Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass presented with big opportunity as No. 22 URI comes to town

The Minutemen have lost four straight

Caroline O'Connor

Caroline O'Connor

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The four-game losing skid the Massachusetts men’s basketball team is currently on summarizes how up-and-down the season has been.

UMass (10-12, 3-6 Atlantic 10) has hovered around .500 all season, going on two separate three-game win streaks which were then followed by a series of defeats. Just when it seems like the Minutemen are hitting their stride, they lose focus and losses ensue.

With Rhode Island visiting the Mullins Center Tuesday night boasting the best record in the A-10, the Minutemen will be presented with their toughest test to date. The Rams (17-3, 9-0 A-10) are ranked No. 22 in the country and are playing their best basketball of late, riding high on a 12-game win streak. UMass coach Matt McCall went so far as to say URI is the best team on their schedule this year.

One of the Ram’s wins in the 12-game streak came against UMass a few weeks ago, when URI trounced the Minutemen by 22 points. The game started the skid for UMass, which has lost by double-digits in all four contests.

While the Minutemen have had their lows this season, they have come to play against some of their stiffer competition. UMass was able to come away with consecutive victories against Providence and Georgia just before the Christmas break, two teams that have a shot at competing in the NCAA tournament come season’s end.

The Minutemen also traveled to Ohio and defeated a tough Dayton team with two starters suspended.

“One of the reasons we’ve struggled in the league is that its ramped up,” McCall said. “You’re playing harder once you get into conference play. Teams aren’t coming in here sleepwalking, especially after you’ve beaten Georgia and Providence. Teams are not walking in here surprised. They’re walking in on edge.”

In each of those wins, McCall talked about his team’s level of focus at the practices leading up to the games. He recalled those practices being some of the best in his first year with the team.

“The past two days, we’ve been competing a lot in practice,” freshman Carl Pierre said. “Guys have been going after each other in the right way and getting each other better.”

The high-stakes victories proved the level that this Minutemen team is capable of playing to. In each of those games, UMass came out of the gate swinging, not letting the other team build an early first-half lead that forced the Minutemen to play from behind, which has plagued them so often this season.

“In the Georgia and Providence games, we got out to good starts and had first-half leads,” McCall said. “When you get off to good starts, I think you believe. The good starts can’t be [Luwane Pipkins] bombing in threes. We can’t rely on that. I think that happened some in both those games. We have to make sure we take care of it early and get some paint touches and try to see if we can get some easy baskets.”

While UMass has played its best against the best, it has also played poorly against teams it should have exploited. The Minutemen have dropped games against George Mason, La Salle and Fordham, all three currently sitting at the bottom of the A-10 standings with UMass.

A win against URI would be the biggest win of the season for the Minutemen, but one that nobody is expecting them get. Playing with only seven scholarship players, it would seem like the Minutemen are a longshot to upset the top team in the conference.

But UMass has proved that it can step up its game against better teams. Playing at home will serve as an advantage, as the Minutemen are 9-3 at the Mullins Center this year.

“We’ve got 20 or so practices left, nine games,” McCall said. “We’re going to find out who’s really committed. You have an opportunity each day to show that with how you act in practice, how you respond in games, how you respond to coaching, how you respond when it’s not going well. Guys who are committed are going to be a part of this program moving forward.”

Thomas Johnston can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.

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