Minutemen learning how to play away from Mullins

By Stephen Hewitt

Maria Uminski/Collegian
Maria Uminski/Collegian

After the NCAA tournament selection committee announced the 68-team field for the Big Dance on March 11, it was reported that there was one spot open for six teams had St. Bonaventure not won in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game.

If the Bonnies had fallen in that game, a vote would have taken place in which the 10-member committee would decide which of those six teams would have taken the final spot in the bracket. Those six teams, in no particular order, were Drexel, Oral Roberts, Mississippi State, Nevada, Seton Hall and Miami (Fla.).

But in the wake of SBU’s victory, the Bonnies grabbed that final spot in the bracket by virtue of an automatic bid, and the vote never happened. Each of those six teams were relegated to the National Invitation Tournament, the tournament that crowns arguably the best team left out of the NCAA tournament field.

After losing to SBU in the A-10 tournament, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team lost its chance to make the NCAA tournament, but also earned a selection to the NIT, where it hasn’t lost focus. Coincidentally, the Minutemen have beaten three of those six teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament cut – Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel – as they have marched their way to Madison Square Garden next Tuesday for the NIT semifinals.

What may be more impressive than the run they’ve put together is the manner in which the Minutemen have beaten these teams.

As a team that struggled mightily on the road during the regular season, it’s worthy to note that each of UMass’s postseason victories have come on the road in hostile environments.

UMass put together a 4-7 record on the road in the regular season, and it can be argued that tough losses at Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s and Dayton cost the Minutemen an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament given their impressive resume at home, where they finished 15-1 this season.

But the loss at Dayton – a 33-point blowout defeat – seemed to wake UMass up from its road nightmares.

In their next game, the Minutemen pushed No. 23 Temple to overtime. Although they lost, the game could be chalked up as a moral victory as UMass came back from down nine with less than three minutes left in regulation to force overtime.

In the A-10 tournament, away from the friendly confines of the Mullins Center again, the Minutemen came from behind once more, overcoming a 16-point deficit with less than eight minutes remaining against SBU in the semifinals. But again, UMass couldn’t break through, as it ultimately lost by four.

That has all changed in the NIT, though. Playing at MSU in the first round, the Minutemen withstood a strong second half Bulldogs comeback and survived two overtimes for their most impressive road victory of the year to that point.

Then again in the second round, UMass held on late against Seton Hall in the difficult confines of Walsh Gymnasium to advance to the NIT quarterfinals.

And if onlookers weren’t quite convinced to that point, UMass saved its best for last in its last true road contest of the year against what many considered the best team left out of the NCAA tournament field in Drexel on Tuesday night.

Trailing by 17 with 16:26 remaining, the Minutemen put together a furious comeback, took their first lead of the game with seven minutes left and made enough clutch shots down the stretch to preserve yet another impressive road victory and a berth to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.

“We’re just starting to play [a high] level of basketball over the last month or three weeks,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg after Tuesday’s game. “Guys have finally matured, we’re learning how to close out games and then we’re learning how to win on the road. It’s just guys maturing and getting better.”

Whether or not the Minutemen leave New York City next week with an NIT championship, it can’t be disputed just how much they’ve grown this season, especially on the road.

With almost the entire roster returning next season, expectations will be lofty, but if UMass can carry the lessons it has learned this postseason, it might just be one of those teams vying for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

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