Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass’ help defense stifles VCU

Minutemen allow 52 points, their lowest points total of the season
Devin Lippman
Daily Collegian (2024)

Heading into Tuesday, both coach Frank Martin and his players knew that to beat VCU, the team needed their help defense to be on its “A” game.

In one of the Minutemen’s most important 40-minute stretches of the season, that help defense took on a life of its own. The team held the Rams (17-9, 9-4 Atlantic 10) to their second-lowest point total of the season, an effort that only the A-10’s premier program, Dayton, has been able to top. For UMass (17-9, 8-6 A-10), the 52 points were a season low in points allowed.

VCU’s offense came into the Mullins Center as an above-average unit. The Rams weren’t exceptionally potent, ranking outside the NCAA’s top 200 in points per game, but what made the team so dangerous for the Minutemen was their size and style of play.

Of VCU’s 11 players that saw the floor Tuesday, seven of them were 6-foot-7 or taller. Three of the ones who weren’t (Joe Bamisile, Max Shulga and Zeb Jackson) were either 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5. With the Rams’ length, coach Ryan Odom uses an offensive game plan largely predicated around ball screens, forcing teams with more defined positions to either attempt to fight through those picks or get left with undesirable matchups.

UMass was left with those matchups on Tuesday. However, when VCU seemed sure to conclude their possessions with easy buckets, another Minuteman defender would swarm in, forcing the Rams to either take contested shots or to pass the ball.

One of the best demonstrations of UMass’ defensive chemistry took place between the nine- and six-minute marks of the first half. As big guards and wings like Bamisile and Sean Bairstow moved the ball around for the Rams, the team wasn’t getting the looks they were hoping for.

Players like Matt Cross and Jayden Ndjigue bolted out to their new offensive assignments, causing the VCU offense to continue its extended struggle. In that three-minute stretch, there were four Ram turnovers.

“We kind of went into practice only talking about ball-screen defense, and if we get blown off the bounce, where we’re going to be in the help,” Cross said. “That’s always been the defense, but when you get away from it sometimes, you kind of lose your identity… We came in after a loss [and] instead of sulking like a lot of teams do this late into the season, [we came] in more hungry.”

After giving up 51 first-half points to La Salle the game prior, the aggressiveness and defensive tenacity of Martin’s squad reared its head once again. UMass forced VCU into 13 turnovers and turned those into 23 points, a byproduct of good communication and strong help.

After scoring no field goals in the game’s first 11 minutes, VCU never found the big run it needed to get the game back within striking distance. The Rams had moments after halftime where they strung together some points, but long stretches of missed opportunities followed. UMass closed the game how they began, holding VCU to just six points over the final ten minutes.

“They were physical at the point of the screen, right, as our guys were approaching,” Odom said. “I think they did a nice job there. They’ve got wide players. They got physical guys. They did a nice job of getting in the gaps and they were active in the gaps throughout the game, and we didn’t do a great job adjusting.”

Young or old, guard or big, everybody bought in and contributed to limiting the Rams. Jaylen Curry used his burst to pounce on loose balls and get into passing lanes. Josh Cohen walled up in the paint and made smart decisions on ball screens. It was a complete game pitched by the Minutemen defense, and the team’s now back in contention for a double-bye in the A-10 tournament thanks to it.

The next test for UMass is St. Bonaventure at home on Saturday, Feb. 24. According to KenPom, the Bonnies rank 70th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Dean Wendel can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @DeanWende1.

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