Minutemen will have to fight to make it to the NCAA tournament

By Nate Luippold

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Courtesy of UMass Athletics

It’s been nearly 14 seasons since the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team last played in an NCAA Tournament game.

Over the past decade and a half, the Minutemen have come close several times to making it back to the famed March tournament. In both 2007 and 2008, the Minutemen just missed the NCAA tournament under then head coach Travis Ford. Under head coach Derek Kellogg, the Minutemen haven’t tasted postseason play, but Kellogg’s squad may be poised to make the postseason for the first time since coming to Amherst.

It seemed as if this season could be the one UMass needed to make it back to the national tournament. For the Minutemen, it seemed as if Saturday’s heartbreaking 72-71 loss to LaSalle crushed any hopes of the Minutemen returning to the glory land, and made the NIT an almost certainty for this year’s squad.

However, after the Minutemen came out and handled Xavier on Tuesday night 80-73, you can’t rule out the Minutemen being on the bubble again heading down the home stretch. UMass currently holds a 19-8 overall record and an 8-5 record in the Atlantic-10, which puts them in a tie for third place. If the Minutemen were ever going to make a push, now is the time as they travel to face Dayton on Saturday night, before facing the class of the A-10 in Temple on Wednesday night, finishing up with Rhode Island at the Mullins Center on March 3.

It is tough to envision UMass winning against both Dayton and Temple, but lets get hypothetical for a second and say UMass somehow runs the table and finishes with an overall record of 22-8 heading into the A-10 tournament. The regular season alone would earn UMass a look by the NCAA tournament committee, as they would have wins over Temple, Xavier, Saint Louis, St Joe’s and would have a strong non-conference win over Davidson. Both Temple and St Louis are a near lock for the NCAA tournament with Davidson not far behind. If UMass could win at least a game in the conference tournament or two, the Minutemen could end the season with a record of somewhere around 23-9, marking their best campaign since 2008.

If it is possible for UMass to end up with 23 or 24 wins, the Minutemen would have a strong possibility of making the tournament, and here’s why. First off, the tournament has expanded from 64 to 68 teams. If this were the case five years ago, the Minutemen would have been in the tournament twice. Second, with 23 wins, the Minutemen would have a strong resume with most likely five teams including the Minutemen from the A-10 under consideration for the tournament. With UMass having wins over three of them, and if UMass got to 24 wins, they would equal the win total from 2007 and would be just shy of the 25 wins in 2008. Lastly, UMass would have a strong finish to the season, which is an underrated factor heading into Selection Sunday. In both 2007 and 2008, UMass lost its first round conference tournament games, ending its chances at the tournament. The tournament committee tends to reward teams that finish strong down the stretch, and if the Minutemen could do so, they may be in line for a tournament berth.

A lot has to happen for UMass to make the “Big Dance,” but it’s not impossible. The most important thing for the Minutemen is they have opportunities lying ahead of them. If the Minutemen play their best basketball in the last two weeks of the season, they could quickly sneak up on the tournament field and end a 14-year tournament drought.

Nate Luippold can be reached for comment at [email protected]