Minutemen playing at postseason level

By Jackson Alexander

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Whether it is the College Basketball Invitational, the National Invitational Tournament or perhaps even the NCAA Tournament, through 19 games this season, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has earned the right to play in the postseason.

The Minutemen currently sit near the top of the Atlantic 10 conference standings with a 3-2 record and 14 total wins.

Given the struggles the team has faced over the past three seasons, a postseason bid for the first time since 2008 would be a huge lift to the program.

However, there’s certainly reason for pessimism considering the recent state of the team. The Minutemen haven’t had a winning record in conference play since the departure of former UMass head coach Travis Ford. Combine that with their 13-year absence from the NCAA tournament and any quick start is analyzed with great caution.

That being said, this 2012 team has outperformed preseason expectations from critics and, based on a number of factors, looks destined for their most successful season in UMass head coach Derek Kellogg’s tenure.

For starters, any selection committee – CBI, NIT, or NCAA – would surely be impressed with UMass’ body of work thus far.

According to InsideRPI Daily, the Minuteman are the 59th team in the nation. They’ve earned that spot thanks to recent home wins against Saint Joseph’s, Davidson and Charlotte, all teams that rank inside InsideRPI’s top 100.

At the same rate, UMass does not have any egregious losses, as none of their four defeats have come versus opponents outside of the RPI top 100.

Nonetheless, the Minutemen were manhandled by the College of Charleston (RPI: 92), losing 85-61, in the Bahamas, which won’t look good on paper. The loss itself isn’t so horrible, it’s the margin of defeat that’s problematic.

Fortunately for the Minutemen, the game was played early in the season, at a neutral site against a very formidable opponent.

In addition, the implementation of a new tournament, the College Basketball Invitational, has served as an outlet for college teams viewed as not worthy for the NCAA Tournament or NIT.

In the four years preceding the CBI, on average, approximately four A-10 teams per year participated in some form of postseason play.

During the first four years of the CBI’s existence, that number has jumped to about seven teams per year.

The tournament has fielded a number of A-10 teams over that time and helped the conference add much-needed postseason experience for teams that don’t finish towards the top of the standings.

The increase in postseason participation in the conference could be particularly beneficial to a team like UMass that could finds itself on the bubble for tournaments like the NCAA tournament and the NIT.

Finally, the Minutemen have played at a high level this season and their national ranking in a number of pivotal statistics proves this.

They’ve averaged 40.9 rebounds per game this season, good for sixth in the nation – although it’s somewhat of a deceiving stat considering they outrebound their opponents by just 2.7 boards per game, putting them 112th nationally in rebounding margin per game.

More impressively though is the chaos they’ve caused on the defensive end. UMass ranks fourth in the nation in steals per game, and sixth in the nation in opponent turnovers per game.

Teams that can rebound the ball, force turnovers and play stifling defense traditionally find their way into postseason play.

While the Minutemen’s play has improved greatly this season, declaring them an NCAA tournament team is premature for a number of reasons.

First of all, with no clear dominant team in the A-10 this year, 2012 could very well be a down year for the conference, not a good sign for teams in the middle of the pack.

Over the past four years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has chosen three A-10 teams each year and expecting anything greater than that is wishful thinking.

College basketball czar Joe Lunardi currently has four A-10 teams in his weekly version of “Bracketology,” and none of them are the Minutemen. Xavier, Saint Louis, Dayton and Temple got the respect from Lunardi, and even La Salle earned recognition as one of the teams on the bubble.

The Minutemen have yet to play the four teams Lunardi considers worthy of making the the NCAA tournament, meaning that at least two of those games likely must result in a victory for UMass to feel optimistic about their chances.

Another factor that could hurt the Minutemen is their unimpressive non-conference schedule. While they finished with an 11-3 record versus non A-10 foes, they had four challenging games on their schedule – Miami, Florida State, College of Charleston and Davidson – and only managed a victory against Davidson. The selection committee won’t be impressed with their 227 rank in non-conference strength of schedule.

Their chance to claim a signature win against a power conference team has come and gone. This is troubling because as stated above, the A-10 is lacking a juggernaut this season.

Xavier looked dominant before their infamous brawl with Cincinnati that left them reeling. Saint Louis looked like a force to be reckoned with early, but two conference losses has grounded the Billikens. Finally, while Temple logged a few impressive non-conference wins, it just lost its second conference game to Richmond.

With no true powerhouse in the conference, the opportunity for a signature win – something the Minutemen are desperately searching for – becomes difficult to recognize.

Some would say that anything short of an NCAA tournament appearance is a failure for UMass. However, when assessing the struggles that have plagued this program the past three years, any kind of postseason experience could serve as a stepping stone to greater things in the future for this young Minutemen squad.

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