Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Chiarelli: Close calls only making UMass men’s basketball stronger

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Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact moment the Massachusetts men’s basketball team solidified itself as more than just a mid-major NCAA Tournament hopeful.

Was it UMass’ 81-65 win over then-No. 19 New Mexico in the Charleston Classic? The Minutemen outlasted a Lobos squad coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance a season ago and eventually won the entire tournament, defeating Clemson 62-56 in the championship. The impressive weekend led to UMass earning the No. 24 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll, its first time being ranked since 1998.

Or was it a 105-96 victory over Brigham Young in a breakneck-paced victory in front of a sold out crowd at MassMutual Center? The Minutemen received a vintage performance from point guard Chaz Williams, who scored 32 points and dished out 15 assists.

To date, it’s been a season filled with memorable, signature wins. There’s the 92-90 victory over Louisiana State. There’s also an 86-73 victory over Boston College at TD Garden in front of a decidedly pro-UMass crowd.

As those types of wins piled up, so did a different set of expectations. No longer are the Minutemen a tournament hopeful. Instead, anything less than a tournament berth at this point is a tremendous disappointment. The idea seems almost far-fetched at this point as UMass sits at 16-1.

However, these types of expectations permeate. National media rightfully acknowledges success and opponents take notice. Pick your favorite sports adage. There’s a target on the Minutemen’s back now. A team which spent the better part of the last two seasons hunting conference opponents has suddenly become the hunted. As pretty as a national ranking looks, it also acts as a bull’s-eye.

What we’re seeing now is a team dealing with this transition in a trial-by-fire situation.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg has acknowledged it. So too, has Williams, the unequivocal leader of the team. The Minutemen are still learning how to adapt to taking every opponent’s strongest punch.

The trend began at home against Saint Joseph’s. UMass erased a 57-48 deficit over the final six minutes, 23 seconds of action and won 66-62. The Minutemen shot just 39 percent and missed eight 3-pointers in the first half, yet produced enough energy in the final stretch of the game to outlast the Hawks.

UMass produced a similar performance just three days later against St. Bonaventure, coming from behind to win 73-68 despite shooting just 30 percent in the first half and trailing by as many as 13 in the second half. Against George Mason on the road, the Minutemen trailed by five with 41 seconds to go and survived thanks to a last-second layup from Derrick Gordon to win 88-87.

Entire seasons aren’t decided in the doldrums of January as conference play is just beginning, but lessons can be learned.

For a team looking to make an impact in March, it’s now learning what type of energy is required for each game. It’s easy to get up for a nationally televised game at home; those are the ones fans will remember. But learning how to avoid letdowns against inferior conference opponents plays just as important of a role in molding a team.

There are positives to pull out of these recent performances. UMass has demonstrated a knack for charging back late in games and is finding ways to win despite inconsistent effort and performances. The biggest detractor recently has been energy level at the start of games, an especially correctable issue for a veteran team.

The Minutemen have also received strong, game-changing efforts from different players on different nights. Whether it’s the emergence of reserves Trey Davis and Maxie Esho or the sudden resurgence of Raphiael Putney, UMass is learning how to win in different ways.

It won’t always be pretty, rarely is an entire college basketball season a perfect ride. But for a team fighting off mid-season woes, winning basketball games in unconventional methods adds yet another layer of experience.

And when the time comes, probably sometime in March against yet another high-level opponent, the Minutemen will be well-versed in nearly every situation a team can face.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

1 Comment

One Response to “Chiarelli: Close calls only making UMass men’s basketball stronger”

  1. Kevin W. Morey on January 22nd, 2014 8:18 pm

    Umass mens Bball back in the tournament. Yeahaaa lets go guys, make us proud!!

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