Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass men’s basketball looks to gain confidence before A-10 tournament

Minutemen have dropped three straight

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(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

By Thomas Johnston, Assistant Sports Editor

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It hasn’t been the first year that Massachusetts coach Matt McCall envisioned.

It would be an understatement to say that the Minutemen have had their struggles throughout the season. They are now down to just five healthy scholarship players with four games remaining before the Atlantic 10 tournament with the second worst record in the conference.

Currently on a three-game losing skid, UMass (11-16, 4-10 A-10) will look to right the ship Wednesday as it takes on Virginia Commonwealth at the Mullins Center.

Getting a win against VCU could ignite confidence in a Minutemen team that desperately needs it. Since joining the A-10 in the 2012 season, the Rams (15-12, 7-7 A-10) have been one of the top teams on a yearly basis, losing in the A-10 championship game a year ago.

“Of course with confidence, you have to believe you can actually win,” guard C.J. Anderson said. “We have four games left before we get to that stretch. This is all about believing, but at the same time, anything can happen. Once you get into that mindset with the tournament coming up—we know the tournament is coming up—to start out by winning these games will give us confidence.”

Getting a win against VCU won’t come easy. The Rams play an attacking style of defense by pressing and trapping to create chaos for offenses. VCU plays this way in an attempt to dictate tempo and wear out the opponent, which could present problems to a Minutemen team that plays its five starters the majority of the game.

While UMass doesn’t have many players, they do have a plethora of guards who can handle the ball to beat the pressure, often playing four or five guards at one time.

While pressing can create havoc and turnovers, it also leaves a team vulnerable in the back end if it is broken, something that McCall hopes his team can exploit.

“They play a lot of guys, 11 or 12 guys,” McCall said. “They always do that there. They have tremendous depth, they’re going to press, and the game is going to be played in the open floor. On the backside of the press, maybe we’ll play [Luwane Pipkins] off the ball and let C.J. handle it to try to free him up so we don’t wear him down.”

“It’s not necessarily breaking it,” McCall continued, “it’s what do you do when you break it. It’s staying aggressive and being able to make layups on the backside.”

During the losing skid, the problem has been on the defensive side of the ball, not the offense. The Minutemen have scored over 70 points in their last five games, but allowed over 80 points in their last seven games.

“You can’t expect to win games when guys are scoring in the 80s,” McCall said. “We have to find a way to keep the game in the 60s. Maybe it’s mixing in some zone, maybe it’s playing some tempo press. Teams are scoring way too many points against us. Our offense isn’t the problem.”

The VCU offense is run through forward Justin Tillman. The 6-foot-8 senior is currently fifth in the A-10 in scoring and first in rebounding, averaging 19 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

“He’s a terrific player. The thing that impresses me most about him is he works so hard for positioning on the offensive end of the floor. Even if there’s a possession where he doesn’t get it, he’s still ducking in and carving out driving angles and lanes for other guards. He’s an extremely physical player, a high motor player especially on the offensive end of the floor. He causes a lot of problems out there and he’s one of, if not, the best frontcourt players in our league,” McCall said.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.

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

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