UMass men’s basketball heads to Harvard for an in-state showdown Friday

The Minutemen are on a four-game win streak

Shilpa+Sweth%2FDaily+Collegian+%282021%29

Shilpa Sweth/Daily Collegian (2021)

By Joey Aliberti, Managing Editor

The Lavietes Pavilion is sold out for the Massachusetts basketball team’s road trip against Harvard Friday. And if Twitter is any indication of fan proportion, it’s probably leaning in UMass’ (5-1) direction.

“If everything I’ve always heard [is correct], the Harvard games are well attended by Massachusetts fans, then good,” Minutemen coach frank Martin said. “That’s what our guys deserve, to see how many people care about — number one how they play and number two the school they represent. I’m excited.”

UMass heads into Friday’s matchup on a four-game winning streak, with the most recent victory coming against South Florida on Tuesday. The Minutemen won the game 73-67, but were up 15 at the half and allowed the Bulls to make it too close for Martin’s comfort in the final minutes. Martin acknowledged some positives to the media Thursday after saying there wasn’t any immediately following the game.

“I was happy that the first true road game we played we win, it’s not like we played some schlep team,” Martin said. “What I was disappointed was we built a lead, then we got away from our identity. What we’ve worked hard [for] to say this is who we are, which is our defense and rebounding … Good teams, when they have a lead on the road, they tighten the screws even tighter, they don’t loosen them up. And we did.”

After the game Tuesday Dyondre Dominguez acknowledged never having a coach such as Martin, someone who consistently held his team to high standards after both wins and losses to the level of intensity Martin brings.

“I think it’s the biggest thing that helps with our team,” UMass forward Matt Cross said of Martin’s demand for accountability. “You win some games, you come off the tournament win, you don’t get soft. You don’t all the sudden think you’ve done something. [Martin] kind of keeps you humble and keeps you ready to go into the next game like you’ve been losing.

“Like Dyondre, it’s something I’m not used to either. I think we definitely embrace it at this point. It took a lot of us to learn because we all came from different areas, different types of coaching styles.”

The Crimson (6-2) are also off to a strong start this season. They’re currently 1-1 against Atlantic 10 teams (defeated Loyola Chicago 61-55, lost to Fordham 68-60). Those aren’t high-level A-10 opponents, but Martin sees similarities in Harvard to the one team he’s lost to this season.

“Harvard is very very similar to Towson,” Martin said. “[They’re an] older, defensive-minded team. They have continuity on their roster and their power forward is their best player. Very similar to Towson, how they play, how they’re constructed and obviously we know how that matchup looked for us last time we played.”

Senior power forward Chris Ledlum averages 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, two steals and a block per game for the Crimson. The 6-foot-6-inch, 225-pounder also scored 20 last season against the Minutemen, and went for 12 points and eight rebounds against them as a freshman.

“We have to do a really good job with our perimeter defense to make it hard to get the ball in spaces on the floor where [Ledlum] can become an option in the low post,” Martin said. “And then try to get him away from the low post, but the problem is that he’s good off the low post too.

“Here’s what we have to do, I truly feel: we have to utilize our depth defensively to keep fresh bodies on him, different kind of players on him … and then we have to make him guard. We got to make him defend … we have to wear him down if we can. I’m not saying we can but that’s all part of the plan.”

Putting pressure on Ledlum with depth shouldn’t be a tall task for UMass. It’s used that as a weapon through the first six games of the season, as the Minutemen are top five in bench minutes among Division I programs.

“I tell people when I recruit, if you want to play 37 minutes a game I’m not the coach you want to play for,” Martin said. “If you’re trying to get on the floor and do everything you’re asked to do, then I’m the coach you want to play for because I play a lot of guys.

“My top three or four guys might not be as good as that team’s top three or four guys. But if I can get their player No. seven, eight, nine playing, I think my seven, eight, nine guys are pretty good because we prepared them to be good.”

Starters Brandon Martin and Cross are likely to take the lead on guarding Ledlum. But Dominguez, along with big men Wildens Leveque and Isaac Kante — and maybe even Tafara Gapare — will help ease the burden of defending the Crimson’s top scorer.

Tip-off for the in-state showdown is at 7 p.m., the game will be streamed on ESPN+.

Joey Aliberti can be reached via email at [email protected] and Followed on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.