Maxie Esho looks to continue to spark UMass basketball off the bench

By Patrick Strohecker

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

RALEIGH, N.C. – When the NCAA Tournament field came out on Sunday night, it shocked many people to see the Massachusetts men’s basketball team as a No. 6 seed, and that includes the players and coaches on the team.

The selection committee overlooked an average finish to end the season for UMass, which went 8-7 in its final 15 games, including a quarterfinal exit at the Atlantic 10 Tournament. But, part of that better-than-expected seeding can be credited to junior Maxie Esho, who carried the Minutemen in their two games at the A-10 Tournament.

Esho led the team in scoring in both games, bringing UMass back from 11 points down against Rhode Island in the first round to avoid an upset. Had it not been for his performance in that game, the Minutemen may be entering the Tournament as an eight or nine seed and facing a much tougher opponent.

But now UMass needs that performance from Esho to carry over from Brooklyn, N.Y., and provide the same spark when it begins play on Friday afternoon.

“He’s been through adversity at times, so just seeing him pick up his play is a great feeling,” senior Raphiael Putney said of Esho. “And now, as long as he continues to play the way he’s playing, it can get everyone on the same page.”

Throughout the season, Esho has provided the necessary energy to carry the Minutemen through sluggish spots during games. But the NCAA Tournament is a different animal. It comes with heightened emotions that can see even the most poised players lose their composure at times.

For someone like Esho, it’s important to not only himself, but his team, that those emotions don’t get carried away from him.

“I just want to play poised and I’ve been focusing in practice on playing under control, but still with the energy that I bring,” Esho said.

Esho’s one-man performance brought UMass success in the A-10 Tournament, but it can’t rely solely on him to carry the team in the NCAA Tournament as well.

“Maxie had a good couple games last tournament,” Sampson Carter said. “And really, he came off the bench playing really hard and bringing it hard. … His energy was contagious to me and everybody else, so if he can do that this tournament and plus, me bring what I can bring and everybody else bring what they can bring, we’ll be fine.”

It isn’t rare for Esho to shine like he has as of late. In fact, he’s gone through cycles of good play and bad play all season long.

His good stretches of play have had some calling for him to be inserted into the starting lineup. And while he hasn’t cracked the starting five yet this season, his minutes as of late have reflected that of a starter.

He averaged 29 minutes during the A-10 Tournament, placing starters like Cady Lalanne, Putney and Carter on the bench for long periods of time in the games. For UMass coach Derek Kellogg, as long as Esho keeps producing during those minutes, he’ll keep getting them.

“He played well right from when he went in, so he got a little more lee-way,” he said. “And he took advantage of his opportunity, which I feel really confident right now with him going into the NCAA Tournament, that I know he’s going to play.”

But unlike what has been the case for Esho throughout the season, his good games can’t be immediately followed up by bad games, or else that leash from Kellogg will get a lot shorter and it could spell the end of the season for the Minutemen.

“I’ve just been trying to keep going hard and do the same thing I was doing in the (A-10 Tournament),” Esho said. “I’ve just been going hard in practice and carrying it over and treating practice like it’s a game.”

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