UMass basketball looks to regain tempo, pace of play

By Mark Chiarelli

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Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

If the Massachusetts men’s basketball team had its way, every game would unfold in a blisteringly quick manner with enough transition basketball to make an odometer cringe.

Through 28 games this season, UMass has generally received its wish. The Minutemen are a dangerous team in transition capable of playing with the fastest opponents in the nation. Against both Virginia Commonwealth and Brigham Young, UMass shifted into fourth gear, emerging victorious in two games in which the team’s combined for 86 possessions.

For UMass, the faster is truly better.

Which is why, when the Minutemen aren’t playing their quickened and intensified brand of “UMass basketball,” it becomes even more noticeable. Such was the case in their 86-79 loss to Dayton on Saturday.

“My focus has really been, we’re not pushing the tempo enough,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg told reporters on Monday.

“We’re not getting the ball up the floor fast enough, which means the defense is set. And then (opponents) are not wearing down energy-wise because we’re not attacking.”

The Minutemen have spent most of the season as the aggressors. According to Ken Pomeroy’s offensive statistics, UMass plays at the 17th fastest tempo in the nation, predicting its adjusted tempo rating was a 71.5. The Division I average is 66.6. The Minutemen average just 16.2 seconds per offensive possession, the 30th quickest average in the nation. Saturday’s game against Dayton had a pedestrian 71 possessions despite a fairly high score.

But as the season’s worn on, UMass’ frantic pace is beginning to wear down.

Over their past 11 games, the Minutemen have exceeded 71 combined possessions just three times. They raced to 86 against VCU, 76 in an 11-point loss to George Mason and 72 in a 67-61 victory over George Washington.

According to guard Chaz Williams, who shines in games which teeter on the edge of fast-paced and out of control, thinks the solution is pretty straightforward.

“We just gotta lock in on the defensive end,” he said Monday.

Kellogg pointed out that plenty of the defensive pressure will start with Williams, who can be a menace for opposing ball-handlers.

“I want Chaz to get back to pressuring the point guard and making it hard on those guys,” Kellogg said. “I thought in spurts, we did (vs. Dayton). But in hindsight, we could’ve turned it up a little bit more.”

Turning up the defensive pressure comes in various shapes and sizes for the Minutemen. The team predominantly plays conventional man-to-man defense in the half court. But Kellogg employs a multi-faceted full court press at times, utilizing his roster’s length at the forward position to give opposing guards a different look.

According to Pomeroy, UMass is holding opponents to a 96.9 adjusted defensive efficiency rating, which estimates the points the Minutemen defense would allow against an average Division I offense. The NCAA average is 104.5.

Defensive pressure creates offensive opportunities for UMass. If the game has flow and ample transition basketball, the Minutemen usually flourish.

“It’s easier (in) transition, a lot of easier baskets,” Williams said. “When we play defense, it just brings that much more out of us and our energy is through the roof.”

With just two games remaining between UMass and postseason play, it understands what it needs to do to be successful. As Kellogg noted, sometimes all a team needs to do is refocus on its strengths.

“Last game woke everybody up, taking that loss down at Dayton,” Williams said.

With a trip to Duquesne on tap for Wednesday, the Minutemen have a chance to refocus before some of the most important basketball in Amherst in over 15 years.

And don’t be surprised if they turn up the pace.

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