Men’s hoops hosts surging Billikens

By Jackson Alexander

It’s been quite a while since the Massachusetts men’s basketball team played a meaningful conference game at home.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

That will change when Saint Louis (16-4, 4-2 Atlantic 10) comes to town on Saturday afternoon, in a game where the winner will temporarily have supremacy over the rest of the Atlantic 10.

UMass (15-5, 4-2 A-10) enters the contest as winners of three of its last four games, most recently knocking off Richmond, 79-68.

Prior to the battle with the Spiders, the Minutemen reeled off consecutive wins against Charlotte and Saint Joseph’s, before faltering to Duquesne.

During that four-game stretch, the Minutemen were once again led by sophomore point guard, Chaz Williams.

The speedy sophomore continues to exceed expectations in his first year with the team. He’s averaged 16.5 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game and six assists per game in the past four games.

Recently, UMass has also received a significant contribution from an unlikely source.

Sean Carter, primarily known as a rebounder and defensive stopper prior to his senior year, has broken out during his team’s hot streak, averaging 12.5 points per game, to go with 9.8 rebounds per game, all while shooting 81 percent from the field.

Sophomores Jesse Morgan (12.3 points per game) and Raphiael Putney (11.3 points per game), along with junior Terrell Vinson (10.3 points per game), have aided Williams and Carter over the four-game stretch with contributions of their own.

Lately, UMass has been productive on the offensive side, as it has scored 70 or more points in nine of its last 10 games. But with all due respect to teams like Richmond, SJU, and Charlotte, the Minutemen are facing a different team in Saint Louis.

It’s a Billikens team which takes pride in its exceptional efficiency at the defensive end of the court.

During practice this week, UMass coach Derek Kellogg attempted to give his team a sense of the physicality the SLU team will bring to the table on Saturday.

“To replicate their physicality, and their speed is difficult, but you can give your guys an idea of what’s going on and hopefully they can adjust when the game starts,” said Kellogg.

The 55.9 points per game the Billikens hold their opponents to ranks seventh in the nation.

SLU could be a problematic matchup for the Minutemen, considering that it defends UMass’ biggest strength – the 3-point ball.

The Billikens rank fifth in the nation in opponent 3-point makes per game (3.9), and second in the nation in opponent 3-point attempts per game (11.7).

“I think what they’ve done against teams that really take a lot of 3s, is they force you into taking bad ones,” said Kellogg.

As a team that frequently lives and dies by the 3-pointer, the Minutemen are unlikely to succeed if they rely on that adage on Saturday.

Kellogg recognizes that in order to compete with SLU, his team needs to shoot selectively.

“We have to be conscious to make sure we don’t take the first open one and really we’re going to have to grind them more than we’re accustomed to, to make sure we’re taking good shots,” said Kellogg.

Similar to the Minutemen, SLU runs an offense that isn’t solely dependent on one player’s production.

Brian Conklin leads the team, averaging 14.6 points per game, while shooting an efficient 58.6 percent from the field.

“He’s a guy that gets his baskets in a variety of ways,” said Kellogg. “He runs the transition and gets the tip-back, he can score a little bit in the post, he gets to the free throw line, he’s kind of a jack of all trades guy that really makes their team go.”

While Conklin leads the team in scoring, he receives plenty of help from others such as Kwamain Mitchell (11.7 points per game) and Cody Ellis (11.2 points per game). From there, they feature five players that average between 7.2 and 4.9 points per game.

Early in the season, the Billikens caught the nation’s eye when they ripped off 12 wins in their first 13 games. At the end of the fourth week of the season, the AP Top 25 had them at No. 23 in the nation. However, a pair of losses to solid mid-major teams – New Mexico and Loyola Marymount – eventually dropped them from the national ranks entirely.

Like UMass, SLU will have plenty of momentum heading into its matchup this weekend after it defeated Xavier on the road, to move into a five-way tie for first place.

With SJU defeating Dayton, and Xavier losing its third conference game, the Minutemen could seize control of the A-10 with a win Saturday, quite a feat when considering the state of the team just one year ago.

Saturday’s game tips off at 2 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

Jackson Alexander can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Alexander.