and right the ship as it returns to the Mullins Center tonight to host Towson, a team still searching for its first win of the season.

The Tigers (0-5) have played the ninth toughest schedule in the country so far this season. They began the year playing on the road against perennial powerhouse Kansas, losing 100-54, before dropping another difficult road test at Michigan, 64-47.

Since then, TU has returned home for three games, but couldn’t find the win column in any of those contests. Overall, the Tigers have lost by an average of 28.2 points per game in their five-game winless streak to start the year.

“It’s a team that’s battle tested and I’m sure they’re tasting victory,” said coach Derek Kellogg. “They’re a team that’s still trying to find their way, but at the same token, we don’t want to give them much hope or let them get off to a hot start making shots. So it’s up to UMass to really come and really put pressure on them, play our style, and try to impose our will.”

On offense, TU hasn’t found it easy to score this season. The Tigers rank 343rd out of 345 Division I teams in scoring per game at 49.6 points per game and they average 38.8 percent from the field.

Through its shortcomings, TU does have a bright spot in senior forward Robert Nwankwo. He averages a team-best 11.8 points-per-game and 8.8 rebounds per game, and the offense will likely center around him and fellow forward Marcus Damas, who also averages 11.8 points per game heading into tonight’s matchup.

“He’s very active and athletic on the glass,” said Kellogg of Nwankwo. “And the one thing that they really do a good job of is their offensive rebounding, and [Nwankwo] kind of leads the charge for them of getting to the boards and finishing with authority because he’s a big 6-foot-8, 225 pound kid who can finish around the rim.”

Similar to its offensive deficiencies, the Tigers struggle on defense, as they have allowed 77.8 points per game. It could be the perfect bounce back matchup for Minutemen point guard Chaz Williams, who will look to shake off a forgettable showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis, where he failed to post an assist on Saturday against the College of Charleston.

Using Williams’ strengths, Kellogg will look to push the tempo and get back on track with his run-and-press scheme that has been very effective this season, and something that will at least somewhat neutralize what TU does well, said Kellogg.

“We’re going to try and keep [Nwankwo] off the glass, and try to be physical with him,” said Kellogg. “We’re going to try and speed the game up to where he’s not as much of a factor in his post-ups.”

Using that same ideology, Kellogg will be looking at another player in UMass’ backcourt to help impose its will on the defense in the form of Jesse Morgan.
The sophomore is slowly improving as the season progresses. Last week, he scored a team-high 15 points – going 5-for-5 from beyond the arc in the first half  to help the Minutemen cruise past Utah, 89-75, in their only win at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

“As he gets more comfortable and continues to shoot the ball and play the way he has, I can see him getting more minutes,” said Kellogg. “He still doesn’t really know where to be on some of our offensive sets and defensively, but he’s improving.”

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. tonight at the Mullins Center.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.