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UMass men's basketball aims for NCAA Tournament

Massachusetts' Freddie Riley (4) dunks the ball against Stanford during the first half of an NIT men's college basketball tournament semifinal game, Tuesday, March 27, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Massachusetts' Freddie Riley (4) dunks the ball against Stanford during the first half of an NIT men's college basketball tournament semifinal game, Tuesday, March 27, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Purchase photo reprints »

The University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team hasn’t been shy about its aspirations. With four starters and several other key pieces back from last year’s squad that advanced to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, the Minutemen have set their sights on making it to the NCAA tournament.

If national prognosticators are an indication, nobody thinks UMass is a lock to get in, but almost everybody thinks the Minutemen will have a shot at it.

So they’re a bubble team before the first game even tips.

Below are four things that could boost UMass’ chances of ending a 14-year tournament drought and four pitfalls that could derail the quest:

Four potential assets

1. A rejuvenated Freddie Riley — Riley’s once lethal jump shot, which had been erratic last year, looked very good against American International College. If he can give UMass an outside shooting presence, the offense will have another dimension.

2. Maturation of Raphiael Putney — Even if Putney is the exact same player for UMass in 2012-13 as he was last season, he’ll help. His freakish athleticism and shooting ability makes him one of the hardest players for opponents to matchup with. But while he’s been great at times, he can disappear at other others. If he can play closer to his best more often, he could fulfill his star potential.

3. Cady Lalanne — Lalanne’s promise was obvious from the outset for the Minutemen, who’d been without a big man who could score and rebound since Rashaun Freeman and Stephane Lasme graduated. If Lalanne can build off last year’s start and avoid the health problems that cost him half of last season, he could give the team an added dimension.

4. The return of Sampson Carter now and potential return of Javorn Farrell later — After having offseason surgery on his injured leg, it was generally assumed that Farrell would be out for the year. But he’s healing well and could potentially join the team at midseason. His ability to play multiple positions, score and defend would be a huge lift for this team.

Carter has been a steady presence at forward throughout his career. He’s not 100 percent yet after offseason hip surgery, but if he can score a little, rebound a little, make free throws and provide a veteran presence, he’ll be a key addition.

Four road blocks

1. Depth — Watching the Minutemen struggle against AIC with three players suspended was a pretty clear reminder that this team, while talented, isn’t especially deep, a fact compounded by Farrell’s injury and Jordan Laguerre’s decision to stop playing basketball.

An injury to Chaz Williams would be catastrophic, but he’s not the only one who’d be missed dearly.

With only four guards on the roster, an injury to any one of them means an awful lot of minutes for the other three in a system where being fresh is critical.

2. Schedule — Is the Minutemen’s nonconference schedule good enough to get them into the NCAA tournament? There are only a handful of games that will really impress the selection committee. Other than Miami and Ohio, which are both at the Mullins Center, UMass’ best opportunity for signature wins is next week in Puerto Rico.

Beating Providence is critical because it would likely earn UMass some red-meat games against North Carolina State and either Tennessee or Oklahoma State. Lose to the Friars and it’s a probably tofu diet of Penn State and either Akron or UNC-Ashville.

How the Minutemen fare in the first week of their season could greatly affect where they play the last week of the season.

3. Expectations — Big things were expected from the 1998-99 Minutemen, who only lost senior Tyrone Weeks from the previous year’s NCAA tournament team. Despite talent, that team never quite got its feet under it and finished 14-16. That team didn’t handle the expectations around it well. The current UMass players are facing high expectations for the first time in their careers. How they handle it could have a big impact on the season.

4. A Strong Atlantic 10 — The Minutemen could play very well this season and still lose a fair amount of conference games because the league is as deep as it’s ever been. The league added strong squads in VCU and Butler to a loaded roster of potential at-large bid contenders, including Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Temple, UMass and maybe even La Salle, Xavier, Richmond and Dayton. There will be a good team in this league that finishes 9-7 in conference play. Will that be enough to get an at-large bid? The Minutemen played very well in their last four road games a year ago — an overtime loss at Temple and NIT wins at Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel. They’ll need to continue that because road success will be essential to compete in the A-10 this 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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