Do-or-die time as UMass travels to MSU in NIT

By Stephen Sellner

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Throw out the 22-win season. Throw out the 14-1 record at home. And throw out big wins over NCAA tournament teams Temple, Saint Louis, Xavier, St. Bonaventure and Davidson.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s season comes down to one game. A win and the Minutemen keep playing. A loss and it’s all over.

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That’s the situation UMass finds itself in as it travels to Mississippi State tonight for the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. The Minutemen earned a No. 5 seed during Sunday night’s selection show, while the Bulldogs nabbed a No. 4 seed.

The postseason berth marks the first for UMass (22-11) in coach Derek Kellogg’s four-year tenure. But senior Sean Carter and the rest of the Minutemen didn’t have time to dwell on their selection. The team flew down yesterday to Mississippi less than 24 hours after hearing of its playoff fate.

“We’re just all eager to just to get back out there just to show teams that we’re definitely capable of beating a tournament team and playing in the Big Dance,” said Carter.

And waiting for them is Mississippi State (21-11), a team that was ranked as high as No. 15 in the country midway through the season and appeared destined for a berth in the NCAA tournament.

The Bulldogs started the season on a 19-5 tear before dropping six of their last eight games, including a first-round loss in the South Eastern Conference tournament to Georgia, 71-61.

Kellogg understands the Bulldogs’ potential, but also noted their inconsistencies throughout the year.

“They’re as talented as any team in the country and at times have beaten and played as good as anybody in the country,” he said. “They’ve had some games where they haven’t played so we’re hopeful that on Tuesday night it’s the game they don’t play so well.”

Arnett Moultrie headlines a big, physical Bulldogs squad. Moultrie – a 6-foot-11 junior forward from Memphis, Tenn. – mans the paint, contributing 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 55 percent from the field. Kellogg is familiar with Moultrie from his days as an assistant coach at Memphis.

Joining Moultrie in the frontcourt is 6-foot-10 junior forward Renardo Sidney, who averages just a shade less than 10 points per game while also shooting above 50 percent.

The Bulldogs also feature a potent backcourt with senior Dee Bost (15.6 points, 5.3 assists per game) and freshman Rodney Hood (10.3 points per game) leading the way.

Kellogg said getting out in transition is a key for UMass, especially with the size of the Bulldogs, but Mississippi State’s guards may pose a wrinkle in the game plan.

“We have to push the pace, but not push the pace to where Bost and the kid Hood and those guys can get going,” said Kellogg. “You want to be smart in what you do, but we obviously can’t play half court basketball against Sidney and Moultrie and expect to have a chance.”

Kellogg and the rest of the coaching staff have scrambled to find tape on the Bulldogs, but Kellogg plans to utilize his friends from the SEC in Kentucky coach John Calipari and Auburn coach Tony Barbee for some help. But Kellogg isn’t going into the game blind.

“I’ve seen them play before,” he said. “I know what they can do.”

While the opposition isn’t an easy one, it gives the Minutemen another opportunity to put the program on the map in front of a national audience. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

“We need it for recruiting, we need it for the fans in western [Massachusetts] and the Massachusetts area … and for the students,” said Kellogg. “I think they’ve really bought in and for them to be able to watch us on Tuesday night, I think, is great for the program.”

While this is the first time UMass has been in the postseason spotlight over the last four years, it’s been a long road coming for Carter. The senior has spent the last three seasons with the Minutemen after transferring from Oregon State after the 2007-08 campaign.

“It’s definitely a game to get up for,” said Carter. “It’s nationally televised, you know, this is our first postseason play since I’ve been here.”

And it’ll take a valiant effort by Carter and the rest of the UMass squad to earn a second postseason game.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.