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Despite record, UMass men's basketball still hard to judge 

JOSH KUCKENS
University of Massachusetts forward Sampson Carter, left, drives to the basket against Elon on Saturday at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. UMass won 78-73 in overtime.

JOSH KUCKENS University of Massachusetts forward Sampson Carter, left, drives to the basket against Elon on Saturday at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. UMass won 78-73 in overtime. Purchase photo reprints »

SPRINGFIELD - For anyone who can avoid looking at the bigger picture, the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s five wins have been exciting, fun and certainly entertaining. All five were still in doubt in the final minute of regulation, including Saturday’s 78-73 overtime victory over Elon.

But for anyone invested in the Minutemen’s season, anyone who isn’t taking 2012-13 one game at a time, there’s a growing concern about the inability of UMass to dominate against struggling opponents.

Are the Minutemen a good team that has shown enough character to still win despite inconsistent play or are they not as good as preseason expectations?

The truth will likely get sorted out shortly as tough games are coming. On Wednesday the Minutemen will host an Ohio University team that has five starters back after advancing to Sweet Sixteen last year. On Saturday East Carolina comes to town, the same Pirate squad that nearly upset North Carolina last Saturday.

Atlantic 10 play looms in the not-so-distant future and the league figures to be as tough as it has ever been. Thirteen of the league’s 16 squads are better than .500 so far this season. Butler, which upset No. 1 Indiana on Saturday, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth, Temple, Richmond, Xavier and maybe even La Salle, Dayton and Charlotte can legitimately dream of contending for NCAA Tournament berths.

If the Minutemen don’t start playing at a higher level for longer stretches, there’s a lot of potentially losable games in their future.

“We all know there’s a next level we can get our game to. We’re just waiting to get in that gear,” junior point guard Chaz Williams said. “We feel like we’re in gear two. We can still get to gear four or five.”

UMass coach Derek Kellogg agreed.

“There’s another layer of this we’re trying to reach and I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” Kellogg said.

If the Minutemen started shooting better, it wouldn’t fix all of the things that have been inconsistent, but it would cover up a lot of them. It’s obvious that scoring more points would help any basketball team.

But for UMass, every unmade shot is a missed opportunity to press. And every time the Minutemen don’t press, their opponents aren’t getting worn down. In an awful lot of games a year ago, UMass was successful in the second half because their opponents ran out of gas.

Five Minutemen who were rotation regulars last season and again this year — Raphiael Putney, Jesse Morgan, Maxie Esho, Freddie Riley and Cady Lalanne — are shooting worse than they were a year ago. Among regular 3-point shooters the drop-off is even more pronounced. Putney, who led UMass last year at .373 from deep is at .233. Williams has dropped from .419 to .303. Morgan and Riley’s numbers have fallen as well.

Much of the preseason expectations for UMass came from the belief that players both individually and collectively would build off last year’s success. But shooting-wise, it hasn’t happened.

The good news is Terrell Vinson and Sampson Carter have been better than advertised and Williams is still finding ways to score even though he’s been inconsistent from deep.

If even one of the struggling Minutemen finds the range consistently, everything improves. Two more made 3-pointers against Miami might have flipped that result or at least made things closer in the final minute.

Morgan has been up and down this season and even though Saturday was a down (three points), it’s not hard to picture him snapping back into form. Putney is harder to figure. After last year’s breakout campaign, he hasn’t approached that level of play this year.

Semester break potentially comes at a good time. For the better part of a month, the Minutemen will have nothing but basketball on which to focus. If the players want to spend hours in the gym shooting on their own, they’ll have time to do so.

If UMass can take another step, the late-game experience the Minutemen have acquired could be valuable if they find themselves in tight games with good teams in conference play. If not these five wins will be bright spots in a disappointing year.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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