UMass welcomes St. Bonaventure with home undefeated streak at 11

By Stephen Hewitt

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Three months ago, not many saw this coming.

Ranked 12th out of 14 in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team was supposed to be in rebuilding mode this season, following the potentially damaging loss of Anthony Gurley and a crop of inexperienced underclassmen expected to lead the Minutemen.

But fast forward three months and UMass has defied all odds. With seven games left in the regular season, the Minutemen (17-6, 6-3 A-10) are sitting near the top of the conference standings in a four-way share of second place, just a half game behind conference-leading Temple.

With an outside shot at the NCAA tournament, each remaining game has high stakes for UMass. Tonight’s contest begins a grueling stretch run in which the team will play four of the conference’s best in its final seven affairs as it receives a big test in St. Bonaventure (12-8, 5-3 A-10) at the Mullins Center.

The Bonnies and Minutemen have both gone through battles against one another in the matchup’s recent history. Each game during the tenure of UMass coach Derek Kellogg has been decided by nine points or less, and Kellogg believes tonight’s matchup will be no different.

“We’ve always had really good battles with them since I’ve been a coach here and even as a player,” said Kellogg. “It’s always been a game decided in the last couple of minutes, so I’m hoping that’s the case on Wednesday and we get ourselves a chance to win the game.”

SBU is coming off of a week-long rest following a blowout 86-62 loss at Saint Louis, and enter the matchup with perhaps more at stake than the Minutemen as the Bonnies trail second place in the conference by a game.
SBU is led inside by senior big man Andrew Nicholson, who leads the Bonnies with 15 points per game and 7 rebounds per game. In three career games against UMass, he’s averaged 15.7 points and 8 boards, including a dominating 26-point, seven rebound effort as a sophomore.

The matchup could potentially be a nightmare for the Minutemen, who are thin in the frontcourt with the absence of Cady Lalanne and with Sean Carter and Terrell Vinson as the only true big guys that can handle a man of Nicholson’s presence.

“He gives them a weapon that not a lot of teams in our conference have,” said Kellogg, who also added that Nicholson could be a potential NBA player. “We’re going to have to make the game hard on him. We’re going to have to try to get him out of their sets and speed him up some.”
UMass will be hopeful to bring that plan to fruition, neutralize Nicholson and get out on the fast break, something it has excelled at all year especially at home, where it hasn’t lost all season.
The Minutemen are coming off a critical road victory at George Washington on Saturday night, a game after losing to last-place Rhode Island.

Against GW, Raphiael Putney got into early foul trouble and was held to just eight points, but it was Vinson who picked up the slack, scoring a career-high 21 points. He was also helped with bench production from Freddie Riley and Javorn Farrell, who chipped in with 12 and 11 points apiece.

Kellogg will look for similar balanced production from his team as it prepares for the Bonnies and its remaining schedule, something he believes is a critical factor as the team aspires for postseason play this season.

“It’s good. It keeps a lot of guys focused and engaged in the team and the program,” said Kellogg. “We got a nice boost off the bench [on Saturday] from Freddie [Riley], Javorn [Farrell] and Maxie [Esho]. If some of the starters aren’t playing so well, that gives them an opportunity to really step up and help the team. You need a balanced lineup to be successful in the conference and I think those guys are starting to show that we have a balanced team.”

In its previous matchup last season, UMass received 28 points from Gurley and 16 from Farrell as it beat SBU, 78-69, on the road. Kellogg is 1-2 against the Bonnies in his career at the helm for the Minutemen.

Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Mullins Center following the women’s basketball team’s game at 5 p.m.

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