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 hosts VCU in crucial A-10 clash Tuesday

Frank Martin: Rams are “the hottest team in the league”
Matt Skillings
Daily Collegian (2024)

A disappointing loss at La Salle erased any margin of error the Massachusetts men’s basketball team had if it wanted a real chance at a double bye in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

In their next two games, the Minutemen (16-9, 7-6 A-10) will host the two teams that stand between them and a coveted top-four spot in the conference: Virginia Commonwealth University and St. Bonaventure, starting with the Rams (17-8, 9-3 A-10) on Tuesday.

VCU took some time to warm up this season under first-year head coach Ryan Odom, who made the NCAA tournament with Utah State last season, but the Rams got going at the right time.

They’re 9-1 in their last 10 games, including wins over No. 18 Dayton and now conference leaders Loyola Chicago.

“It’s no surprise that it’s VCU, they’ve been at the top of this league for a while now, there’s a reason for that, and [Odom’s] got them going in the right direction,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said.

“They’re playing better than anyone in the league right now. If you want to say the hottest team in the league, they’re the hottest team in the league right now.”

Leading the charge for VCU is Max Shulga, one of the premiere guards in the A-10. Shulga averages 15 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on great efficiency. The senior from Kyiv, Ukraine shoots it at a 40.9 percent clip from three and 87.1 percent at the line, which ranks fourth in the conference. His 2.4 made 3-pointers per game ranks fifth.

But one of the things that makes the Rams such a dangerous opponent is that they’re far from a one-man show, especially with two-time transfer Joe Bamisile getting cleared to play.

Bamisile transferred from Oklahoma, bringing valuable scoring ability off the bench. He’s been the team’s second-leading scorer since getting cleared, putting up 13 points and three rebounds a game on 40.2 percent from three. Bamisile was previously in the A-10 at George Washington; he scored 25 points in a loss to UMass in the conference tournament two years ago.

Two seniors, Zeb Jackson and Sean Bairstow, average double-digit points and stuff the stat sheet for the Rams but struggle to shoot from deep. Along with Shulga, Bairstow followed Odom from Utah State to VCU.

“[Odom’s] been able to bring his two guards in Bairstow and Shulga with him, so obviously they control the game,” Martin said. “And when the guys that control the game are connected to the head coach, usually that transition [for a first-year coach] takes place pretty good. They’ve done a great job at finding athletes to surround those guys with.”

The Rams do a frontcourt by committee, with three athletic bigs who provide scoring and rebounding alike, but especially defense. That includes Toibu Lawal (7.3 points, 5.7 rebounds per game on 68.5 percent from the floor), who Martin says, “jumps to the moon, it’s unbelievable the pop he’s got off the ground.”

VCU is incredibly deep and filled with seniors, and as VCU tradition calls for, arguably one of the best defensive teams in mid major basketball.

The Rams rank in the top 10 nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed at 44.9 percent and in 3-point percentage allowed at 29 percent.

Offensively, one of their strengths plays perfectly into a weakness for the Minutemen: free throws. VCU also ranks in the nation’s top 10 in free throw percentage at 78.9, and with UMass sending opponents to the line at a very high rate, the Minutemen need to watch out for that.

“They play different, VCU, they run more sets than La Salle does, to try and get certain players the ball in certain areas of the floor, we have to be disruptive there,” Martin said. “They don’t dribble-drive the ball the way that La Salle players do. But they’ve got a bunch of six-foot-six guys that know how to play and shoot the basketball, so they try to get you to a spot and shoot over the top of you if you’re too small.”

“And then defensively they switch everything and they’re so long that it’s hard to get the ball inside of them. We got a plan; we’ll see if it works.”

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Mullins Center. The game will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on X/Twitter @P_GraySoares for coverage of UMass men’s basketball.

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