Touri: With winnable games on the horizon, crunch time is approaching for the Minutemen

UMass 0-5 in A-10 play

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Touri: With winnable games on the horizon, crunch time is approaching for the Minutemen

Katherine Mayo/Collegian

Katherine Mayo/Collegian

Katherine Mayo/Collegian

Katherine Mayo/Collegian

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

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While it’s not my job to make excuses for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, I also think it’s important to keep its struggles in context.

Obviously, it’s been a rough couple of weeks. The Minutemen are off to an 0-5 start in Atlantic 10 play and sit at the very bottom of the conference standings, in the midst of a six-game losing streak. A team that finished atop the A-10 in scoring offense in non-conference play is the conference’s worst offensive team in A-10 play, and the fans’ frustration is understandable — but it’s a little premature.

After a tough, last-minute loss to George Mason last week, Patriots coach Dave Paulsen said UMass was “very good” and “this close,” and reason for optimism and belief in an impending breakout remains.

Take a look at the early schedule: La Salle, Saint Louis, Dayton, George Mason, VCU. The home opener against La Salle was a bad loss, undeniably — but which of those other four teams is UMass realistically expected to beat?

Now take a look at KenPom’s current rankings: VCU is the top-ranked team in the A-10, Dayton is second, Saint Louis is fourth and Mason is sixth (and probably should be higher, if not for some weird non-conference losses to teams like American and Penn.)

Four of the top five or six teams in the A-10: that’s a gantlet.

I don’t want to make it sound like everything’s totally fine and there’s no reason for concern: the offensive stagnation borders on the unbelievable, and a league-leading 15.4 turnovers per game has killed the Minutemen all month. Luwane Pipkins and Carl Pierre continue to struggle from 3-point land after each finishing among the conference’s best shooters last season, and while I still think he could be one of the A-10’s best two-way wings on his night, Curtis Cobb has floated in and out of games for the last couple of weeks.

But it hasn’t been that terrible; pushing Saint Louis and Dayton down to wire, with a chance to win it on the road, is no joke. Against teams at aren’t so strong, those close, last-second losses should translate to wins.

In the upcoming schedule, I see opportunity. After getting run off the Siegel Center floor on Saturday, the Minutemen have a chance to rebound against beatable opponents.

St. Bonaventure on Wednesday and Rhode Island on Sunday, both at home, are games UMass should win. A pair of trips to Philadelphia next week should yield wins against struggling teams in La Salle and Saint Joseph’s, before the Minutemen host Fordham, the A-10’s consensus worst team.

As a result, this next stretch is absolutely crucial. UMass needs to come out of this five-game run with at least four wins, perhaps even five. It’s hard to say any game is a “must-win” in late January, especially when everybody makes the conference tournament anyways, but for the sake of remaining competitive in the league, and entering that tournament in March with a respectable record and some real confidence, these next few are pretty close.

As we learned in the A-10 opener, nothing is a given. But facing teams in the conference’s middle class and a couple of bottom-dwellers is exactly what UMass needs after a three-week crash course with the A-10’s elite.

If you’re looking at the 0-5 start and the difficult losses and feeling like the sky is falling, I get it. Watching UMass struggle down the stretch night after night hasn’t been fun.

But take a step back. The Minutemen were betting underdogs in four of those five games, and if you’d asked me in mid-December to predict their record through five games, I’d have expected to see a 1-4 start, perhaps 2-3 — through that lens, 0-5 is still rough, but UMass was never going to be 4-1 through the first quarter of the conference schedule.

There are 13 games left to play and, and UMass could very well go 9-4 the rest of way, finish 9-9 and sit in sixth place on its way to Brooklyn, and everyone will forget this bad start. All of that is predicated on the offense finding its early-season rhythm (and the defense continuing its improved play), but it’s all possible.

The season is far from over. If the Minutemen can’t take care of business against Bonaventure and Rhody this week, or if they really struggle in Philly, I’ll quickly join the ranks of the concerned.

But for now, keep context in mind, and don’t lose faith in Matt McCall just yet. If there was ever a time for the Minutemen to bank some conference wins, these next few weeks are a great place to start.

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.