UMass basketball faces the challenge of not knowing its first NCAA Tournament opponent yet

By Patrick Strohecker

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team waited 16 years to get back into the NCAA Tournament. Now it has to wait a couple more days to find out who its first opponent will be.

When the NCAA Tournament bracket was released Sunday night, UMass was slotted in as the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region, meaning it would draw the winner of one of the four first-round games. In this case, it will be the winner between Iowa and Tennessee on Wednesday night.

That poses a unique challenge for the Minutemen. Rather than having almost a week to prepare for their first opponent of the Tournament, they will only have about 36 hours to focus on one team.

“That kind of shocked me to a certain extent,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said of his team’s draw. “I didn’t know how the seeding actually worked and hadn’t looked at it too much.”

Because of this system, UMass is forced to play the waiting game. It’s watched tape on each team in the day since being selected in the field of 68, and while the coaches are putting a scouting report together on both the Hawkeyes and Volunteers, the players are focusing on themselves.

“It’s more about us preparing for us,” senior Chaz Williams said. “Doing what we gotta do to execute, play our P.A.I.N. defense. So, once again, I always told you I feel like if we play our P.A.I.N. UMass basketball, nobody can beat us in the country.”

The one player on the team with NCAA Tournament experience, Derrick Gordon, found himself in a similar position in his freshman year at Western Kentucky, except on the other side of the draw.

When Gordon led the Hilltoppers to the Tournament in 2012, his team was in the play-in game, meaning that there was little time to recover once they won that game. They had to fly from Dayton, Ohio, to Louisville, Ky., to face the No. 1 overall seed Kentucky in a matter of days. The winner of Wednesday’s game will have to do the same thing, going from Dayton to Raleigh, N.C., which could give the Minutemen the advantage of being well-rested come Friday.

“We’re already going to be there, so we’re going to be well-rested,” Gordon said. “But, you still can’t look at that because at this time of year, anything can happen, so I’m just more concerned about us making sure we’re on the right page. … It plays a factor, but at the same time it doesn’t.”

According to Williams, the quick turnaround for which ever team wins that opening round matchup won’t play much of a factor because of what’s at stake for both teams.

“Those guys are basketball players and this is the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “They’re going to get up for the game and it ain’t going to be, ‘OK, we just came from here, so let’s go over here.’ No, it’s going to be highly anticipated and those guys are going to be psyched up for it.”

As for whether or not UMass has a preference for Friday’s game, there’s a simple answer to that.

“No,” Kellogg said. “Not as of today, but I have to watch a little more film because I’m watching one (team) and then kind of going to the other one and going back because I don’t know who really to keep an eye on yet.”

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