UMass men’s basketball headed into matchup with Rhode Island winless in conference play

Minutemen are third in the A-10 in scoring per game

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McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Frederick Hanna III, Assistant Sports Editor

Losers of three straight games, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has its hands full preparing for Saturday’s conference game against Rhode Island.

UMass (7-8, 0-3 Atlantic 10) is winless in conference play and have lost five of its last six games. The Minutemen enter the contest with the Rams (10-4, 1-1 A-10) ranked third in the conference for most points a game, averaging 77.9. Rhode Island sits near the bottom half of the A-10 in terms of scoring but rank amongst the top of the conference in defensive metrics.

The Rams have limited teams to an average of 62.6 points a game while UMass ranks dead last in the conference allowing 78.1 points a game, about five more points allowed than the closest team on the rankings. URI has been relying off the play of the Mitchell brothers, Makhi and Makhel who are averaging 10 and 11.3 points per game respectfully.

“[URI] has unbelievable balanced all across the board,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Last year they had a player like Fatts [Russel] who is so dynamic and now you look at their stat sheet and there are seven guys that average between seven and 11 points so that’s really good balance. Offensively [the key will be if we] can we have great ball movement, have great spacing and it’s got to be our team versus theirs.”

The Minutemen have been dealt some tough blows over the course of their last few games. They were without C.J. Kelly in their last game against Davidson, had a limited usage of T.J. Weeks and Javohn Garcia on and off through quarantine since Dec. 19, received the news that Dibaji Walker and Cairo McCrory would be out for the remainder of the season and have a multitude of games postponed and cancelled. UMass now comes back to the Mullins Center for a two-game home stand against quality A-10 opponents in URI and Saint Louis.

“[C.J. Kelly] will be a game time decision but other than that everyone else is ready to go,” McCall said. “Knock on wood, I’ve told you guys that before and then on the day of a game we have a Covid-19 test and [the player] is not ready to go.”

UMass had a lot of success against the Rams last season in the shortened 2020-2021 campaign. Much of that success can be credited to the Minutemen having Tre Mitchell, Ronnie DeGray and Carl Pierre on the roster, but this time around they have new roles players, ones who have made a significant impact on the squad this year.

After starting off the year with a double-digit scoring streak of seven straight games, Trent Buttrick has been in a slump since the beginning of December. The graduate transfer since November 27 has only recorded three games of scoring in double figures over a span of eight games. Out of those eight games, four times Buttrick has scored seven points or less. His contributions moving forward will be pivotal for UMass if it wants to make a charge up the standings of the A-10.

The tandem of Buttrick and Michael Steadman has been sparsely used this season, but has been utilized more so as of late with Steadman seeing an increase in his minutes throughout the last month of games. The senior transfer from Montana is averaging 24 minutes a game over the last four contests compared to the 10.8 minutes he averaged to start the season.

Another key player for the Minutemen this season has been Rich Kelly. The graduate transfer from Boston College has comfortably found a role for himself in the UMass squad, averaging 13.3 points a game and shooting at a clip of 51.4 percent from beyond the arc. Over the span of the three game losing streak Rich Kelly is having one of his best stretches from three. He’s connected on 9-of-14 shots from deep, the second most he’s made over a three-game span this season.

“I approach the game the same way [when there are a lot of guys out of the lineup],” Rich Kelly said. “I think when there are certain guys out then we have gaps [in the team] and those gaps need to be filled. Everyone just needs to do a little more. There isn’t one guy that needs to take on all the burden, but everyone just has to do a little more.”

UMass’ matchup against the Rams tips off at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Mullins Center. The game can be watched on the USA Network.

Frederick Hanna III can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @FrederickHIII.