UMass basketball returns home, aims to get back on track against La Salle

By Patrick Strohecker

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Alex Aritan/Daily Collegian

Alex Aritan/Daily Collegian

The old saying goes, “There’s no place like home,” and that couldn’t be any truer for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.

Coming off the worst stretch of games it’s faced all season, UMass (17-4, 4-3 Atlantic 10) returns to a more welcoming venue on Wednesday when it takes on La Salle at Mullins Center.

The Minutemen dropped three of their four games over the past two weeks, with the only win coming at home against Fordham. In that span, they fell from No. 13 in the AP Top 25 Poll to being unranked and not even receiving any points in the latest poll released Monday.

 

“I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “I just believe we need to play well. We need to put a full 40 minutes together. … We just need to get back to the basics.”

It might not be time to panic yet, but Wednesday’s game against the Explorers (12-9, 4-3 A-10) is important for the Minutemen. Senior point guard Chaz Williams understands the significance.

“It’s a point to make a statement to ourselves,” he said. “First off, just to let each other know that we’re still here and we’re still together and still fighting.”

UMass enters Wednesday with a perfect 8-0 record at home, but can’t afford to take La Salle lightly.

The Explorers possess some of the best guards in the A-10. They start three and sometimes play four at a time, which could create matchup problems for UMass. It even had Kellogg pondering mixing it up and starting guard Trey Davis on Wednesday.

UMass has struggled opening games lately, spotting teams big leads early and having to play catch up. While a better start is a team-oriented concept, it falls heaviest on the shoulders of Williams.

“When I (tell him) to exert himself, it’s, ‘If you have plays make them. Don’t worry so much about getting other guys involved or their feelings,’” Kellogg said. “Let’s just go play and play like (he’s) the best player in the league.”

While La Salle’s strengths rely primarily on its dynamic backcourt, the Minutemen will also need to be cognizant of the Explorers’ frontcourt. Junior center Steve Zack has been a force this season after coming back from sprained ligaments in his left foot that forced him out of the team’s Sweet 16 run last season.

Zack scored 16 points and 16 rebounds in La Salle’s win over Duquesne on Saturday. Limiting his second-chance opportunities will be key for UMass on Wednesday.

“(La Salle) relies on some extra possessions for kick out 3s like a lot of teams do,” Kellogg said. “And if you limit their open floor baskets off of turnovers and second-chance baskets, they’re like a lot of teams out there. It’s harder for them to score in the half court.”

UMass will likely be without key reserve Maxie Esho, who is experiencing concussion-like symptoms after taking a nasty elbow to the head in Saturday’s loss to Saint Joseph’s. Kellogg said he hopes to have him back for Sunday’s game at Rhode Island.

Wednesday’s game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff at Mullins Center.

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_Strohecker.