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 men’s hoops to host George Mason in crucial A-10 matchup Saturday

With students back on campus for the spring, an intriguing contest marks the start of a vital stretch of the season for the Minutemen
Kayla Wong
Daily Collegian (2023)

After a week off since its win at Saint Louis, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team comes back home to face George Mason in a crucial Atlantic 10 contest on Saturday. Tip-off is set for noon at the Mullins Center.

The Patriots (15-6, 4-4 A-10) are coming off a two-point loss at Saint Joseph’s and present one of the most challenging games of the season for the Minutemen (13-7, 4-4 A-10). But it’s deeper than just a tough game. Conference standings are at a critical spot, with eight teams within two games of each other. George Mason sits in fifth place and UMass sits eighth, but both are 4-4 in league play, so this game is important in the battle for the double bye come tournament time. After this matchup, the teams will have reached the halfway mark of the A-10 season.

Outside of the standings, the matchup also matters for the Minutemen when it comes to building momentum ahead of a difficult stretch — St. Bonaventure twice, league-leading Richmond on the road and VCU within their next six games following George Mason — and when it comes to defending their home court.

“We’re at home, we’ve done fairly well at home, we got to make sure we continue with that confidence and aggression that we play with at home,” head coach Frank Martin said. “I mean, 85, 90 percent of these A-10 games, not just ours, all the games in the league are coming down to the last minute of the game. These games are all really, really hard and we understand that now … we comprehend how hard each one of these games is and we respect it. This is going to be no different. We got to play really well and really connected to give ourselves any kind of chance to win.”

George Mason is a well-balanced team. It doesn’t have many weaknesses, and does many things well. The Patriots defend shots from inside the perimeter very effectively, holding opponents to just 44.1 percent on two-point shots, which ranks 13th nationally. That doesn’t bode well for the Minutemen, who rely massively on their ability to score inside the arc.

The Patriots shoot the ball well from all three levels, are tenacious on the offensive glass and don’t turn it over much. They shoot a lot of free throws and shoot them well, and an area that may cause trouble for UMass is that they play with five players off the bounce. The Minutemen send teams to the free throw line at a high rate, so they’ll have to be careful with that.

In terms of possible weaknesses, George Mason struggles forcing turnovers, which is a strength on both sides of the ball for UMass, doesn’t have a very deep squad and it doesn’t defend the 3 well. While 3-point shooting is a weakness for the Minutemen, if the hosts can establish paint presence then open shots from behind the arc should appear.

“We’re averaging [81.4] points a game, but we’re not shooting it great,” Martin said. The Minutemen lead the A-10 in points per game. “We’re making our free throws now, knock on wood, that’s a plus because early in the year that was kind of a roller coaster ride, but we’re not shooting the 3 real good. We got to start making some more 3’s and we’re passing up some 3’s. You don’t want to shoot 3’s just to force three, but when you got open 3’s you got to take them.”

George Mason’s Keyshawn Hall is one of the best players in the conference. He leads the league in rebounding per game at 8.9 and ranks sixth in scoring at 16.9 points per game. Hall, a UNLV transfer, is a quick and shifty big man who can score on all three levels, often referred to as a power guard.

Still, UMass would be hard-pressed to find a player more well-equipped to deal with Hall than Matt Cross. It’ll be a clash of perhaps the two best power forwards in the A-10. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Cross is officially listed at the same height and weight measurements as Hall, but leans on strength and power much more than Hall does.

With a large chunk of the season now gone, UMass’ prospects regarding a potential run in March look much clearer. It’s not entirely out of the question that the Minutemen go from finishing 13th last season to the top four in the conference. But for that, they’ll have to clean up in a few different areas, such as 3-point shooting and interior defense.

“Offense is an indication of talent; defense is an indication of team,” Martin said. He added they’re ahead in the defensive department than he expected coming into the season with so many freshmen. “Continuing to push defensively to grow, protecting the rim a little better are things we got to continue to work in.”

The matchup against George Mason will be the first in 2024 with students back on campus from winter break, but with home attendance not among the team’s strengths, Martin sent a message to UMass students.

“Our attendance is up from last year,” Martin said. “Just like my team’s not where it needs to be, our home attendance is not where it needs to be. That’s not a shot at the fans, that’s the truth. Now, attendance has grown. Our players have played with a great resolve this whole year, especially at home. Our guys are fighters, they’re fun to watch … But now the students being back on campus, man, I would hope those students come out. It’s the first weekend on campus, so I hope Friday night they all get to bed nice and early so they can be here and watch us play at noon on Saturday. We need our students, man. Students give the arena its personality, and we got to figure out a way to get our students in there.”

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on X/Twitter @P_GraySoares.

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