Sellner: UMass hoops passes eye test for NCAA Tournament

By Stephen Sellner

NEW YORK — With 19 seconds left, Cady Lalanne leaned over with his hands on his knees as Chaz Williams wrapped his arms around him. Williams then slapped hands with Sampson Carter, and Freddie Riley and Trey Davis joined in on the moment on the court as the five stood in front of their bench as the reality of the moment settled in.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team had finally met its roadblock.

Courtesy of Atlantic 10 Conference

Its heart-pounding run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament came to a halt Saturday evening in a 71-62 defeat to Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinal round at the Barclays Center.

UMass had an opportunity to win, but couldn’t cash in on what likely would have amounted to an at-large-bid-stamping victory into the NCAA Tournament.

As the realization of the loss set in, Williams wanted his teammates to know “I love ‘em no matter what.”

“We came out tonight and fought,” Williams said. “We fought and we fought and we fought, and we just came up short.”

The Rams’ “havoc” got the most of UMass, and because of it, the Minutemen’s tournament fate lies in the balance.

Selection Sunday starts at 6 p.m. and can be seen on CBS.

UMass had 24 turnovers and 19 missed layups that led to its downfall. And if it weren’t for a Rob Brandenberg fade-away 3-pointer with one minute, 21 seconds left at the end of the shot clock to push the lead up to seven, the Minutemen would’ve been right there down the wire. But instead, their “bubble” status is left up in the air with differing responses to the same question: Are they in?

Some will say yes, some say they’re just out, and some just aren’t sure. Heading into Saturday’s tip, ESPN Bracketology Expert Joe Lunardi – who walked onto press row at the Barclays Center for the final minutes of the game – had UMass in his “Next three out” of the tournament, CBS’ Jerry Palm had the Minutemen slated into one of four play-in games as a 12-seed, and I’m sure there are countless other theories out there in the vast world of the Internet.

As of Saturday night, UMass’ RPI was 53, its BPI was 79, and its best wins of the season were Friday’s quarterfinals win over archrival Temple, and road wins at Xavier and La Salle. And of the other nine bubble teams on Lunardi’s radar, six were inactive on Saturday while coming off of losses, and both Maryland and Southern Mississippi lost on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss would grab an automatic bid to the tournament with a win over Florida tomorrow in the SEC title game, which would place one less at-large bid up for grabs.

But if the resumes are thrown to the side, and things like the RPI, BPI and whatever else you want to look at are ignored, and all that’s taken into consideration is the product seen on the floor, UMass is a bonafide tournament team.

As UMass coach Derek Kellogg said after the loss, his Minutemen passed the “eye test,” which he feels is a big part of the selection process.

“You can take the BPI, the RPI, the CPI, whatever you wanna call it, and when you watch us play against (George Washington), Temple, Xavier, Butler, those teams and against a team that’s in the Top 25 in a neutral site after three days, you pass the eye test,” Kellogg said. “Our RPI is probably good enough or at least close. We’ve played 19 games away from the (Amherst-Springfield area), which a lot of BCS schools will not do.

“I would say we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” he continued. “Does that mean we get in? I’m not sure, but I hope we do.”

March Madness is notorious for having heart-pumping, high-energy games featuring teams fighting relentlessly for victory. And if the NCAA Selection Committee is still looking for those types of games, Saturday’s contest is a prime example of the kind of excitement, intensity and passion that UMass brings not only in victory, but in defeat as well.

Williams’ best sales pitch to the committee was just that — excitement.

“I feel like everybody across the world would want to see us play, and we feel like all we need is our opportunity,” he said. “Once we get our opportunity, our feet wet, the sky’s the limit from there. We’ve got a bunch of young guys that are just hungry to win.”

The Minutemen not only hung in with VCU — a team that’s raised hell in the Big Dance over the past two years and will be back again this year — but controlled the tempo of the game for the majority of the first half as UMass withstood the Rams’ inevitable and tumultuous run to stay within striking distance after trading punches down the stretch.

Even VCU coach Shaka Smart, someone who has seen and evaluated his fair share of NCAA Tournament teams in the past two seasons, thinks the Minutemen look the part.

“I think that they’ve been extremely competitive in our league, and if you look at their games, they’ve been within an eyelash of being a team that had a bye in this tournament and maybe even finish in the top two or three,” he said. “If I had a vote on the selection committee, I would certainly include them in the field.”

But let’s be clear — the Minutemen have flaws and by no means deserve to be locked into the tournament. They play out of control at times, they commit foolish turnovers that can be painful and frustrating to watch and get dominated on the boards from time to time. But in the end, they’re almost involved in a heart-pounding finish.

And if Saturday didn’t look and feel like a quality NCAA Tournament game, then the bar has been set far too high for the illustrious March Madness basketball.

So, as UMass travels back to Amherst Sunday morning awaiting the committee’s verdict, the Minutemen will have to hope their body of work is enough.

But Kellogg is leaving nothing to chance.

“I may set up a lot of candles in the basement and go hang out,” he said.

We’ll see if the committee lends him a match.

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