UMass men’s hoops faces toughest test of season at VCU

By Stephen Sellner

Collegian file photo

Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg has gone into most Atlantic 10 games with another worthy, dangerous conference foe.

But Thursday night’s test at Virginia Commonwealth is right at the top of the list.

“I’d probably say it’s our toughest game of the season – probably one of the toughest because it’s on the road, and they’re borderline right at the Top 25 and they’ve played pretty well in our league,” Kellogg said before practice on Tuesday. “With a sold out arena, low ceiling and the way they play, it could be one of those games that can be really tough.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m., and the tilt will be broadcasted in front of a national audience on CBS Sports Network.

VCU (19-5, 7-2 A-10) is currently tied for first in the conference with Butler and Saint Louis, while the Minutemen (16-6, 6-3 A-10) are tied for fourth with La Salle and Xavier.

Thursday’s contest is the second of a critical – and arguably the most difficult – three-game stretch of the season. UMass took care of business against Saint Joseph’s last Saturday, and hosts Temple this Saturday.

Kellogg called these next two games a “big-time week” against two NCAA Tournament teams, but isn’t paying attention to the potential playoff implications of the Minutemen’s game against the Rams. A win could go a long ways towards helping stock UMass’ resume for an at-large bid to the Big Dance.

“I’m just like, ‘Here we go. We’ve got a chance to play a big-time game on national television,’” Kellogg said. “‘If we’re fortunate enough to win, we come out and play Temple on Saturday. If we don’t play so well and don’t come out with the win, we’ve got Temple on Saturday.’”

Chaz Williams has learned to ignore the Bracketology talk and the significance of the affair, admitting that he got caught up in all the talk last year when UMass was left on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament.

“I really don’t pay much attention to that because last year got my hopes up, paying attention to it, and we fell short,” Williams said, “so I try not to worry about that and just know that every game is important.”

VCU’s offense revolves heavily around the 3-point shot. Troy Daniels, Treveon Graham and Rob Brandenberg headline the Rams’ offense, which uses a four-guard system and forces tempo. The trio each shoot more than 35 percent from beyond the arc and average more than 10 points per game.

Defensively, VCU applies the same full-court pressure that is a staple of the Minutemen’s brand of basketball. In fact, the Rams served as a model for how Kellogg wanted UMass to play after VCU marched its way to the 2011 Final Four.

With two teams running the floor constantly, Kellogg said he’s going to need to monitor the way he uses his timeouts in order to keep the game close, as he’s predicting a sellout at the Siegel Center.

“It can get out of control both ways,” Kellogg said. “That’s the risk you take when you’re willing to say, ‘Alright, we’re going into a battle.’ But we’re not pulling back and backing down. I think we’re gonna play our style and try to go at them some.”

The Minutemen enter Thursday’s matchup playing arguably their best basketball of the season after storming past the A-10 preseason favorite Hawks, 80-62.

UMass dominated for most of the contest, using a season-high 10 dunks to grab its second consecutive win by double digits after only doing so twice in its first 20 games.

When Williams was asked if the Minutemen were peaking, the best he could muster was “somewhat,” but still feels they have another level they can reach.

“Like coach always says, there’s still another level we can reach,” Williams said. “I still feel like we’re not even at the surface yet. We’re still getting there.”

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