Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Chiarelli: It’s now or never for UMass basketball to make a run

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

This time, it could be different. This time, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team might finally be ready to break through.

It has no other choice.

This season has brought heightened expectations, lofty aspirations and bold proclamations. More often than not, the Minutemen (12-9, 5-3 Atlantic 10 Conference) have fallen short. Time is not on their side.

It started before they even played a game. Derrick Gordon told the Daily Collegian the Final Four was UMass’ goal and veterans spoke of a team chemistry that markedly improved over last year’s squad – the first NCAA tournament team from UMass in 16 years.

The Minutemen jumped out to a 5-1 record, with their only loss coming to national power Notre Dame. All was well, promise remained.

That is, until UMass lost four of its final seven non-conference games, squandering crucial opportunities against Brigham Young, Providence, LSU and Harvard. For a team aiming to build an impressive resume, it struck out big time.

The Minutemen are feeling the consequences.

Those defeats hurt then but turns to agonizing pain when coupled with conference losses such as the 69-55 shellacking handed out to the Minutemen by St. Bonaventure.

Even then, UMass responded, winning two straight road games against La Salle and George Mason. It earned this response from senior center Cady Lalanne: “I think we’re getting better, but we just have to hurry up and click because the end of the season is nearing and the postseason is around the corner.”

The following game? A 71-63 home loss to Davidson, one which the Minutemen handed to the Wildcats like it was a “thanks for coming” gift.

One step forward, one step back. It continued in UMass’ next game – a home win over rival Rhode Island – before going on the road and losing in a stinker to Saint Joseph’s. Following the game, Gordon said everyone in the locker room wasn’t on the same page.

As the calendar turned and the schedule prolonged, the Minutemen wasted opportunities to play quality basketball consistently.

Yet they continued to hint it was coming.

Guard Trey Davis said the turning point was the Davidson loss, a believable notion until the loss in Philadelphia. Gordon said prior to its home game against Dayton last Thursday that it needed a win against a strong conference opponent to jumpstart a run.

“We have to find something,” Gordon said. “We have about (12) games left until the conference tournament. There’s still a lot of room to move up in the standings but we have to take it one game at a time.”

The Minutemen found that something, a 66-64 squeaker over the Flyers. They followed it up with a 60-56 win on the road over Saint Louis, a team they hadn’t beat since 1995.

Two straight wins. No, not just wins – quality wins. Is this the start of an elusive winning streak? The beginning of the UMass team we were all promised back in October and November?

At the very least, the stars are aligning. And if the Minutemen think of themselves as a team capable of running with the big dogs – they’d better use their bite, because they haven’t afforded themselves the opportunity for any more slip ups.

The Minutemen next travel to Fordham Wednesday to face a Rams team winless within conference. They then host La Salle, a team they’ve already beat, before traveling to St. Bonaventure in Olean, New York. It’s a difficult place to play, but a game they’ll need to win.

After, UMass returns home to host Duquesne, who is 2-7 within the A-10.

Then comes the make-or-break stretch. Road games against Rhode Island and Virginia Commonwealth (which just lost its senior point guard Briante Weber to a knee injury). Oh, what a win over VCU would do for the Minutemen.

If UMass wins the games it’s expected to win – and pulls out a surprise victory over say, VCU or George Washington, the entire season swings. Suddenly, they’re an intriguing team peaking at the right time.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether UMass can suddenly harness its consistency. There’s talent on this team but it often comes and goes. Rarely do the likes of Maxie Esho and Lalanne string together strong performances for weeks at a time.

But coach Derek Kellogg said he spoke to Lalanne and Esho recently and challenged them to make something of their senior season.

There’s still time to challenge the entire team, too.

This is a team tasked with continuing the momentum from last year’s breakthrough season. A team with evident talent – this much we know – and room to grow. The Minutemen said they wanted to be a team that peaks in March, not in December, like they did last year.

It’s time to turn intangible talking points into tangible evidence. The schedule sets up well for UMass – favorable opponents await and the opportunity to take swings at the A-10’s best is on the horizon.

It’s now or never for the Minutemen to make a run.

They have no other choice.

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

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