UMass men’s basketball rounds out the month of January with conference matchup against George Mason on Sunday

Fernandes will be a game time decision Sunday

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McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Frederick Hanna III, Assistant Sports Editor

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team will be seeking back-to-back wins for the first time since its win on December 4th against Harvard when it squares off against George Mason Sunday afternoon.

UMass (9-10, 2-5 Atlantic 10) come into the contest against the Patriots (10-7, 3-1 A-10) having weathered a rough patch of conference games throughout the month of January. The Minutemen notched an important win over the Billikens in the middle of the month at home yet followed suit with a 31-point loss to them on the road. A recent road win over La Salle gave UMass its first true road win of the season and a chance to build some momentum heading into the latter stages of the season.

“I think we have done some good things at times, there’s just been some inconsistencies with who has been in the lineup,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “We haven’t had really our full complement [of players] outside of that Saint Louis game [at home]. Hopefully we can get Noah [Fernandes] back in the fold and we can find some consistency with our rotations of who is in there.”

The Minutemen may be without their leading scorer Fernandes come tipoff against the Patriots. The junior is in concussion protocol after he suffered a collision with teammate Trent Buttrick in their away game at the Billikens on January 23rd. Fernandes has been lights out for UMass this year. He is averaging 16 points a game and before his last game in which he was removed because of his concussion, he was on a nine-game streak scoring in double figures.

“[Fernandes] is in the concussion protocol,” McCall said. “I don’t know if he is playing on Sunday yet or not.”

George Mason poses a unique threat for McCall’s defensive preparations. The Patriots have four scorers who are averaging double figures along with five players who are averaging at least 28.7 minutes a game. The next closest player to that number is averaging about ten minutes less a game. The Patriots have only one loss in conference play so far and are coming off an impressive win over St. Bonaventure.

“We have to go at them and get to their bench,” McCall said. “If you can get one or two of their guys in foul trouble I think that plays into your hand because those guys are really, really good. They log a lot of minutes, so I think the first key is to go at them and don’t settle. Don’t settle for jump shots and attack the paint.”

Aside from the possible absence of Fernandes, the Minutemen should have a healthy arsenal of players fit for Sunday’s matchup. With Fernandes being sidelined a few times this year and just recently in the win against La Salle, McCall has been forced to mix up his backcourt. Rich Kelly has slotted into the role of being the team’s dominant ball handler with Javohn Garcia sliding in alongside him.

Garcia has been used sparsely this season with McCall citing off court issues being the reason why he hasn’t been consistently out on the floor. When given the chance to play, Garcia has capitalized on the few opportunities he has been allotted. In his past three games he’s combined for 40 points, the most over a three-game span this season for him.

“It just means us stepping up and being a leader,” Garcia said on what it’s like knowing Fernandes is sidelined. “Talking more on the court, getting the team together so we can put something together to get a win.”

Outside of Garcia and Kelly, T.J. Weeks has been slotted into that role as the third guard when Fernandes is out, and he was given that chance in their last game against La Salle. Weeks finished the game with his second career double-double and put up double digits in scoring for the first time in four games. The guard has been a consistent threat on the glass for opposing teams to worry about as well. He’s averaging 4.9 rebounds a game and coming off a six offensive rebounds performance against the Explorers.

“Rebounding is very important because it can add extra possessions for us and it can take away some of their possessions as well, so it can make it easier for the defense to get stops.” Weeks said.

“I just have to stay aggressive and do more when my shots are not falling. I have to help out and get rebounds, make sure [the guy I am defending] isn’t scoring, and I just like to stay aggressive and hope that my offense will come back.”

The Minutemen take on the Patriots on Sunday with tipoff set for 2 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

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