Melo: UMass men’s basketball facing toughest challenge of the season against No. 7 Virginia

The Cavaliers are allowing just 41 points per game

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Melo: UMass men’s basketball facing toughest challenge of the season against No. 7 Virginia

(Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian)

(Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian)

(Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian)

(Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian)

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

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The Massachusetts men’s basketball team travels to Connecticut to face Virginia in the Basketball Hall of Fall Tournament on Saturday.

The reigning national champions are currently undefeated, ranked No. 7 in the country and have looked just as good to start their repeat campaign.

The game offers a strong opportunity for the Minutemen (5-0) to establish themselves nationally against a high-caliber program.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to play against them,” coach Matt McCall said. “They gave us 105 tickets between our staff and our team and we used every one. I’m sure there will be fans driving down from Boston and up from New York, and there will be a lot of UMass fans in the stands.”

To capitalize on its opportunity, UMass will have to find a way to contain senior forward Mamadi Diakite. Diakite is currently averaging 15.8 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game on 51 percent shooting from the field and 52.5 percent shooting from three.

“I kind of wish he would’ve gone pro,” McCall said. “He’s a terrific player. He can beat you in so many different ways. He can stretch the floor, he can shoot it from the perimeter, he can put it down, he can play post-up. I think he’s more of a problem at the five, even though [Jay] Huff is a terrific player up there too. He’s just a terrific talent that won a national championship and knows exactly everything that goes into it.”

So let’s talk about defense.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett is one of the best defensive minds in basketball at any level. The Pack Line defense he instills into the program is one that he adopted from his father, legendary coach Dick Bennett, who used the strategy to find success in his stints at Wisconsin and Washington State.

The idea behind the Pack Line defense is to play a variation of man-to-man defense that has many elements of zone defense. The easy rundown of it is to protect the “pack line” area about a foot or two inside the 3-point line, and force people to not get through that area. Four out of five players will always stay in that area depending on the movement of the offense. The two big men will guard the area known as the “post box” in order to prevent penetration in the paint and force opposing bigs to step out. The two wing players will guard the wings and prevent players from slashing or cutting inside. The lone player that is given freedom is the player defending the ball handler. The majority of the time, this will be the point guard, as they usually defend the main ball handlers.

The Cavaliers are able to run this defense to near perfection due to their length. The current starting five, aside from point guard Kihei Clark, who is just 5-foot-9 but is one of the best perimeter defenders in all of college basketball, is full of size. Junior Tomas Woldetensae is the starting shooting guard and stands at 6-foot-5 with incredibly long arms. Senior Braxton Key, a defensive menace off the bench last season, is not starting and stands at 6-foot-8. Virginia’s best player is Diakite, who was one of its top performers in the NCAA Tournament last season and stands at 6-foot-9 with skills all over the court. At center, UVA rolls out Huff, who stands at 7-foot-1.

The Cavaliers have a ton of size and are extremely disciplined in the system, holding opponents to just 41 points per game through four games this season.

“Terrific size, from Braxton to who they play up front,” McCall said. “Clark’s the only guy that’s not over 6-foot-5 in their starting lineup. That’s what makes them such a good defensive team, is their length. When they get into that Pack Line and everything is completely closed off, when you do get penetration and you do get down the lane, you have to make the right play. You can’t think that you’re going to go in there and score over those guys, they’re just too big.  You’ve got to go down the lane and make the extra pass.”

The key for UMass will be 3-point shooting. TJ Weeks and Carl Pierre have found their form beyond the arc in recent games and their ability to fire at a high rate from three will be critical to giving the Minutemen a chance to compete with Virginia.

A solid example of how the 3-pointer can change the game for UMass came in Virginia’s last game against Vermont. UVM lost 61-55 but presented the Cavaliers with their biggest challenge of the season due to the high volume of 3-point shots they attempted. The Catamounts attempted 34 3-pointers and connected on 12 of them. If UMass can maintain its efficiency from outside, the Minutemen have a shot.

UMass also has the advantage of having its starting center, freshman Tre Mitchell, who has the ability to step out and hit 3-pointers.

“It’s going to be about where I see advantages on the court,” Mitchell said. “And see who moves their feet, who struggles with different stuff and then, obviously, I think our shooters – they’re going to determine a lot for us because establishing myself in the post, they’re going to have to double and dig and stuff and it’s going to be too late to close out the shooters.”

Tip-off is set for noon at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Javier Melo can be reached by email at [email protected] and on Twitter @JMeloSports.