Forcing turnovers key to Minutemen success

By Stephen Hewitt

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Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

When Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg installed a new up-tempo, run-and-press style of play during the offseason, he did it with many factors in mind.

One of those factors was the fact that he has one of the most athletic and fast teams not only in the Atlantic 10, but in the country. They have the necessary athleticism and depth to keep up with a fast tempo for 40 minutes.

With the addition of 5-foot-9, speedy point guard Chaz Williams and the return of several tall wingers such as Raphiael Putney and Javorn Farrell, the team’s size and strengths seemed to cater perfectly to a run-and-press system that could get on the fast break with ease.

Much has been made of the team’s offensive explosion in the early going of this season. After all, the Minutemen have scored 80 or more points in five of its nine games this season – something they did only three times all of last year – and are bringing an exciting brand of basketball not seen in the Mullins Center in quite some time.

But the key to these early season offensive outbursts can be found on defense. The Minutemen press the opponent early and often and throughout the game in order to create turnovers that result in points, which is an essential component of the new style.

“It’s huge,” said Kellogg of forcing turnovers. “We’re playing an up-tempo style, we’re pressing most of the time for 35 to 40 minutes a game, we’re trapping ball screens, and we’re trying to create havoc on both ends of the floor. And I think one of the things we have to do is create turnovers.”

So far, the results have been positive for Kellogg and his staff this season. As of Dec. 4, UMass ranks 14th in Division I in turnover margin at 5.4 and second in the country – only behind Syracuse – in steals per game at 11.2.

The Minutemen have also forced a total of 179 turnovers through their first nine games, which is good for an impressive 19.9 per game. But while Kellogg is happy that his system has worked so far, he knows there is much more room for improvement.

He said that on the offensive end, UMass needs to be smarter with the basketball. That means taking care of the basketball and playing with more control, which can be a difficult task within an offensive system with so much freedom to play in.

“We have to play a little bit better offensively,” said Kellogg. “In a few of our games, I think offensively is what cost us more than defensively, that we turned it over some, that we took a few too many ill-advised shots, and when teams are struggling to score themselves, we gave them an opportunity to get some easy baskets.”

Against Miami on Saturday, a lack of forcing turnovers as well as a few too many mistakes of its own offensively spelled trouble for the Minutemen in the loss. In the first half, they could only force four Hurricane turnovers – a far cry from its usual output – and in the meantime turned the ball themselves 10 times in the half as they entered halftime down by 10.

In the second half, UMass played much smarter basketball, committing just four turnovers and forcing seven turnovers to help it narrow the scoring margin to as low as three with minutes remaining. But it was a case of too little, too late for the Minutemen as they ultimately fell, 83-75.

Kellogg said that executing the game plan on the road is much harder than at home, as several components factor in to the visiting team’s miscues.

Either way, it’s something for them to keep an eye on as UMass travels to East Carolina tonight and readies itself for a difficult A-10 slate that begins in January.

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