UMass men’s basketball returns home for clash with VCU

Minutemen have won three of last four games

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

There is no place like home.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team returns to Amherst Wednesday to take on Virginia Commonwealth.

Following an ugly win on the road against Fordham, UMass (12-15, 6-8 Atlantic 10) heads into the matchup trending upwards. After picking up their first conference road win in 777 days and winning three of their last four, the Minutemen have been piecing together a solid stretch of basketball and are putting themselves into position to play a bunch of meaningful games.

VCU (17-10, 7-7 A-10), however, has lost its last four games in a row, including a pair of 18-point road losses at Richmond and Saint Louis.

“Tomorrow is an opportunity because it’s the next game on the schedule,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “I know that they’ve obviously had four difficult games, but I’m sure coach [Mike] Rhoades is going to have his team ready to go, on edge, focused [to] come up here in here and ramp up the pressure.

“It’s going to be a battle and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to play.”

To add insult to injury for VCU, the Rams will be without star guard Marcus Evans and versatile forward Corey Douglas. They also have a couple of other injuries, most notably guard Nah’Shon Hyland, who is expected to play but is dealing with a strained hip flexor.

Evans is averaging just 9.9 points per game, but his presence on the perimeter helped spread the floor for VCU and make the offense more fluid and harder to stop.

“They might be on a four-game skid, but they’re still a great team,” junior Carl Pierre said. “I’m sure they’re going to have a next man up mentality and try to come out here swinging, especially since they’ve been on a four-game skid. So, I think we just have to come over here with the same level of preparation as if all of their guys were here.”

Over the past few games, the Minutemen have found themselves punching above their weight class against their competition. Picking up wins against George Mason and SLU, the first against either program under McCall, the Minutemen have used big momentum changing plays, a lot of Tre Mitchell and valiant effort on both ends of the floor. A prime example of this is Samba Diallo’s steal and dunk against Fordham that sealed the game for UMass.

“All we keep talking about is effort, effort, effort,” McCall said. “I told our team the other day, our offensive numbers are not very good. Our defensive numbers are not very good when it compares to the rest of the country. We’ve put ourselves in the position to win some games and have won some games because of our effort and that has to continue tomorrow.”

A big factor that the Minutemen will have to contend with is VCU junior Marcus Santos-Silva. The forward leads the team in both points and rebounds and has been a consistent threat around the basket all season.

Santos-Silva also presents a challenge defensively, as his length allows him to alter shots around the rim and make impact plays. He’s currently averaging over a block and a steal per game and has consistently been the Rams’ best player on both ends of the floor. Santos-Silva will do battle down low with Tre Mitchell, who is second in the A-10 in scoring during conference play. Coming off of a 15-point, 19-rebound performance against Joel Soriano and a string of terrific performances against top big men in the A-10, Mitchell will have his hands full with Santos-Silva and vice versa.

“He’s a lefty,” freshman Preston Santos said. “Knowing that he likes to go to his left. Knowing that he’s a big rebounder, even if it’s his own shot. Knowing that he’s aggressive and that he’s their leading scorer, their best man, so if we’re able to sag off of non-shooters and be able to dig in on the post, then we can be very successful.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

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